(Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder)
"Death, diamonds and greed. A charismatic U.S. businessman pursues an irresistible opportunity during one of the worst humanitarian crises of modern times." So reads the description for "Mission Congo," the much talked-about documentary that revisits allegations that Marion Gordon "Pat" Robertson used Operation Blessing International (OBI), a medical and hunger relief charity, as a front to line his own pockets via the diamond mines of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) during the Rwandan refugee crisis.
After initially threatening a lawsuit against all offending parties, Operation Blessing now has issued a lengthy statement challenging the "malicious allegations" made in the film.
"We find it necessary to respond to not only the overall theme that Dr. Robertson somehow profited 'on the back of a non-existent aid project,' as was erroneously reported in the media, but also to clear up specific falsehoods about Operation Blessing's activities and other malicious and defamatory comments that have been made in the film by the filmmakers," reads the statement sent to The Christian Post by Chris Roslan, a spokesperson for Operation Blessing International and also Robertson's representative.
The screenplay for "Mission Congo," which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 6, was written by Lara Zizic and David Turner. The filmmakers previously created a documentary called "Children's Parliament" about Congolese youth that aired in 2010 on Al Jazeera. The pair was inspired this time around by a series of investigative reports from the '90s by Bill Sizemore, an award-winning journalist for The Virginia-Pilot.
The focus of the reports was Robertson's soliciting of donations on his "The 700 Club" program in 1994 for Rwandan refugees fleeing the civil war into Congo. Refugees were being aided by Operation Blessing and other, unaffiliated humanitarian groups. Sizemore's reports prompted a request from then-Democratic Sen. Janet Howell for an investigation by Virginia state authorities into Robertson and OB"s activities, which involved the nonprofit's resources being used to support Robertson's for-profit diamond mining venture in the country.
"Mission Congo" filmmakers interviewed Sizemore as well as those who said they were former Operation Blessing employees. They claimed that the nonprofit's resources were sometimes used to serve Robertson's private diamond digs through what OB calls his "personal business entity," the African Development Corporation (ADC).
Operation Blessing insisted in its statement Wednesday that Robertson's "total take" in the diamond venture was minimal, and confirmed that its own resources were occasionally used to transport ADC equipment to mining locations.
"The total take in the diamond mining operation was exactly one stone weighing about an eighth of a carat," reads the statement. "The effort was a total failure and was abandoned, with Dr. Robertson donating the equipment to the African church that owned the river concession. The operations of ADC resulted in a substantial personal financial loss to Dr. Robertson. Media reports suggesting that Dr. Robertson 'enriched' himself by diamond mining are grossly false."
Due to malfunctioning World War II planes initially purchased to serve ADC's purposes, "the missions were occasionally overlapped using whatever plane(s) was/were working," according to the faith-based charity. "The ADC plane was partly used to haul humanitarian supplies for OB, while the OB planes were partly used to haul freight for ADC. All usage of the OB planes for ADC purposes was fully paid for by ADC."
Robert Hinkle, interviewed by filmmakers and identified as Operation Blessing's chief pilot in Zaire (Congo) in 1994, paints a totally different picture in "Mission Congo," repeating claims he has made since the '90s when the allegations against Robertson first emerged.
Hinkle insisted that his work consisted of mostly transporting equipment to mining sites instead of delivering much-needed relief supplies to Rwandan refugees during the six months he served in the region. While Operation Blessing clarified Wednesday that Hinkle was never one of its employees, a statement attributed to Robertson in a 1997 Associated Press report insists Hinkle worked for the conservative Christian's for-profit ADC.
Relief workers from other nonprofit agencies working on the ground in Zaire at the time of the humanitarian crisis also paint a curious picture of Operation Blessing's activities in Africa. The following description of "Mission Congo" is from Kenneth R. Morefield's report from the Toronto Film Festival for Christianity Today:
"One of Robertson's critics in the film is Richard Walden, whose Operation USA shared in a Nobel Peace Prize. Also particularly damning is the testimony of Samantha Bolton from Doctors Without Borders, who claims Operation Blessing took film of DWB's relief efforts and broadcast it as their own work. Janet Howell, a State Senator from Virginia, weighs in on the origins of a Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs report that concluded Robertson and CBN made 'material claims' in their fundraising that were 'fraudulent.' There is also testimony from Robert Hinkle, identified as the 'chief pilot' of Operation Blessing, about what was actually in the planes that he flew. But perhaps most distressing was footage of Dumi, an agricultural compound that appears very different in the documentary's footage than it does in the pictures of the website soliciting donations for that project."
Virginia's Office of Consumer Affairs concluded in 1999 that Robertson's claims made on "The 700 Club" to solicit donations for Operation Blessing's relief work were misleading but not an intentional attempt to commit fraud. No official charges were brought against Robertson or his organization, and neither did the consumer affairs office recommend prosecution, as such authority lies with the attorney general's office and its lawyers.
