Notifications
You have no notifications
Inside The Family

Maria Butina's National Prayer Breakfast Host Was a Chick-fil-A Executive

Despite Focus on NRA's Russian Ties, Butina's Handler Had Family Connections Long Before

Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Feb. 2, 2017.

 

(Image: Uncredited photo via Facebook.)

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.

Before Russian operative Maria Butina arrived in Washington for her first National Prayer Breakfast, plans were made for her and her Russian handler to be hosted by a longtime Chick-fil-A executive who helped draw up the breakfast guest list for more than 20 years. But the story behind this leg of Butina’s circuitous journey toward a U.S. prison has never been fully told.

After Butina’s arrest for failing to register as a foreign operative, political and media attention went almost exclusively to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and how it helped Butina build political back channels here. But internal documents of the Fellowship Foundation suggest that The Family’s role was largely unscrutinized at the time and greater than has been previously reported.

For almost two decades, journalists have been unearthing how The Family helps to create exactly the kinds of back channels Butina sought. Author Jeff Sharlet, for instance, exposed the behind-the-scenes role Family leaders played in Uganda’s notorious anti-LGBTQ death penalty law.

More recently, TYT revealed how The Family helped anti-LGBTQ leaders in Ukraine set up a prayer breakfast there, with help from Democrats. LGBTQ groups have warned that prayer breakfasts are part of international efforts to mainstream policies and politicians hostile to reproductive and LGBTQ rights.

But coverage of the Butina scandal rarely scrutinized its religious aspects, let alone official Russian common ground with American evangelicals on LGBTQ rights. The sentiments held by Butina’s handler, Russian official Alexander Torshin, were seldom cited.

One of Butina’s contacts in Washington was identified in a 2019 Senate Finance Committee minority report as Tim Burchfield of Tennessee. But the report didn’t disclose that Burchfield was a longtime Family insider. It also didn’t mention that Burchfield was an executive at Chick-fil-A, a company known for pushing Biblical values, including opposition to LGBTQ rights.

The media never reported on Burchfield’s involvement, frequently eliding The Family’s entire role in the scandal. In fact, the narrative that emerged was that Torshin and Butina first tried to connect with like-minded Americans through the NRA. But that’s not true.

In the Beginning...

The New York Times reported in 2018 that Torshin first connected with the NRA in 2011 -- the same year he met Butina -- via a conservative Tennessee lawyer he had met in 2007. But shortly before the Times report, an evangelical magazine called World picked up on Russian news agency accounts that placed Torshin at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in 2006, five years before his earliest known connection with the NRA. And Torshin’s ties to the prayer breakfast may date back even earlier.

In an unpublished 2019 interview, a spokesperson for the Russian Evangelical Alliance told TYT, “Torshin, you know, has had the U.S. contact for 25 years probably. I never knew about the gun connection.” The spokesperson, William Yoder, had written in 2013 that even then Torshin was already considered “a perennial” at the prayer breakfasts in both Washington and Moscow.

Despite the spotlight on Butina, a source close to The Family says it was her handler, Torshin, who was in the driver's seat when it came to The Family. “Butina was not given any invitations to the prayer breakfast,” the source said. “Torshin was and Butina was basically his administrative assistant.”

The source said that Torshin was one of the main Russian contacts for The Family and for The Family’s longtime Russia liaison, Doug Burleigh. That was true, the source said, “well before Butina.”

Burleigh has been a public Trump supporter -- and in 2017 publicly predicted good relations between then-Pres. Trump and Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin. Like Putin, Torshin is socially conservative.

In 2015, Torshin Tweeted that Trump was a “proponent of traditional values.” Torshin, an Orthodox Christian, said, “There is no influential Orthodox Church in the United States. Influential Protestants. We have one with them. Positions: Traditional values.”

Torshin's assessment is mirrored here in the U.S. As the conservative lawyer who connected Torshin to the NRA told the Washington Post, “The value system of Southern Christians and the value system of Russians are very much in line.”

