Who invited whom?
This is reprint from a 2015 article printed from the now unpublished PackerChroncle archives that is to coincide with a Special Report on Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes
For additional articles covering OUR, please go to ACJ Investigates- Derailed: Operation Underground Railroad
Editor’s Note: Lynn Packer is an award-winning investigative reporter, legal consultant and author of “Lying for the Lord: The Paul H. Dunn Stories“. Lynn graduated from Utah State University with a degree in broadcast journalism. He served in the United States Army from ’68 through ’70 in Vietnam, as a television news anchor and producer for the Armed Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN) Quang Tri detachment. He was awarded the Bronze Star. For 15 years Mr. Packer reported for KSL Television News in Salt Lake City. For ten years Lynn was an adjunct professor teaching journalism at Brigham Young University and the University of Dortmund.
We’d like to thank Mr. Packer for his service, dedication and contributions to journalism and ongoing quest for the truth.
On October 11, 2014, Operation Underground Railroad executed its most successful and most publicized sting of the year. ABC, CBS, Fox and other major media reported on the raid that Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes participated in.
LDS Living Magazine said, “Ballard’s team found tremendous success on nearly a dozen operations last year, but the crowning achievement of Operation Underground Railroad in 2014 occurred on October 11, when, in cooperation with the Colombian government, they executed the largest-known human trafficking bust to date.”
Glenn Beck announced, “The group recently completed their biggest mission yet, rescuing 55 children in Colombia.”
Utah’s Fox13 reported, “During a recent mission in Columbia in October, the team infiltrated a sex party, rescuing 123 child slaves and arresting 15 traffickers.”
Rolling Stone’s story said “the mission, dubbed Operation Underground Railroad, was the creation of former CIA and Homeland Security agent Tim Ballard, who recruited ‘a ragtag group of volunteers’ that featured two CrossFit instructors from Utah, a door to-door salesman, and (Laurie) Holden, who portrayed “Andrea” on The Walking Dead for three seasons.”
Fusion News said, “The sting was spearheaded by former CIA agent and ex-Homeland Security investigator Tim Ballard, who organized an elaborate fake bachelor party and requested underage prostitutes sent to a vacation house full of hidden cameras.
The ruse worked. With the help of a team of mostly U.S. volunteers, Colombian authorities collared the suspected traffickers and rescue dozens of victims, most of whom are girls.”
Glenn Beck’s reporter, Mark Mabry said, “Tim architected this particular plan from it’s inception months ago as part of the largest one-day sting operation in child trafficking enforcement history.”
Trying to decipher who actually spearheaded the raid is almost like Abbot and Costello, in their comedy routine, trying to figure out who’s on first. ABC News provided a bit more detail: “The operation was a joint effort between the U.S. government, the Colombian government, and two NGO’s, according to ICE.” From ABC viewers learned that the U.S. and Columbian governments headed the operation as a joint effort with two NGOs or non-governmental organizations: O.U.R. along with Breaking Chains from San Diego.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that four months earlier O.U.R. participate in a related sting operation that led up to the big in October. An ABC Nightline crew accompanied the May 2014 mission but held that story until October 14, right after the October 11 bust.
The Nightline report indicated O.U.R. was one of several organizations that participated and that ICE, Ballard’s former employer, the one he said was mired in red tape, also took part.
ABC Nightline reporter David Wright asked Ballard whether non-government jump teams should even be involved with going after law breakers. “I can imagine a lot of our viewers looking at this and saying, ‘Gee, what a noble thing, but still being kind of skeptical, like there’s something that doesn’t sit right, like it feels like this should be the work of government.”
“It absolutely should be. And if the governments were doing it we would not try this. No one is doing anything and no one will do anything.”
An investigative reporter would have asked Ballard how he could say governments were doing nothing when American and Columbian governments were supervising that very operation. If Wright asked that question the answer did not appear in his Nightline piece.
Ballard says the Columbian government asked his charity to set up the sting operation. His head of intelligence, Matt Osborne, told the Texas Tea Party group, “We go in with the permission of local governments. We don’t ask the permission of the U.S.
government or U.S. Embassies, but we inform them and they often times work with us.”
O.U.R. has to downplay any ICE involvement because Ballard quit ICE so his hands would no longer be tied by restrictive government rules and regulations on overseas missions.
Back to the October 11 raid: A press release issued by the U.S. government two days after the operation put its spin on the mission’s leadership:
An international undercover law enforcement operation culminated Saturday with the arrests of 12 individuals involved in sex trafficking and the rescue of 55 sex trafficking victims, all minors. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Attaché Office in Colombia and the Colombian Attorney General’s Technical Investigative Corps Transnational Criminal Investigative Unit (CTI TCIU) conducted the operation that was carried out simultaneously in Cartagena, Medellin and Armenia, all Colombian cities.
