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Christian Group Reported Expenses for Having Russians at National Prayer Breakfast

Pres. Trump takes the podium at the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast; tax filings show a Christian charity tied to the breakfast reported expenditures related to Russian attendance at the breakfast.


(Image: Screengrab of Feb. 2, 2017, C-SPAN video.)

Ed. note: In August 2021, Doug Burleigh emailed TYT to dispute the crux of this report. Burleigh wrote, "Never has a penny been allocated to pay for any Russians coming to the Prayer Breakfast. They pay for themselves." Asked to clarify why their attendance was included in a tax filing on a line for expenses related to program service achievements, Burleigh did not respond.

A Christian charity with ties to the National Prayer Breakfast reported unspecified expenses associated with having Russian guests attend the event in 2017 and possibly other years, federal tax documents show.

The guests may have included people picked by convicted Russian agent Maria Butina as part of a plan to create back-channel connections with U.S. policy-makers, many of whom attend the breakfast. One leader of the charity appears to match details the FBI has given about an unnamed breakfast organizer who aided Butina.

In her plea agreement, Butina admitted to acting as an agent of the Russian government without registering with the Justice Department.

The FBI says that Butina and her handler — widely reported to be Alexander Torshin, a Russian official said to be close to President Vladimir Putin — attended the breakfast to influence U.S politics. The tax records reviewed by TYT represent the first indication they may have received direct financial support in their efforts.

“[I]n furtherance of the conspiracy,” Butina’s plea deal says, “Butina helped [Torshin] organize a Russian delegation to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast… [Torshin] directed Butina to include certain people.”

Butina wrote in 2015 that the best way to influence U.S. policy toward Russia was not through official channels. “As an alternative,” her plea deal says, “Butina suggested that Russia could use unofficial channels of communication to the same end.”

The National Prayer Breakfast, an annual ritual for Washington’s elite, was targeted by the two Russians to build those channels, according to the FBI. For decades the event has drawn every president from each party, as well as top members of Congress. In 2003, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) called the breakfast’s patriarch, Doug Coe, “a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith.”

The breakfast is run by the Fellowship Foundation, sometimes known as The Family, a secretive Christian group led by Coe for decades before his death in 2017.

Every year, the breakfast is co-chaired by one member from each party. This year’s, on Feb. 7, is being co-chaired by Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and James Lankford (R-OK). Coons co-chaired the 2017 breakfast with Sen. John Boozman (R-AR).

A July 2018 FBI affidavit said that an unnamed organizer of the breakfast helped Butina and Torshin get Russian guests into the breakfast.

In addition, federal tax filings show that a Seattle nonprofit called Leadership Development Seminars (LDS) reported expenses connected to guests from Russia and other former Soviet bloc nations attending the breakfast from at least 2014 through 2017, the most recent year for which tax records are available.

LDS — which says it is dedicated to leadership focused on Jesus — has strong ties to the Fellowship Foundation, including personnel, cooperation on the breakfast, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding.

Most notably, Doug Burleigh has been a leader at both the Fellowship and at Leadership Development Seminars. Tax forms indicate he served as LDS’s executive director from at least 1999 through 2012. Since then, state filings list Burleigh as one of LDS’s three highest-paid employees. Burleigh also appears in LDS videos and speaks at their events.

Burleigh’s connections to the Fellowship include family ties: He is Coe’s son-in-law. And Burleigh was provided housing valued at $15,000 by the Fellowship as recently as 2016, tax forms show.

As a central figure at the breakfast, Burleigh has already been the subject of speculation about the unnamed organizer who helped Butina. Burleigh himself appeared to confirm details of the FBI affidavit to the Christian news outlet, WORLD Magazine, last summer.

The affidavit says that, “The organizer of the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast promised BUTINA he would provide ten seats at the 2017 event.”