Mark Earley, a former Prison Fellowship president who served as Virginia's attorney general at the time, was reportedly not directly involved in the consumer affairs probe due to concerns over his relationship with Robertson, who had donated to the fellow Republican's campaign. Lawyers in Earley's office recommended no legal action be taken, and concluded that Operation Blessing's main failure was "shoddy bookkeeping," according to a June 15, 1999, Associated Press report. Robertson championed the findings as vindication that he had done no wrong.
"Mission Congo" filmmakers Zizic and Turner reportedly invited Robertson to be interviewed for the film, but he rejected the offer, as he also apparently did with an invitation to appear on a post-premiere panel to discuss the documentary.
The documentary description on the Toronto International Film Festival's website concludes: "The film raises larger questions over the billions of dollars raised by American religious institutions that go untaxed and unregulated. Robertson's organization alone earns annual revenues in the hundreds of millions. If this story can bring about greater accountability, that would truly be a blessing."
Robertson founded Operation Blessing in 1978 and serves as its chairman of the Board of Directors. The nonprofit was listed by Forbes among the top 50 charities, has earned a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, and has been recognized many times for its humanitarian work.
Robertson, 83, is owner of several other properties, many of them 501(c)(3) organizations based in Virginia, where the televangelist was born and still lives. Among those properties are the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), which airs "The 700 Club" television program that often features Robertson's controversial commentaries, CBN News, Regent University, and the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).
The ACLJ, headed by Jay and Jordan Sekulow, has been pivotal in drawing attention to the high-profile prosecution cases involving Iranian Pastors Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen, and Youcef Nadarkhani.
Regent University, which this summer partnered with T.D. Jakes School of Leadership, recently suffered the immediate resignation of its president Carlos Campo, who succeeded Chancellor Robertson in 2010. Campo insisted that there were no financial or moral issues on Regent's or his part that prompted his departure.
Roslan, spokesperson for Operation Blessing International and Robertson's representative, said he would relay The Christian Post's request for direct comments from the CBN chairman regarding his thoughts on the documentary. As of press time, no additional comment was offered.
The nonprofit's full remarks shared Wednesday with The Christian Post appears below.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
OPERATION BLESSING INTERNATIONAL RESPONDS TO MALICIOUS MISSION CONGO ALLEGATIONS
VIRGINIA BEACH, VA (September 10, 2013) – Operation Blessing International (OB) has issued the following statement in response to the malicious allegations in the film Mission Congo:
The premise of the so-called "documentary," Mission Congo, is based on alleged events of almost 20 years ago. Indeed, the film relies heavily on reports from 1) one local newspaper whose reporter has never, to our knowledge, even stepped foot in the region in question, and 2) is also based on interviews with individuals who were either not directly involved with the charity's operations or not aware of the intricacies of those operations.
We find it necessary to respond to not only the overall theme that Dr. Robertson somehow profited "on the back of a non-existent aid project," as was erroneously reported in the media, but also to clear up specific falsehoods about Operation Blessing's activities and other malicious and defamatory comments that have been made in the film by the filmmakers.
The following is a point-by-point refutation of some of the major misstatements in the movie and associated media reports:
-In Zaire, Operation Blessing was responsible for the medical needs of approximately 100,000 refugees from Rwanda. To launch this effort, Dr. Robertson personally paid to charter a DC8 airplane to ship 80,000 pounds of medicine to Goma. Over the following year, additional shipments of medicines and medical equipment were sent elsewhere in the country including one shipment with 12 tons of medicine that was donated to the government of Zaire on May 17, 1995.
-Operation Blessing's relief efforts at the time were under the supervision of Bob Fanning, a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel who served as Executive Vice President and CEO of the organization. He personally oversaw the medical shipments and the teams of doctors and other medical staff in Zaire during this crisis. Without question, the work of OB in Zaire was exemplary and resulted in the relief of much human suffering.
-Jessie Potts, who was oddly referenced in the film as being the "operations manager for Robertson in Goma in 1994," was not an employee of Operation Blessing. Our records indicate he was a volunteer, and only for a short time.
-Mr. Potts' quote about the medications that OB provided as not being useful ("too much Tylenol") is completely unfounded. OB records confirm that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of emergency medicines (including many different varieties of antibiotics, anti-malarial drugs, anti-diarrheal medications, oral rehydration salts) along with other medical equipment (intravenous equipment, x-ray machines, lab equipment, bandages, forceps, syringes, etc) were flown into the country by Operation Blessing on multiple occasions. Interestingly, OB records do not show any Tylenol being sent by the organization.
-A further allegation claims that Operation Blessing only had one tent and seven doctors on the ground in Goma. In fact, the organization sent at least six medical relief teams to Goma between July and December 1994. The medical relief teams ranged in size from approximately seven to seventeen persons and included doctors, nurses and paramedics. The first team arrived in Goma on July 24, 1994. On the same day, OB arranged for 66,000 pounds of medicine and supplies to arrive in Goma on an aircraft it had chartered from Amsterdam.
