"New" National Prayer Breakfast Let Both Parties Break the Rules

From left, Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and Haley Stevens (D-MI) with Kaptur's guest, lobbyist Eileen Bradner, at the new National Prayer Breakfast Feb. 2, 2023.



The National Prayer Breakfast was split this year into two events – reportedly in response to Democratic concerns about who was funding and attending the controversial event.

The new event took the old name, bringing Pres. Joe Biden and members of Congress no farther from the Capitol than its Visitors Center, with a new nonprofit in charge and new rules in place at the new National Prayer Breakfast (NPB).

The rules were added after years of controversy around the old NPB. More than a decade ago, the public first learned of ties between the group that runs the prayer breakfast and anti-LGBTQ+ death penalty supporters. Years later, Russian spy Maria Butina and handler Alexander Torshin used the event to build right-wing networks.

More recently, TYT revealed how its organizers, the Fellowship Foundation (also known as The Family), were using prayer breakfasts here and around the world to stand up political networks opposed to anti-LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights. They did it in Ukraine and killed a UN anti-corruption task force before it could take down Guatemala’s anti-LGBTQ+ president. And they’re still at work in Uganda, where its network is poised to enact an anti-LGBTQ+ death penalty.

LGBTQ+ advocates have warned that Democrats participating in these events facilitate The Family’s work. High-profile Democrats such as Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) attended the new event after dropping the old NPB in the wake of multiple reports on its anti-LGBTQ+ networking.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), The Family’s staunch Democratic ally, reportedly said the event was split in part because of “a lack of clarity from an ethics perspective about how the event was structured and organized."

However, the nonprofit formed to run the new event is run by a board made up entirely of veterans of the old breakfast. And the new NPB rules, implemented to address the NPB’s old problems, were violated by multiple members of Congress right out of the gate, with no sign that the new board took any steps to enforce those rules.

As TYT previously reported, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) blamed Jesus after breaking the rule limiting guests to one constituent or family member by bringing Big Lie advocate Kari Lake. But Gosar wasn’t alone. Members of both parties violated that rule, and guests at the new event included lobbyists, political donors, and at least one longtime Family insider.

Members of Congress who brought either multiple guests or non-constituents included Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), John Rose (R-TN), and Katie Porter (D-CA).

No Republican offices responded to TYT’s requests for comment. But Democratic congressional aides suggested that the rule violations were inadvertent.

Innocent or not, the incidents suggest that the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, the nonprofit formed to run the new event, did not vigorously enforce its new rules or counted on members of Congress to self-police. The foundation board’s president, former Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AK), did not respond to TYT’s request for comment.

Fitzpatrick is the only member in question with previously reported ties to The Family. He was a featured participant at a 2021 Ukrainian prayer breakfast led by one of that nation’s top anti-LGBTQ+ crusaders.

Despite the rule limiting members of Congress to one guest at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, Fitzpatrick apparently brought three. In a Tweet, Fitzpatrick thanked Pastor Mark English as well as his wife and son “for joining us today at the 2023 National Prayer Breakfast.”

A picture shows English, but not his family, at the event, so it’s not clear whether Fitzpatrick brought only English into the event itself or merely hosted them before or after.

English is a pastor with Assemblies of God, which calls homosexuality a “sin” and says that “homosexual behavior … is immoral and comes under the judgment of God.” In 2019, the Washington Post quoted English declining to condemn the anti-Semitism of one of his church members.

Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) brought former Rep. Don Bonker (D-WA), who’s been a lobbyist for APCO. The new event didn’t expressly prohibit lobbyists, assuming they’re also constituents.

Pryor, a longtime Family insider, told TYT that the new NPB was limited to one family member or constituent, and Bonker lives in Kilmer’s district. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), another longtime Family insider and former National Prayer Breakfast leader, earlier this year downplayed the significance of lobbyists in attendance.

Referring to the old event, which once drew thousands, Lankford told Slate, “When you get 2000 people in Washington, D.C., there’s going to be a lobbyist in the room.” Lankford said, “There’s no real controversy in the background on this.”

Kilmer, his spokesperson said, “has known Don Bonker since Rep. Kilmer was a toddler, has been to his church in the district, and has known Don Bonker for more than 40 years.”

Both Bonker and a previous guest of Kilmer were donors of his. But aside from Bonker, Kilmer’s three other known guests at prior National Prayer Breakfasts appear to have no connection to the event or The Family. The three are longtime friends of Kilmer, various social-media posts suggest, and Kilmer’s spokesperson confirmed.

“Rep. Kilmer invited each of them because he knew it would be meaningful to them and how important faith is to each of them,” the spokesperson said.

But the event’s significance was more profound than that for Kilmer’s 2023 guest, who couldn’t have got in otherwise. Bonker is a longtime Family insider who technically would have been prohibited from attending this year without an official invite.

And Bonker has been involved with the breakfast before, inviting guests of his own. One of them was Vladimir Gusinsky, a Russian media magnate and sometime business partner of APCO.

With Bonker’s introduction, Gusinsky soon became an important ally and financial backer of The Family – paying for travel and helping to choose guests for the National Prayer Breakfast. As TYT reported, Gusinsky was one of the Family insiders who brought anti-LGBTQ+ Ukrainians to the National Prayer Breakfast.