According to WORLD Magazine, Burleigh described a virtually identical exchange in person with Butina and Torshin:

Burleigh recalled talking about plans for the 2017 breakfast with Torshin over dinner, with Butina translating for Torshin (Burleigh said Torshin doesn’t speak English). Burleigh asked whom Torshin would bring if he had 10 invites, and Torshin said he would bring top Russian leaders. Torshin got the 10 spots…

In an email about Russian guests for the 2017 breakfast, Butina wrote, “People in the list are handpicked by [Torshin] and me and are VERY influential in Russia. They are coming to establish a back channel of communication.”

Expenses listed in Leadership Development Seminars’ 2017 tax returns include one line for $421,644. Those expenses, the form says, included, “Work in the former Soviet Union: We had 65 people from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan attend the National Prayer Breakfast in early February.”

Excerpt from 2017 tax filing of Leadership Development Seminars.

The form says. “Many of these were members of Parliament and other elected officials.”

LDS work in the former Soviet Union constituted its single biggest category of program services in 2017, almost half of its total. Most LDS activities appear to be traditional charity, including religious ministry and aid to orphans. But other returns also include similar expenses related to breakfast attendance by visitors from former Soviet bloc nations:

  • 2016 - $327,976 for expenses including: “Helped 70 people attend the National Prayer Breakfast in February representing 8 nations of the former Soviet Union, about half of which were members of Parliament.”
  • 2015 - $290,738 for expenses including: “Helped 70 people attend the National Prayer Breakfast in February representing 8 nations of the former Soviet Union, about half of which were members of Parliament.”
  • 2014 - $221,697 for expenses including: “Helped 67 people attend the National Prayer Breakfast in February representing 8 nations of the former Soviet Union, about half of which were members of Parliament.”

LDS has reported similar events, conferences, and grants related to ministry in Russia in those years and previous years, as well.

Public statements by Burleigh appear to confirm his central role as the Fellowship’s point person in Russia. Speaking in Aug. 2017 at Lighthouse Church in Washington state, Burleigh said he had been involved with the breakfast for 22 years. “My particular focus,” he said, “is the former Soviet Union, where I’ve been going for the last 52 years.”

Referring to the 2017 breakfast, Burleigh said, “We had 35 leaders from Russia — many of them top leaders in government.”

Bloomberg reported last month that Butina’s requested guests included two Kremlin veterans, a Putin appointee, several business leaders and others from the private sector.

Prof. Warren Throckmorton, an evangelical Christian blogger, reported on a press release from a group called the Russian Evangelical Alliance that quoted Burleigh as saying, three months after the 2017 breakfast, that “a breakthrough between Russia and the USA is about to occur.”

Burleigh said at Lighthouse Church last March that not just anyone can attend the breakfast. “You get invited. And the reason we do it that’s all about relationships.” He added that at the 2018 breakfast, “I had 61 Russians there and 52 Ukrainians, many of them leaders of government.”

Torshin — reportedly a long-time guest at the prayer breakfast — and Butina allegedly tried at the 2016 breakfast to secure a meeting with Trump campaign officials.

(Three months later, with the campaign in full swing, Torshin sought to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin via conservative Christian advocate Rick Clay. Clay later told the New York Times that Russian interest in influencing the campaign never occurred to him. “You look back at it now, and it actually gives you some pause,” Clay said.)

In 2017, with Trump in the White House, Torshin reportedly was invited by unnamed leaders of the breakfast to attend a private meeting with Pres. Trump. The meeting was canceled after the White House learned Torshin was suspected by Spain of money laundering.

That May, Burleigh was the keynote speaker at a prayer breakfast in Russia where Torshin spoke, Burleigh later confirmed to Religion News.

Burleigh is not the only tie between the Fellowship Foundation and Leadership Development Seminars. Archived versions of LDS web pages as far back as 2011 show the group accepting payments from breakfast guests, with checks to be made out to National Leadership Seminars.