-Regarding school and farm in Dumi that were originally built by Operation Blessing, they are both thriving today. When Operation Blessing left the country in 1997 due to political unrest and violence, the school and farm were given to the National Baptist Community (CBCO). CBCO operated both of these continually until another American relief organization took over operation in 2008.
-Under its new operators, the school now has many new upgrades including solar powered lighting, new paint and repaired furniture. It currently has over 100 students registered for the fall term. Its current headmaster was one of the first local people to work for Operation Blessing in the early 1990s. A sign on the school still reads, "Don De L'Operation Benediction" (French for: Donated by Operation Blessing). This was confirmed this week by Jon Cassel, CBN's director of Africa operations who was on the ground in Zaire with Operation Blessing in the 1990s and has returned multiple times each year ever since to meet with the current operators.
-The farm is also thriving today, although it did struggle the first several years due to the learning curve involved with cultivation in Africa. Today, more than 1250 acres are under cultivation and its produce helps to feed many families in the area. The farm and the school, first founded by Operation Blessing, are a permanent legacy of the organization's work in the region.
-While Operation Blessing partners with other aid groups on humanitarian efforts all around the world on a daily basis, we are not aware of any instance in which we made use of another organization's photos or videos without accompanying explanation. In fact, due to its affiliation with CBN, Operation Blessing always travels with its own cameras and would have no reason to use someone else's videos.
-Roughly twenty years ago, Operation Blessing purchased three World War II used airplanes for aid relief in Africa. A short time later, a personal business entity of Dr. Robertson's called the African Development Corporation (ADC), bought one of the planes from OB for full market value and the price paid by OB. All three planes were shipped across the Atlantic to the Congo. In addition to paying for all the operating expenses for the ADC flights, Dr. Robertson made substantial contributions from personal funds to help OB cover the costs of its flight operations in Zaire.
-The planes turned out to be unreliable, were constantly breaking down and it became difficult to secure spare parts for them. So the missions were occasionally overlapped using whatever plane(s) was/were working. The ADC plane was partly used to haul humanitarian supplies for OB, while the OB planes were partly used to haul freight for ADC. All usage of the OB planes for ADC purposes was fully paid for by ADC.
-Robert Hinkle, referred to in the film as being "the chief pilot for Operation Blessing" in Zaire in 1994, never worked for Operation Blessing.
-When the planes did not work out as expected, Dr. Robertson personally donated $400,000 to OB to cover its costs of acquiring the two airplanes.
-The total take in the diamond mining operation was exactly one stone weighing about an eighth of a carat. The effort was a total failure and was abandoned, with Dr. Robertson donating the equipment to the African church that owned the river concession. The operations of ADC resulted in a substantial personal financial loss to Dr. Robertson. Media reports suggesting that Dr. Robertson "enriched" himself by diamond mining are grossly false.
-The Virginia Attorney General's office conducted an exhaustive study of Bill Sizemore's allegations and found no evidence of wrongdoing by Pat Robertson or Operation Blessing. The report was jointly signed by four Deputy and Assistant' Attorneys General.
-As for "fraudulent and deceptive statements" attributed to Dr. Robertson by the Virginian Pilot, the Attorney General found that of all the references to the Congo activities on The 700 Club, there was one instance of an inaccurate statement, but it was deemed as inadvertent and no funds were raised based on this statement. Further, a letter* written by the Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service of the Commonwealth of Virginia to the Editor of the Virginian Pilot, dated July 21, 1999, scolded that newspaper for its "inaccurate" reporting of the story. The Commissioner expressly agreed with the Attorney General's findings, saying, "Anyone who has read both reports will conclude that the state's lawyers checked out the issues thoroughly and applied the facts to the law. I am satisfied with their conclusion that there was no evidence of intent to defraud." (*Copies of letter and the Attorney General report available upon request)
-The allegations stemming from the Virginian Pilot were also brought to the attention of the Internal Revenue Service, which examined the facts and took no action.
-As for allegations that authorities chose not to prosecute because of campaign donations made by Dr. Robertson, those are ridiculous and completely without merit. Multiple assistant Attorneys General reviewed the matter and the 38-page report was signed by the Chief Deputy Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, the Senior Assistant Attorney General, and the Assistant Attorney General, none of whom received any donation from Dr. Robertson or Operation Blessing.
The fact remains that Operation Blessing has grown into one of the largest charities in America. Founded by Dr. Robertson in 1978, the organization continues to provide strategic disaster relief, medical aid, hunger relief, clean water and community development in 23 countries around the world on a daily basis. Currently, Forbes ranks OBI as one of its "100 Largest Charities" with an efficiency rating of 99%, and Consumers Digest also named OBI as one of "America's Top Charities" in 2012. For seven years in a row (2005-2011), OBI was awarded Charity Navigator's coveted 4 star rating for sound fiscal management, a feat that only 2% of rated charities have ever achieved. Operation Blessing International has touched the lives of more than 255 million people in more than 105 countries and 50 states, providing goods and services valued at over $3.3 billion to date.
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