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FEMA Promotes Pat Robertson Charity

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Soon after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, FEMA promoted a a list of charities on its website that were accepting donations for hurricane relief. One of the top three was Operation Blessing, an organization founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. We take a look at some of Operation Blessing’s past dealings with Max Blumenthal of The Nation and Democracy Now! Co-host and Daily News reporter Juan Gonzalez. [includes rush transcript]

Soon after Hurricane Katrina crashed onto the Gulf Coast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency promoted a list of charities on its website that were accepting donations for hurricane relief. Dozens of media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN and the Associated Press, duly reprinted FEMA’s list. The top three charities listed were: the Red Cross, Operation Second Harvest and Operation Blessing, which was founded by Christian televangelist Pat Robertson. At a news conference Thursday, FEMA chief Michael Brown was questioned about the issue.

In the New York Daily News, Juan Gonzalez provides some background for Pat Robertson and Operations Blessing.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to an issue, Juan, that you’ve been covering in the New York Daily News, and that is the issue of who gets their charities on the web pages of the government websites.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. Well, soon after Hurricane Katrina crashed onto the Gulf Coast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency promoted a list of charities on its website that were accepting donations for hurricane relief. Dozens of media outlets, including the New York Times, CNN and the Associated Press, duly reprinted FEMA’s list, as did many local governments, state and local governments. The top three charities listed were the Red Cross, Operation Blessing, and Operation Second Harvest, which, Operation Blessing was founded by Christian televangelist Pat Robertson. At a news conference Thursday, FEMA Chief, Michael Brown, was questioned about this issue.

REPORTER: FEMA has three charities listed on the press release they sent out. One of them is Operation Blessing. Can you tell me why that charity is on the list and who put it there?

MICHAEL BROWN: I’m sure the staff did, and it’s there because they’ve offered to help and are doing good work.

REPORTER: Operation Blessing is a Pat Robertson organization. Should that be on there?

MICHAEL BROWN: If they’re willing to work, if they’re willing to help, we’re not turning help away, we’re not turning away help from anybody.

AMY GOODMAN: In the New York Daily News, Juan Gonzalez provides some background for Pat Robertson and Operation Blessing. We’re also joined on the phone by Max Blumenthal, a regular contributor to The Nation magazine. His latest article is called “Pat Robertson’s Katrina Cash.” We welcome Max. Juan, why don’t you start. Very interesting piece that you wrote, “Disaster Used as Political Payoff.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, Amy. Well, the reality is that Operation Second Blessing has been part of the Robertson empire now for many years. He is the chairman of the board himself. His wife is a vice president. One of his sons is a member of the board of directors. So, it’s wholly a non-profit foundation that is controlled by Robertson.

Interestingly enough, when I checked their latest 990 for the fiscal year ending of March of 2004, they give hundreds of grants for a few thousand dollars to churches all around the United States, but the single largest recipient of assistance from Second Blessing is Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. It received $885,000 in grants from the charity. For what purposes, I’m not quite clear.

But the other part of it is also that Second Blessing has had a less than stellar record. Back in the mid-1990s during the Rwandan genocide, Robertson appealed for assistance for Operation Second Blessing on his 700 Club for money to fly relief supplies to the Rwandan refugees in Zaire. What he — it turns out that an investigation later by the Virginia Attorney General’s office revealed that the planes that were bought by the charity were actually ferrying mining equipment for a diamond mining operation, the African Development Corporation, and low-and-behold, who is the principal shareholder of this private corporation? None other than Pat Robertson himself. So, he eventually had to reimburse his own charity $400,000 for the fact that these planes were being used, not for charitable work, but for his own enrichment. Although that might itself — ended up collapsing.

So Robertson’s use of this charity has had problems in the past, and the fact that the federal government listed it among the top three charities before the Catholic charities, before the United Jewish Appeal, before AmeriCares, before all kinds of other charities that have been in existence for decades and decades is quite unusual.

AMY GOODMAN: And let’s not forget, this comes right after Pat Robertson says on his 700 Club program, broadcast all over this country, said that, essentially that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez should be assassinated. This comes a week or two after that. Max Blumenthal, can you continue along the lines that Juan Gonzalez is talking about, your research into Pat Robertson?

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, with respect to the case that Juan was talking about, which was in 1994 when Robertson bilked Operation Blessing donors out of money to ferry mining equipment into Zaire, which was a direct partnership with Mobutu Sese Seko, he was actually — this scheme was actually exposed by a reporter from a small paper in Virginia, and Virginia’s Office of Consumer Affairs initiated an investigation and determined that Robertson “willfully induced contributions from the public through the use of misleading statements and other implications.” That’s a direct quote.