According to former CIA Russian operations chief Steve Hall, those shared values created an opening for Russia. In 2019, Hall told TYT, “that’s a natural point where a Russian can come in and say, ‘Oh, yeah, we feel your pain, America. We feel your pain, religious person in America, right-wing person in America, because, y'know, society is just all screwed up and we have all these gay people running around.’”

All four of the Family’s Russia point people for the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast were evangelical conservatives. Burleigh was a Trump supporter. Former Gov. David Beasley (R-SC), was a Trump supporter appointed by Trump to head the U.N.’s World Food Programme. The other two were a retired chaplain whose fans included Chuck Colson, and Family associate Stan Holmes, who is close to Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL).

2016 NPB International Quotas Inset -CIS- Excerpt from internal Fellowship Foundation document listing its National Prayer Breakfast point persons for the Commonwealth of Independent States, which includes former Soviet republics.

Unlike Butina, Torshin doesn’t speak English. But Burleigh speaks fluent Russian -- and has traveled to Russia for The Family for decades. It was Burleigh who gave Torshin and Butina ten tickets to bring guests of their choice to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast.

The year before that, however, internal Family documents show that it was actually then-Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC), who officially (but secretly) invited Torshin and Butina to the National Prayer Breakfast. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report described how Butina’s boyfriend, conservative writer Paul Erickson, was trying to get breakfast tickets for Torshin and Butina -- and reached out to Sanford, his longtime friend. But Sanford’s role only merits a footnote in the report -- without mentioning Sanford’s previous, headline-making ties to The Family.

The Family document's entry for Butina lists the United States as her country of origin and gives a South Dakota mailing address associated with Erickson's business. Her connection to Torshin is not noted, but she is described as "Special Assistant."

Sanford never disclosed his role in bringing Torshin and Butina to the 2016 breakfast. Instead, Sanford spoke about Butina’s attendance almost two years later at his 2017 post-Thanksgiving BBQ as if it were the first time he knew of her. "I invited [Erickson] to come down," Sanford told CNN. "He brought his girlfriend."

But internal Family documents show that Torshin and Butina were the only two people Sanford submitted for invitations to the February 2016 event. (Although the breakfast is portrayed as a congressional event, only a handful of members of Congress are involved and even those close to The Family, like Sanford, often don’t invite anyone, deferring to The Family to draw up the guest list.)

The Democratic Senate Finance minority report similarly downplayed the Family connections of two other men who helped Torshin and Butina.

Chick-fil-A's Family-Style Breakfast

Burchfield, the Chick-fil-A executive, is named in the report -- but the report is focused only on the NRA. It’s literally titled, “The NRA & Russia - How a Tax-Exempt Organization Became a Foreign Asset.” No corresponding report was ever done on the other tax-exempt organization, The Family, despite its multiple ties, longer history, and stronger ideological kinship.

As TYT reported last week, Burchfield is a longtime Family insider who has been a Chick-fil-A executive for decades. The controversial fast-food company confirmed to TYT what the internal documents show: Burchfield's role as The Family’s coordinator for Tennessee. But congressional disclosure forms show Burchfield has also been part of Family-sponsored trips by Family allies in Congress.

Burchfield’s known guests at the National Prayer Breakfast lean dramatically toward Republican evangelicals. Some of his guests are affiliated with anti-LGBTQ organizations, while others have publicly supported Trump’s false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

By Jan. 27 of 2016, Erickson, Butina’s conservative boyfriend, had secured prayer breakfast tickets from Sanford for her and Torshin. But the breakfast is a four-day event, and Family documents show Erickson didn’t attend the breakfast. Which meant Butina and Torshin needed someone else to host them while they were in Washington.

The two Russians already knew the NRA’s leaders, but it wasn’t the NRA who hosted them in the nation’s capitol. Instead, NRA millionaire funder Joe Gregory, who had traveled with the NRA to Russia in 2015, turned to Burchfield, a fellow Tennessean.