Eleven Colombian citizens face charges for human trafficking of minors, pimping and pandering. Details regarding the remaining individual are not being disclosed pending the completion of the investigation.
At the bottom of the press release the government praised O.U.R. and the San Diego child rescue group Braking Chains for their contribution:
Breaking Chains and Underground Railroad, both U.S. nonprofit organizations dedicated to eradicating the sexual exploitation of children, assisted with this case. The Colombian Navy and Coast Guard also participated.
We asked O.U.R.’s chief operating officer why his charity’s press statements seem to indicate his organization led out, but the U.S. government’s statement to the news media seems to portray it as a joint U.S. (ICE) and Columbian attorney general operation with O.U.R. and another charity playing supporting roles.
“Tim will tell you this: we’re fine with anyone taking credit,” Jerry Gowen said.
Where O.U.R.’s Osborne says his group is the one to ask for U.S. support, if needed, with missions on foreign soil, ICE’s spokeswoman said it was the other way around on the Columbian operation. Barbara Gonzales who works out of ICE’s Miami office, said her agency along with the Columbian attorney general, asked for O.U.R’s help with stings in two cities while Columbia’s equivalent of the FBI, the CTI, asked for the Utah organization’s help in the third. She summarized the strikes that took place simultaneously in three cities:
In Medellin and Armenia, ICE HSI Bogota Colombian Attorney General’s Technical Investigative Corps Transnational Criminal Investigative Unit (CTI TCIU) initiated the investigation based on intel received from a source. We then called OUR to help with the operational portion of the case. In Cartagena, CTI initiated the investigation and called OUR to help facilitate the operational portion of the case. In both instances, OUR informants were given judicial authority to be able to use the evidence in a court of law in Colombia and the United States.
Clearly the relationship between ICE and O.U.R., which thinks ICE too severely limits the types of child sex slaves it can rescue, is a work in progress. Gonzales was asked to provide the rules or regulations that govern how her agency works with private charities.
“There is no written policy,” she said.
What about written contracts or agreements that govern each mission?
“We don’t divulge details surrounding our investigative techniques,” she replied.
Another ICE spokesperson, Andrew S. Muñoz, says it’s not true, as Ballard suggests, that an American must be involved as a trafficker or sex slave before ICE will help a foreign government rescue children. “ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations is committed to protecting children from child predators both domestically and abroad,” he wrote in an email. “To that end, HSI partners with foreign law enforcement and nonprofit organizations like Operation Underground Railroad that focus on this same mission.” “We have worked with OUR and they’ve been instrumental with many cases that led to the rescue of children and the arrest of predators.”
I asked Muñoz about the press kit for the about-to-be-released movie, The Abolitionists, which says Ballard left Homeland Security after years because it was “mired in red tape and bureaucracy” so “Tim left to begin saving the children that fell out of the purview of the US. These children constitute over 90% of those lost to child sex slavery.”
Is your department mired in that kind of red tape, Muñoz was asked?
“Please contact Mr. Ballard for an explanation of his comment,” Muñoz replied. “In general, as a federal law enforcement agency that operates internationally, there are laws, regulations, diplomatic protocols and complex jurisdictional issues that HSI special agents must navigate and comply with while conducting an investigation.”
Ballard claims that his group not only can save more children than the U.S. government, but also at a much lower cost. He told the Cache Valley Daily it is surprisingly cheap to free sex slaves “Each mission costs between $15,000 and $25,000,” he tells reporters and his network of fundraisers. O.U.R.’s purported low operational cost is part of its marketing pitch.
Glenn Beck’s reporter, Mabry, wrote:
Tim wanted the freedom to move more nimbly and even to free kids outside of the U.S. government’s jurisdiction. So Tim left the government to push the issue faster. His speed to save has skyrocketed and the efficiency of dollars spent to children saved has increased exponentially.
Other figures the group provides range up to $40,000 pegging the cost per saved child at $1500 to $2,000. (One of their estimates says it costs another $10,000 per mission to follow up. “Each rescue operation costs about $25,000, but that is not the end of the
rescue. Each rescued child needs physical, social, and mental support, which costs the organization another $10,000 per trip,” the charity says.)
Running the numbers: In 2014, O.U.R. says it ran 13 missions and saved 252 children. Taking the high number on the cost-per-mission estimate range and assuming O.U.R. played the dominant role n the rescue of the 252, then the cost of 23 missions would have cost the charity about $520,000. Taking the high number from the cost-per-rescued-child range, the operations would have cost O.U.R. $504,000. So both of the charity’s calculation methods result in about the same estimated cost.
But O.U.R.’s 2014, executive salary figures show it has budgeted to pay its executives—not including what it might be paying contract jump team members— $716,000 a year, not including additional costs for their health insurance which can run about $17,000 per employee. That could add another $100,000 or so to O.U.R.’s salary budget.
