This week’s National Prayer Breakfast is a bipartisan tradition, but the controversial group behind it counts two Trump supporters among its leadership and its single biggest backer is a charity that funds far-right causes, according to tax records and at least one breakfast attendee.
One apparent leader of the secretive group that runs the breakfast is GOP megadonor Ron Cameron. Every year Cameron spends millions against Democrats across the country — with two notable exceptions in Delaware, where his company bases its operations. One of those exceptions, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), co-chaired the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast and is co-chairing this year’s on Thursday.
The appearance of politicization reportedly has worried insiders at the influential group behind the breakfast, the Fellowship Foundation, also known as The Family. One person close to the Fellowship reportedly told conservative Christian blogger Warren Throckmorton that the group “would self-destruct” if it were seen as pro-Trump, or favoring any politician.
Last month, Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Ted Lieu (D-CA) expressed concerns about the breakfast in response to TYT reports about Fellowship activities overseas and aid to Russian operatives who supported Trump.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and potential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) have both supported the breakfast in the past but have not responded to TYT requests for comment.
The apparent ascension of a wealthy Trump backer at the Fellowship coincided with its involvement with Russian operatives and its sponsorship of a congressional meeting in Ukraine with clients of Paul Manafort.
The FBI says that an unnamed breakfast organizer helped Russian operatives attend the breakfast and connect with powerful attendees. TYT reported last month that a Seattle charity tied to the breakfast paid unspecified sums to facilitate Russian attendance.
The Fellowship itself in recent years has sponsored congressional travel that included meetings with anti-LGBTQ leaders in Europe, TYT also reported.
Cameron is a past board member and financial backer of the Fellowship. More recently, Cameron has become a reliable seven-figure donor for the GOP, and joined Pres. Trump at the White House on election night 2018 to monitor the results.
The web of money and politics involving Cameron and the Fellowship has drawn scrutiny before. The Center for Responsive Politics reported in 2015 that the Fellowship sponsored $60,000 in travel by Rep. Rob Aderholt (D-AL), a past breakfast co-chair, while Aderholt’s committee had oversight over Cameron’s massive poultry company, Mountaire. (The Fellowship has not sponsored congressional travel by a Democrat since 2014.)
More recently, multiple revelations have raised potentially serious questions regarding the Fellowship.
First, the FBI said that Aderholt met with lobbyists secretly representing Ukrainian interests at the direction of Manafort, later Trump’s campaign manager. TYT revealed last year that Aderholt met with Manafort’s clients in Ukraine, during the 2016 presidential election, on a trip sponsored by the Fellowship.
The FBI is also looking at Russian influence operations in the U.S. involving the Fellowship. Doug Burleigh, the other openly pro-Trump Fellowship leader, said last year that he gave ten Prayer Breakfast tickets to Butina and Torshin, the same number the FBI said came from an unnamed breakfast organizer.
Burleigh is also a leader and salaried employee at Leadership Development Seminars, the Christian charity in Seattle tied to the Prayer Breakfast. LDS reported on its 2017 tax returns expenditures of $421,644 that 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.”
At a time when the National Rifle Association is facing questions about its funding, Fellowship leadership appears to want to head off similar questions. On Friday, Fellowship spokesperson Larry Ross emailed TYT a copy of two new Fellowship policies on the Prayer Breakfast and dealings with foreign agents, among other subjects. (Ross, a Fellowship board member, has been a spokesperson for conservative Christians such as Billy Graham and Oral Roberts and Christian conservatives such as Ben Carson, whose National Prayer Breakfast speech criticizing Pres. Obama led to his own presidential campaign.)
One Fellowship policy, enacted the day after TYT’s report about the Russia expenditures, prohibits “interactions for the purpose of personal political or financial gain, with entities or persons” required by law to register as foreign agents.
Asked who implemented the new rules, and what prompted them, Ross told TYT the policies speak for themselves.
While Burleigh is open about his work at the Fellowship, discussing on video his work as its Russia liaison, the details of Cameron’s role and influence remain murky.
Cameron was a Fellowship board member from at least as early as 2001 and up through 2008. The following year, Mountaire executive William Dabbs Cavin joined the board, becoming president two years later.
Cavin’s role became public in 2015, with the Center for Responsive Politics’ reporting on the Fellowship and Mountaire. The following year, the Fellowship got a new president, Katherine Crane, a longtime board member. (In 2017, Crane’s husband began drawing a $47,000 salary from the Fellowship, according to tax filings the Fellowship provided to TYT.)
Longtime Fellowship leader Doug Coe reportedly was unable to attend the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast. Coe, who would die in 2017, had already begun handing off some of his Fellowship responsibilities. One guest at the 2016 breakfast, who requested anonymity but provided evidence of their attendance, tells TYT that they spoke with Cameron and his wife about Cameron picking up the reins.
“I did see Ronnie Cameron,” said the source. “He was talking about the transition, too, because I commented on the fact — God, that’s terrible that Doug [Coe]’s not here — and, you know, he told me that this was kind of a part of a new machine that was coming through.” Control of the Fellowship, the source said they were told, would not be inherited by Coe’s son, a longtime associate of the group.
Instead, the source said, the Camerons confirmed his emerging leadership. “[They] talked about how Ron was sort of stepping forward as a part of the, sort of, the group that was sort of taking the mantel up from Doug Coe.”
For decades, Coe had maintained relationships with leaders of both parties. Coe’s Democratic fans included Hillary Clinton and former Fellowship board member Grace Nelson, wife of then-Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), and still a leader at the group.
The source drew a contrast between how the Camerons and others discussed Coe. “I was sort of struck by the fact that, unlike Bill Nelson’s wife, Grace, and some of the other people that I had met in the Fellowship, there wasn’t this sort of reverential tone towards Doug.”
In the past, politicians have credited the Fellowship and congressional prayer meetings for easing partisanship among participants. At a National Prayer Breakfast event last year, former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) even recalled getting a donation from then-Rep. Tony Hall (D-OH), another Fellowship stalwart.
By contrast, the Camerons went after Nelson hard last year.
Cameron and his wife each donated $2700, the legal maximum, to then-Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) in his primary fight for the Senate nomination, and then again during the general election. But they weren't done yet.
Even after the votes were cast, Cameron wasn’t done. Three days after the election, in the heat of the contested recount, the Camerons became the first two donors to a brand-new fundraising PAC called Florida Votes Count. The PAC filed its organizing statement that same day, disclosing its affiliation with the Scott campaign. When TYT contacted the PAC’s treasurer, he referred questions to Scott’s campaign manager, now his chief of staff, who did not respond.
All told, the Camerons gave $200,000 to Florida Votes Count, about 15 percent of the PAC’s total cash raised. (The PAC has not yet disclosed whether or how it disbursed or spent the funds, aside from administrative expenses.)
Unlike Nelson, Coons and his Democratic colleague in Delaware, Sen. Tom Carper, haven’t had to face Cameron’s money machine in recent elections. Cameron donated nothing to Coons’ 2014 Republican opponent or to Carper’s Republican rival last year.
Also unlike Nelson, Coons and Carper both belong to the Senate Chicken Caucus, consisting of senators from states that are home to industrial poultry companies.
By the time of his first re-election battle, in 2014, Coons was co-chair of the Senate Chicken Caucus. That put Coons in position to go to bat for Mountaire on trade and other issues.
Mountaire and other poultry giants are represented by the National Chicken Council, the industry’s leading advocacy group. Cameron and other Mountaire executives donate to the group’s PAC, and have held leadership positions there. Former Mountaire CFO Alan Duncan, for instance, went on to join the National Chicken Council’s board.
The National Chicken Council’s political donations are overwhelmingly Republican — except in big poultry states such as Delaware and Georgia.
And despite the National Chicken Council’s massive Republican tilt, the group is a consistent donor to Coons’ Blue Hen PAC (named after the state bird — a chicken). In 2015, Coons’ PAC, only a year old, began getting annual donations of $5000 from the poultry group. Blue Hen PAC is the only Democratic recipient to get the maximum donations from the National Chicken Council.
While Cameron’s political donations are a matter of public record, the scope of his influence on the Fellowship is less clear, in part due to laws protecting the anonymity of donors to religious charities.
The Jesus Fund
Cameron and Mountaire have poured more than a quarter billion dollars into a nonprofit called the Jesus Fund. As the Center for Responsive Politics reported, the Jesus Fund has been a major patron of the Fellowship Foundation.
And Cameron is uniquely positioned to control the Jesus Fund’s donations. Not only are he and his company the only source of its money, but all the trustees and directors who work on the Jesus Fund and its affiliated foundation are Cameron relatives or employees or work at other charities funded by Cameron.
The Jesus Fund itself has only two trustees: Cameron and Genevieve Couch, who reported working on “special projects” for Mountaire in 2002, her most recent FEC filing. The Jesus Fund pays her $29,000 a year for working one hour a week on fund business.
The Jesus Fund Foundation, meanwhile, has five people on its board of directors. Cameron is president and Couch is secretary, while Cameron’s wife serves as a director. The other two board members both draw salaries at charities to which the Jesus Fund donates.
In 2014, the Jesus Fund stopped donating to the Fellowship. But another Christian charity — which drew increasing support from the Jesus Fund — began making up the difference.
The National Christian Foundation
The National Christian Foundation (NCF), one of the biggest charitable funds in the world, offers well-to-do benefactors an increasingly popular tax strategy known as donor-advised funds. Unlike traditional charities, foundations that offer donor-advised funds don’t raise money and disburse it to charities of their choice.
Instead, they serve as a clearinghouse for wealthy donors to channel donations to charities they designate. Such funds let donors support favored causes while also enjoying tax benefits and anonymity.
In 2014, the Jesus Fund distributed $14 million to 102 charities, excluding the Fellowship for the first time. At the same time its funding to the Fellowship ended, the Jesus Fund’s donations to the NCF that year skyrocketed — from $200,000 to $10 million. And the NCF simultaneously more than doubled its Fellowship donations to more than $3.5 million.
By 2017 the Jesus Fund reported making donations to only three charities. Its affiliate, the Jesus Fund Foundation, got $215,000. Doulos Ministries — where Cameron reportedly once served on the board of directors — got almost $6 million.
But most of the Jesus Fund’s giving, $13 million of it, was now going to the NCF.
On the Fellowship’s 2017 tax forms, the largest single donation amounts to $3,340,770. The NCF disclosed a donation that same year to the Fellowship for $3,359,070, suggesting the NCF was the Fellowship’s largest donor, accounting for about a quarter of the Fellowship’s total donations. (The NCF provided its 2017 tax returns to a contractor retained by TYT.)