Two months after his Russia trip, Gregory emailed Burchfield about the upcoming, Feb. 2016, National Prayer Breakfast. The Finance Committee obtained that email, which reads:

"Tim Burchfield, As you know, I have told you that two of my new good friends from Russia will be attending the National Prayer Breakfast this year & they are very excited about it. They are Mr. Alexander Torshin & Ms. Maria Butina. Their Bio’s [sic] are included with this email & Maria’s email address is included as well. Her cell phone number is [redacted]. At your permission, I have extended an invitation for them to join the East Tennessee contingent for dinner the night before the breakfast (Wednesday evening, 2/3). Tim’s cell phone number is [redacted]. I leave it in your capable hands to inform our Russian guests & arrange places & times for the Wednesday evening dinner & thank you for showing them the same hospitality that Jesus would show & that you have shown to me. I believe they may also be interested in Thursday mid-day & afternoon tour happenings & invitations if they don’t end up going to NRA headquarters. Thanks for your help with this! Best Wishes for another successful Breakfast & send my regards to Doug Coe & family & the Fellowship."

Doug Coe, Burleigh’s father-in-law, was the leader of The Family at the time (Coe died in 2017). The report doesn't say what, if anything, Torshin and Butina ended up doing with Burchfield (Burchfield did not immediately respond to a request for comment). And the report identifies Burchfield only as “an associate [of Gregory] from Tennessee,” without revealing his decades of work for both The Family and Chick-fil-A.

Gregory’s email, however, undermines Chick-fil-A’s claim to TYT that Burchfield’s role at the breakfast was limited to serving “in a volunteer, non-partisan capacity for more than 20 years coordinating guests for The National Prayer Breakfast from the state of Tennessee.”

In fact, Butina’s and Torshin’s work was explicitly -- if not openly -- partisan, as evidenced not only by their NRA affiliations but also in private emails and direct messages later released by prosecutors. Gregory’s email also reveals that Burchfield’s work went beyond coordinating the breakfast guests to include ancillary activities throughout the four-day event.

Chick-fil-A also told TYT that “none of [Burchfield’s invitees] were personally his guests.” And while it’s true that Burchfield didn’t invite Torshin or Butina, Gregory’s email suggests that Burchfield’s work for the breakfast was indeed personal at times.

Gregory’s activities for the NRA have been well chronicled, but it’s not only Joe Gregory that Burchfield’s connected to. Burchfield sits on the board of a charity started by Gregory’s brother, John, a GOP megadonor who opposes reproductive rights.

As TYT reported, John Gregory's charity, Serving Orphans Worldwide, funds the Church of God World Mission and belongs to the Christian Alliance of Orphanages. Both organizations openly oppose LGBTQ rights.

The Gregory brothers are wealthy, sometimes controversial, Republican power players in Tennessee and on the national stage. And both are evangelicals in the Family mold.

The source close to The Family said Joe Gregory was “not really...involved” with the breakfast. But Gregory knew people, in addition to Coe and Burchfield, who were. Two days after asking Burchfield to host Butina and Torshin, Gregory emailed Butina about someone else she was apparently in touch with, the second man downplayed in the Senate Finance report.

Loneliness and the Appalachian Trail

The Senate Finance minority report identifies Butina's second breakfast contact as Bob Woody, and notes that Gregory “described [Woody] as a business partner in an oil and gas business.” The report, though, doesn’t comment on or pursue Gregory’s statement that Woody knows people “connected with the prayer breakfast.”

And in this case, Gregory makes it sound as though it was Woody who reached out to Butina. According to the report, Gregory tells Butina:

"If you can, please take Mr. Bob Woody up on his invitation to join him for coffee after the breakfast Thursday morning. Bob is an exceptional businessman & entrepreneur. He is my business partner in an oil & gas business we own. But his greatest asset is that he is an exceptional person who is kind hearted and generous & knows a lot of people in Washington who are connected with the prayer breakfast. His offices are with Mr. Steve Case of AOL fame."

Woody is not merely Gregory’s business partner, he’s a former Republican congressional staffer known for his achievements in deregulation. The source confirmed Woody's ties to The Family, but said Woody was more on the periphery than Burchfield was: “Bob was a longtime friend of Doug Coe [but] didn’t really pop up around NPB [the National Prayer Breakfast] or many conversations.”

Gregory and Woody had another Family figure in common. The third partner in their business was another Republican former government official, J. Douglas Holladay.