Using their figures, the projected costs for salaries alone would be about $55,000 per mission. That would not include actual operational expenses for air travel, car rental, hotel, meals, any pay for permanent jump team members, software development, office overhead, and what must be a substantial amount for marketing.
When O.U.R. is part of a joint operation with government agencies, the cost per mission should also include what the governments pay for salaries, overhead and other expenses. It seems that O.U.R.’s the cost per mission and per saved child figures are vastly understated.
O.U.R. did post general financial information on its website. It disclosed that in 2014, it spent 65% of its income and invested the remaining 35%. Based on income numbers I obtained elsewhere, it means the charity may have spent $2.6 million last year. Of that, it said, 11% was in salaries or about $355,000. That did not include health insurance that was part of some $290,000 for ten full time employees, employee benefits, training and office expenses. An estimated $236,00 went to marketing and fundraising.
Because O.U.R. lists “employee benefits” for ten full-time employees separate from salaries it could be the charity is paying upwards of $592,000 to officers and employees according to the expenditures on its website. But the salary information in O.U.R.’s application for tax exempt status shows the much higher figure—at least $716,000 a year is being paid to the seven executive and insiders or employees. It’s unclear whether any jump team members or other employees are also paid.
Back again to the Colombia operation.
Where Tim Ballard was in charge of the O.U.R decoys in Cartagena, Matt Osborne was in charge at Medellin. CBS News was with Ballard’s team. St. George, Utah news columnist Dallas Hyland covered the Medellin bust.
Hyland went along with the dual mission of writing a story and helping shoot video for the television series. But on site he agreed to a third function: jump team bodyguard. He played that role for the Medellin sting just as Sean Reyes played a bodyguard in the Cartagena raid. Utah’s Fox 13 News quoted Hyland, “I’m certain that if (the child sex trafficker) knew our meeting with
him was the precursor to possibly spending decades in prison, he would have killed us, or had us killed.”
Hyland became converted to the cause. “I don’t advocate vigilante justice at all but I do advocate that sometimes there comes a time when people need to come together and take matters into their own hands and step up,” he said in an interview with KUSU FM radio in Logan. And just like Reyes he asked listeners to contribute. He said as a journalist he does not normally plug causes. But he asked those listening to his interview to go to ourrescue.org and consider offering support.
Hyland said Osborne told him he wants journalists go along. “We’re very transparent, we’ll open our books,” Osborne said Hyland told him. (I asked to see O.U.R.’s financial records and was flatly denied access. COO Gowen was asked if he would provide minor financial detail like salaries. “I’m not going into detail in what people are making and what their salaries are,” he said.)
KUSU also interviewed Matt Osborne. He said, “We want to be most transparent organization possible. Because in this day and age there is a lot of cynicism. Today there is a lot of cynicism about non-governmental organizations, about non profits and where does the money go.” He added that no O.U.R. funds were used to make the soon-to-be-released motion picture. He said when it comes out “a major part of those proceeds will go to O.U.R.” He hoped movie profits would be enough to cover administrative costs and salaries.
No matter who gets primary credit for the October 2014 Columbian operation it was a big story in Latin America. One reason was the beauty queen contestant angle. A typical story lead read:
Colombian authorities supported by United States Immigration and Customs have dealt a blow to child prostitution in the Caribbean city of Cartagena, arresting nine, including a former beauty pageant queen.
Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper reported, “Colombian authorities have been fighting hard against a very well established sex tourism business in the country and especially in Cartagena. The investigation started a year ago when US Immigration and Customs started following the movements of an American that would travel frequently back and forth between Cartagena and Miami. The American would meet a taxi driver that would give him explicit recordings of young boys and girls.”
The paper called it a “pimp ring.” “ Among those arrested was 20-year-old Kelly Johana Suarez, who last year was a contestant for Miss Cartagena. Suarez is accused of recruiting youth in the slums of Cartagena to go to parties with foreigners. Authorities suspect that Suarez used a modeling agency as a front to recruit youth for sex tourism.”
Besides participating in a beauty contest Johana was in a music video for “La Luz” with Grammy award-winning signer Juanes, who has sold over 15 million albums worldwide.
A Daily Beast web headline shouted, “Beauty Queen Ran Child Sex Ring.” Reporter Jason Batansky who lives in Bogota wrote that her legal counsel claims she attended the party as a guest and has no involvement in any child prostitution ring.
Batansky also reported that “sex tourism is a thriving industry in Colombia, with sex tourists from around the world traveling to Colombian cities like Cartagena and Medellín for sexual trysts. Just last year, U.S. Secret Service staff was caught in a prostitution scandal during President Obama’s trip to Cartagena for the Summit of the Americas.”
Batansky’s story said the statement Johana made at her 2013 beauty pageant “takes on a dark layer of irony given the charges facing her.”