Kilmer’s spokesperson told TYT, “Rep. Kilmer has never heard of ‘The Family’ or Vladimir Gusinsky.”

Similarly, Kaptur, according to an aide who asked not to be named, “has been long involved with the National Prayer Breakfast” but only as an attendee, they said, not via relationships with any of The Family.

Kaptur’s guest this year was Eileen Bradner, a lobbyist who’s not a constituent but had been for years and has been close friends with Kaptur for more than 40 years. An Ohio native who attended the same church as Kaptur, Bradner now resides in Virginia, just outside Washington.

The Kaptur aide said they believed Bradner was retired, but Nucor’s April 20, 2023, first-quarter disclosure form lists her as still a registered lobbyist for the steel company. She is identified in online profiles as director of Nucor’s Washington lobbying office, and in 2022 was listed on Nucor’s forms as senior director and counsel for federal government affairs.

Over the years, Bradner has donated $2150 to Kaptur, Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings show. At the NPB, Kaptur introduced Bradner to Rep. Haley Stevens (D-MI), to whom Bradner has donated $1300.

Bradner has also donated to a number of congressional candidates connected to The Family, including Pryor, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and former Rep. Jim Slattery (D-KS).

In fact, Bradner is a former coworker of Slattery. The two lobbied on behalf of Nucor when they were both lobbyists at Wiley Rein, a firm that’s been connected to The Family’s dealings in Ukraine. Slattery was one of the top point people for The Family’s spin-off event this year, newly dubbed the “NPB Gathering,” which was much like the NPB’s past iterations – with Family friends and allies from around the world.

As author Jeff Sharlet wrote in his book about The Family, C Street, Slattery testified before Congress on Nucor’s behalf against climate-change regulations. Slattery and Wiley Rein’s Ukrainian clients have also made headlines, some in conjunction with the National Prayer Breakfast.

Porter’s guest, too, was a donor and longtime constituent who registered a new address, outside Porter’s district, only recently. Anila Ali, chair of the American Muslim and Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council (AMMWEC), has donated $1700 to back Porter.

Porter Communications Director Jordan Wong told TYT that her office did seek to confirm Ali’s constituent status. “We asked,” Wong said, “and Ms. Ali told us that she is a constituent. In addition, we have an Orange County address for her in our constituent database. House ethics rules do not permit us to look up someone’s voter registration status.”

According to her website, Ali now lives in Washington, DC. A March 2023 FEC filing also shows her as living in Washington, but Nov. 3, 2022, filings give conflicting addresses, one in Washington and one in California, where she says she is employed as a teacher. An online voter database lists her as registered to vote in Washington as of Oct. 19, 2021.

Ali did not respond to a request for comment. She Tweeted about the breakfast, however, saying she got to meet Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA). Ali was also part of a Pakistani delegation that attended The Family’s NPB Gathering, according to an AMMWEC news release.

In addition to Porter, Kilmer, and Kaptur, two Republicans brought guests who had contributed to past campaigns. Rep. David Kustoff (R-TN) brought Christian Family Medicine CEO Ruste Via. In 2019 and 2021, Via gave Kustoff $7400. One month after this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, Via gave $6600 to Kustoff’s campaign, but donated an additional $17,500 to a political action committee, the Kustoff Victory Fund.

Rep. John Rose (R-TN) appears to have brought two guests – one over the limit – into the National Prayer Breakfast. One of them, Josh Stites, gave Rose $4300 in 2019.

Although Pryor has pledged transparency around who funds the new National Prayer Breakfast, so far, the board of the new foundation has yet to release any details about who picked up the tab for this year’s new event. The list of guests also remains a secret, just as it was for the original prayer breakfast.

And lobbyists aren’t just on the guest list, despite past controversies such as those the New York Times reported in 2018. Some lobbyists are on the board that runs the new event.

Pryor, the board’s president, is promoted on his law firm’s website as “D.C.’s go-to lobbyist to get things done ethically, efficiently and effectively.” Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck disclosure forms filed last month show that he lobbied members of Congress this year on behalf of clients, including Live Nation, Tyson Foods, and Duke Energy.

Former Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL), a longtime anti-LGBTQ+ Family insider, is not a registered lobbyist but heads the financial industry trade organization the Illinois Bankers Association.

Former Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN) was not only one of the leaders of the original National Prayer Breakfast in recent years, this year, he was involved in running both of its offshoots. Like Hultgren, Wamp is not a registered lobbyist, but his website says he is a “board member and consultant for many of America’s great companies” and that his clients have included “several” unnamed Fortune 500 companies.

In a column about the two new events, Bonker lamented the split for what he suggested was an erosion of the separation of church and state. He called some of the changes “disturbing” and said it was “unprecedented” to have clergy deliver sermons at the Capitol Hill event.

“What will be the future of the National Prayer Breakfast?” Bonker asks. “[T]here is now a lack of leadership and certainty. … I also worry that a House Member could put on the stage a right-wing evangelical who would wrap faith around a political agenda.”

Jonathan Larsen is TYT’s managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.