Unlike Family insiders, many of them ardent Trump supporters, Holladay and Woody have been active Never Trumpers. Both men are listed as members of the Virginia leadership team of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.

Woody is also a member of the board of PathNorth, a nonprofit that Holladay started to help CEOs combat loneliness and isolation. The Family’s ethos, as author Jeff Sharlet has documented, is to serve Jesus by serving people in power. The source close to The Family identified half a dozen people at PathNorth “connected” to The Family, albeit “not necessarily [with] some deep involvement.”

One of those half dozen was Dale Jones, a PathNorth member who worked for Steve Case after Case left AOL. Jones was sufficiently well connected to invite a guest of his own to the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast. The source said that Case also “occasionally came to the breakfast” but the source “otherwise never heard [Case] mentioned.” Family documents show that Case, Jones, and Woody all attended the National Prayer Breakfast in both 2015 and 2016. Although the source believed Case and Coe had met, “They weren’t close.”

Holladay, Woody, and Case, however, appear to have been close to the Family insider who first got Butina and Torshin to the breakfast: Mark Sanford.

In his book, Flourishing, Holladay refers to Sanford’s bombshell 2009 adultery confession after falsely claiming he'd been hiking the Appalachian Trail. “After learning of my friend’s challenging ordeal,” Holladay writes, “Steve Case, Bob Woody, and I flew to South Carolina to be with him, simply to listen and offer perspective.”

(It’s not clear when this flight took place; at his news conference, Sanford said he had been “working through this thing for the past five months. I was a part of this group called C Street when I was in Washington.” C Street is The Family’s Capitol Hill site where members of Congress meet and sometimes live, as Sanford did.)

"Big-Time Collusion"

Ironically, the range of contacts and networking efforts by both Russians and evangelical Americans -- much of it targeted at setting up a meeting between Trump and Putin -- suggests there was no direct, active line to the Kremlin. As Burleigh once put it, mocking claims that Trump colluded with Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election, "There's big-time collusion: It's the Russians and Jesus. That's the collusion."

Despite this actual collusion, it's been investigated much less; by law enforcement, legislators, and journalists alike. With few exceptions, for instance, no one knows who's funding it.

As TYT reported last month, conservative evanglical preacher Franklin Graham has been secretly backing the National Prayer Breakfast financially. He has also sought rapprochement with Putin openly, and face to face.

And emails between Torshin and Butina suggest that Russia covered Torshin and Butina’s lodging costs for the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast. Gregory lent a hand, too, flying Butina from Tennessee to the National Prayer Breakfast on his private jet.

But no one seems to have probed how the costs of Russia's breakfast tickets and other prayer breakfast expenses were covered.

In 2019, TYT revealed that a Christian nonprofit connected to Burleigh and The Family reported in its tax filings 2017 expenditures totaling $421,644 in former Soviet countries. Burleigh told TYT the expenses were not tied to Torshin’s guests at the National Prayer Breakfast that year. Burleigh did not respond, however, when asked to explain why the nonprofit’s filing cited Russian attendance at the National Prayer Breakfast among its program expenses.

Where that money came from remains a mystery, as does most of the funding for The Family and like-minded evangelical organizations. And there’s no indication congressional or law-enforcement investigators pursued it.

As Hall, the former CIA operative, said in 2019, “a Russian intelligence officer would know… whether it’s a church or whether it’s the Prayer Breakfast, or whether it’s any of these religious things, is they know that the American security services — the FBI, the CIA, and even local law enforcement — are very, very reticent to investigate and to look into those organizations.”

Today, Torshin is a top official at Russia's central bank. Butina's boyfriend, Erickson, was convicted of financial crimes and then got a pardon from Trump on his last day in office.

Butina herself served 15 months in prison before returning home to Russia. Earlier this year she taped Russian political prisoner Aleksei Navalny for a video defending his treatment by Putin's government. Last month, Butina became a member of Russia's parliament.

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

Scroll for Comments
Want to put your two cents in? We want to hear it! Posting comments is only available for TYT members in good standing. Click here to learn more about becoming a TYT member.