Lawsuit accuses AG Sean Reyes of intimidating critic of Tim Ballard, OUR
Nov 27, 2023, 6:50 PM | Updated: Nov 28, 2023, 8:20 pm
UPDATE: The Attorney General’s office released the following statement Tuesday evening:
As the complaint itself supports, the Attorney General sent a single text and made a few phone calls seeking to find common ground between two NGOs.He regrets if his communication was viewed in any other way and contributed to a feeling of undue pressure. He trusts the impartial court process to prove his motives and actions were appropriate and legal.
SALT LAKE CITY — A lawsuit filed against Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes on Monday alleges he engaged in witness tampering and intimidated a critic of Operation Underground Railroad and its founder Tim Ballard when she brought complaints against the anti-sex trafficking organization.
The lawsuit, filed in 3rd District Court, is the fourth complaint against Ballard in recent months and the first time Reyes — a longtime friend and supporter of Ballard — is named as a defendant. An amended court filing in a previous case made similar allegations of witness tampering against Reyes, though he was not a target of that suit.
Reyes denied those allegations. His spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on Monday’s lawsuit.
The plaintiff in the latest suit, Suzanne Whitehead, was the director of a global nonprofit organization in 2015 when an earthquake struck Nepal. Whitehead said she began working to send a crisis team to help recovery efforts there and accepted an invitation to travel with members of Operation Underground Railroad to identify places to house rescued girls.
Ed Smart, the father of Elizabeth Smart, was present on the mission on behalf of Operation Underground Railroad, according to the lawsuit, though Whitehead and Smart eventually split from the rest of the group to continue their efforts separately.
After the trip, Operation Underground Railroad sent out a newsletter from the trip, which the lawsuit says “incorrectly claimed that the OUR group had been working with trafficking victims, which did not happen at any time during the trip.”
She later spoke with Smart “about the discrepancies noted” within the organization, and he told her that he was trying to get Operation Underground Railroad to focus on aftercare for victims “but was facing a lot of push back from Tim Ballard,” the suit states.
Smart also told her he felt a lot of the organization was “dishonest,” and that “Operation Toussaint,” a documentary produced by Ballard, “made it seem like OUR had rescued the girls in the film, but he knew someone else had rescued them,” according to the lawsuit.
“Being unable to get OUR to focus on recovery in a manner that Mr. Smart felt was needed, he quit his job with OUR and stopped the pending merger of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation with OUR,” the lawsuit states.
Smart told KSL.com on Monday he had been working in aftercare at the time and said he “felt that there wasn’t enough emphasis being put on it” on the part of Operation Underground Railroad.
Given his concerns, Smart said the group “was not something that I would want to be involved with nor … (would) the Elizabeth Smart Foundation,” he said.
He said Whitehead is a friend of his, and he supports her lawsuit because he said he saw firsthand instances of Operation Underground Railroad taking credit for the work of other organizations.
“I just think that it’s important to tell the truth, and I feel like there has been coercion and trying to suppress the truth and I don’t agree with that,” Smart said.
Smart said he didn’t witness any intimidating behavior by Reyes and said he interacted with Reyes only a handful of times to discuss the issue of trafficking during his time with Operation Underground Railroad.
After the efforts in Nepal, Whitehead in the lawsuit says Ballard and other Operation Underground Railroad representatives began calling Whitehead’s supervisor, urging her to delete social media posts deemed critical of the organization.
Her supervisor also received a call from Reyes. When he didn’t pick up, Reyes sent him a text saying he wanted to talk about “finding a way to work together more on the anti-human trafficking fight,” according to the suit. The supervisor tried to call Reyes back several times but Reyes never called him back, the complaint says.
Whitehead met with Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings — who was investigating allegations that Operation Underground Railroad was taking credit for work performed by others — but said she was “worried about General Reyes’ involvement” in the investigation and grew more concerned “as she learned that the documents and her report to Troy Rawlings were not found in the Davis County investigation files.”
Around that time, other people who had complained about Ballard — including “at least one critical and highly credible witness” — withdrew their complaints out of fear of retribution by Ballard, the lawsuit alleges.
Rawlings closed the investigation into Operation Underground Railroad earlier this year and did not file charges.
Documents from his investigation obtained by KSL.com in September show that several former employees told investigators they believed the organization was misleading donors by exaggerating claims about purported rescue missions.
The lawsuit accuses Reyes of acting as “de facto general counsel” for Operation Underground Railroad, and claims the attorney general forwarded complaints he received about the organization to Ballard using his personal email.
“Given the power and magnitude of General Reyes’ tentacles in all aspects of Utah … and his complete lack of willingness to defend the state of Utah and its citizens from the fraud that is Tim Ballard, the plaintiff was unable to exercise her constitutionally protected First Amendment free speech rights to speak the truth about the injustices perpetuated by OUR and Tim Ballard,” the lawsuit states.
Whitehead alleges Reyes violated her First Amendment and free speech rights, and intentionally and negligently inflicted emotional distress. She is asking for an unspecified amount of damages and attorney fees.
In response to the earlier lawsuit that accused Reyes of covering for Ballard, the Utah Attorney General’s Office issued a statement saying allegations that it withheld an investigation into Ballard or his organization are “completely baseless.”
“AG Reyes categorically denies that he ever intimidated any witness or attempted in any way to interfere or keep witnesses from testifying or cooperating with an investigation by the Davis County attorney or any other agency,” the statement said. “These allegations … are false, defamatory per se and unethical as they are based on pure speculation and have no basis in fact.”
Ballard has denied all allegations from previous lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault.