Ed. note: After this article was published, a Fellowship spokesperson notified us that the Fellowship is preparing a response. In the event of a response, this article will be updated.
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.”