One of a series about the Fellowship Foundation, the secretive religious group that runs the National Prayer Breakfast and is popularly known as The Family. This series is based on Family documents obtained by TYT, including lists of breakfast guests and who invited them.
On Tuesday, responding to federal charges that he lied about illegal contributions to his campaign, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry made multiple misleading statements that served to conceal the role played by a Christian charity deeply connected to The Family.
In a video he released Tuesday, Fortenberry described key conduits for the illegal cash as “some other Americans.” In fact, Fortenberry had an existing relationship with the primary middleman for the cash, a Washington, DC, businessman named Toufic Baaklini who has ties to The Family. Fortenberry also attended the fundraiser that was staged to carry out the scheme and appears in a picture at the event with its hosts.
And the fundraiser that Fortenberry described as being held by “a Lebanese community in Los Angeles” was actually organized by a local chapter of a charity called In Defense of Christians (IDC), which Baaklini serves as president. The source of the money that Fortenberry described as “a foreign national” was a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire who backed IDC -- and had at one point been on the U.S. no-fly list.
As TYT reported on Wednesday, Fortenberry has extensive ties to The Family -- and so does IDC. The leadership and ranks of IDC include at least half a dozen Family friends and insiders, including some top figures in the Family.
This is also not the first time one of The Family’s members of Congress has been in legal trouble for funneling money from apparently sketchy sources overseas. Last year, Pres. Trump, a favorite of top Family insiders, pardoned former Rep. Mark Siljander (R-MI) for virtually the same thing. (Trump on Wednesday called it “terrible” that Fortenberry was indicted for “possibly telling some lies to investigators.”)
When TYT told Fortenberry’s office we would be reporting his misleading statements, his spokesperson referred questions to Fortenberry Chief of Staff Andy Braner. Braner is also a Family insider -- whose prior religious work included Lebanon. And Braner was brought into the National Prayer Breakfast (NPB) by a Family leader, Stan Holmes, who both sits on an IDC board and has a close personal relationship with Fortenberry.
A source close to The Family told TYT, “Braner was a Stan guy. Fully brought into the NPB by Stan.” Braner had attended the breakfast prior to 2016, but that year, according to a Family document obtained by TYT, it was Holmes, Fortenberry’s confidant, who invited Braner. Later that year, Braner got his first gig working for Fortenberry.
Responding to the fact that Fortenberry made Braner his chief of staff last year, the source said, “What a joke… [Braner] never would have ended up [working for Fortenberry] without the Stan/Fellowship dynamic. There is absolutely no justification for him to go from what he was doing to CoS on that timeline.”
What Braner was doing prior to Fortenberry didn’t involve experience in government, it was religious work, primarily with kids. As Braner himself noted on his LinkedIn profile, that work included The Family as early as 2006. One of his youth programs, the source told TYT, involved “placing the kids as Hill interns.”
Braner, like other individuals and institutions in this report, did not respond to TYT’s questions or requests for comment.
In Defense of Christians’ mission of religious freedom is a pet cause of The Family, whose leaders and associates often use it as a synonym for the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people. The National Prayer Breakfast’s only donor is Franklin Graham -- whose charities work to fight LGBTQ rights -- and at least two LGBTQ advocacy organizations have warned about prayer breakfasts being used to promote right-wing causes.
A source familiar with IDC’s inner workings told TYT that Baaklini and other Family friends at IDC wanted to expand their mandate to include “culture wars” here in the U.S.
Baaklini was said to have opposed taking a public stand against then-Pres. Trump’s ban on travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries, even though the ban would also affect Christian residents of those countries. “We can’t get Trump upset,” Baaklini said, according to the source familiar with IDC. “He’s going to be great on our issues.”
Another Family insider there is said to have sidelined IDC's few Democratic staffers from key events such as the National Prayer Breakfast and the Catholic National Prayer Breakfast. (Most IDC personnel hail from well-known right-wing organizations). That same Family insider also saw little use in pursuing Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, saying, “Democrats don’t care about religious freedom.”
Although Fortenberry’s statements concealed the fact that he had a personal relationship with a key figure in the illegal campaign funding scheme, the source familiar with IDC’s inner workings said Fortenberry and Baaklini “knew each other quite well.”
One of The Family’s most important Capitol Hill allies, and a past National Prayer Breakfast co-chair, Rep. John Moolenaar (R-MI), also appears to have known Baaklini. In an early morning Tweet from the 2019 NPB, Baaklini appears in a picture with Moolenaar, referring to the senator as “my friend.”