As recently as 2017, a website affiliated with LDS sought nominations for breakfast invitations. An apparently active web page lets donors support individuals, including Burleigh, and events including the National Prayer Breakfast.

The two groups have also funneled money directly to each other. Since 2013, LDS has reported every year giving the Fellowship grant money, for a total of just over $100,000. In each year but one, the Fellowship was the only domestic recipient of an LDS grant. Between 2005 and 2014, the Fellowship Foundation gave LDS at least eight grants totalling $527,436.

With an annual budget of about $12 million, the Fellowship does not conduct public fundraising, but is sustained by private donations, some of them reportedly originating with right-wing backers. GOP mega-donor Ron Cameron, a former Fellowship board member, reportedly funneled millions to the Fellowship through his charity, the Jesus Fund.

LDS tax forms do not specify what expenses LDS incurred related to Russian attendance at the breakfast. A December 2016 email from Paul Erickson to Butina suggested asking Torshin to cover $3500 in room deposits at the Washington Hilton, where the breakfast is held. Besides lodging, other costs associated with attendance could include travel and the tickets themselves, which have been hundreds of dollars in the past.

Democratic co-chairs of the breakfast tend to be conservative. Recent co-chairs include former Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) and Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL), a former Republican.

Excerpt from 2016 National Prayer Breakfast invitation obtained by TYT.

A 2016 breakfast invitation obtained by TYT indicates that some progressives have also attached their names to the event, such as Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA). Lieu, a member of the Judiciary Committee, has actively sought information about involvement by Butina and Torshin with the National Rifle Association.

Asked to comment on the LDS expenditures, Lieu Chief of Staff Marc Cevasco told TYT, “If this is all true — the payments are verified and this is true and factual — of course the congressman would be concerned about it, and we believe transparency is important as we did with the NRA. And if there's some Russian influence on the National Prayer Breakfast, we want to know about it."

Other current office-holders listed on the letterhead did not respond to emails requesting comment about the LDS expenditures. Neither did this year’s co-chairs, Coons and Lankford. (Emails to three separate addresses for LDS were not returned. Larry Ross, a Fellowship spokesperson, was said to be traveling.)

Rep. Bob Aderholt (R-AL) has not only served as a breakfast co-chair, the Fellowship has paid for his travel to similar gatherings overseas. TYT reported last year that Aderholt met in Ukraine with Rinat Akhmetov, a client of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, during a 2016 trip sponsored by the Fellowship. The FBI earlier revealed that Aderholt had previously met in Washington with lobbyists acting on behalf of those clients.

Although the breakfast and the Fellowship traditionally have been non-partisan, Burleigh has been a public defender of Trump. As Throckmorton reported last summer, Burleigh told a Russian interviewer, “The problem in our country is the press hates Trump, okay? And I think the press is so biased that you don’t get a true story from them.”

Burleigh, who double-majored in Russian and political science, says he first visited Russia more than half a century ago and now travels there “three or four times a year.” In videos and public appearances, he has referred to choosing the path of Christian ministry over options including a career in the CIA.

Last summer, Burleigh told WORLD Magazine he was disappointed with the Russian delegation in 2017, and discussed it with Torshin.

...when the two of them had a dinner for the Russian delegation the night after the breakfast, several of the guests were inattentive or disrespectful — talking on their phones, or complaining that there wasn’t alcohol.

“Afterwards I talked to Torshin about it. I said, ‘Brother, we should invite people who really want to be there,’” said Burleigh. “He agreed and apologized.”

The following year, Burleigh seemed more satisfied. In remarks at Lighthouse Church in March 2018, he responded to a discussion on MSNBC’s Morning Joe about collusion at the previous month’s breakfast by saying, “There’s big-time collusion. It’s the Russians and Jesus. That’s the collusion.”

The 2018 breakfast reportedly had significantly more Russian guests. Torshin and Butina did not attend.

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

Dylan Digel is a researcher and fact-checker for TYT Investigates.

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