So, they determined that he bilked his donors, and the Attorney General at the time, a guy named Mark Earley, agreed, but he overruled the Office of Consumer Affair’s recommendation for Robertson’s criminal prosecution. This might have put Robertson in jail and ended the whole — ended his entire ministry. So, who is Mark Earley? Mark Earley, during his campaign for Attorney General, was essentially bought off by Pat Robertson. Pat Robertson donated $35,000 to his campaign. That was his largest contribution. Now, today Mark Earley is the head of Prison Fellowship Ministries. He was appointed by former Richard Nixon dirty trickster, Chuck Colson, and Prison Fellowship Ministries is very similar to Operation Blessing. They’re a faith-based social work group that has accepted White House Office of Faith-Based Initiative money to do social work, and they’re actually supposedly doing some relief work in Louisiana.

So, I think this reflects, you know, sort of the, you know, the larger hustle going on, which is, you know, being propagated by the White House. In 2001, Joe Allbaugh, who is a former member of Bush’s Iron Triangle, you know, with Karen Hughes and Karl Rove, his Texas team, was appointed head of FEMA and he said — you know, he said before Congress that FEMA was a giant bureaucratic entitlement program and that it should basically be whittled down, and its work should be delegated to faith-based organizations. So we are seeing that being implemented through his successor, Mike Brown, who is his former college roommate and was appointed FEMA head solely because he was Joe Allbaugh’s former college roommate.

So we’re seeing groups like — I mean there are only two secular groups on FEMA’s list, and currently, I think there’s scores of secular groups doing relief work. Pat Robertson’s group, Operation Blessing, is not doing relief work in Louisiana. They — you know, I turned on the 700 Club, which is Pat Robertson’s daily TV show where he called for Hugo Chavez’s assassination, to get a sense of the kind of work they were doing, and what I saw were profiles of white evangelicals who had suffered as a result of Hurricane Katrina. And undoubtedly, a lot of white evangelicals in the Gulf Coast of Mississippi have suffered, but when it came to covering the plight of people in New Orleans who are largely poor and largely black, I have never — I haven’t witnessed any coverage of this disaster that’s so racist as I saw on the 700 Club.

On the September 5th edition of the 700 Club, there was a report from a guy named Gary Lane, a CBN [Christian Broadcasting Network] correspondent from outside the New Orleans Convention Center, which is where, you know, thousands of, you know, impoverished disaster victims were held without food and water for some days in some cases. And Lane declared a number of possessions left behind suggests the mindset of some of the evacuees. They include this voodoo cup with the saying, “May the curse be with you,” and then a picture of a voodoo cup from like a souvenir shop in New Orleans came on the screen. Then he — you know, he started showing piles of music CDs. It reminded me of, you know, when the U.S. invaded Panama and opened up Manuel Noriega’s desk and found, you know, porno magazines. It was almost like a psy-ops operation to discredit the evacuees as people not worthy of aid.

And the 700 Club also featured a reverend named Wellington Boone, who’s a far right wing black minister, who seemed like he was invited to provide a counterpoint to Jesse Jackson, who had been all over the news. And Boone declared in an interview on CBN’s website, separate from his 700 Club appearance, that these people who have gone through slavery, segregation and the Voting Rights Act are doing this to themselves. So what I saw in Pat Robertson’s operation was an intentional attempt to demonize the people who had been victimized by Hurricane Katrina and by the response of the government, in order to justify whatever his operation was doing on the ground, which seemed to be directed at helping only a certain subset of the hurricane victims which were in his ministry’s network, as it were. And when I say network, I mean within the network of the churches who he is distributing cash grants to.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, if I can — just to get back to — also, I think in the coming weeks and months, we’re going to have to be very vigilant on the number of groups and organizations that attempt now to feast on the federal aid that will be going into this area, and Robertson clearly seems to be one of them, because remember, he also was involved in Liberia where he was a backer, on the 700 Club, of Charles Taylor, the former thug and dictator, who was later indicted by the United Nations for war crimes. And he was backing Taylor on his 700 Club, visited there several times and at the same time was investing in a gold mine in a franchise that had been given to him by Charles Taylor. So, you have this situation with Pat Robertson actually directly personally profiting from investments in Africa, while at the same time trying to get charity money here and then ignoring the black communities here in the United States.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, Charles Taylor had a 10% stake in Robertson’s company. I mean, they were literally business partners.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. But I also wrote this week just briefly about the oil companies, too. Because the Shell Oil Company on September 1 posted on their website a warning against price gouging, gasoline price gouging, to the American Public, and urged Americans to report to their local governments any price gouging. On the same day that Shell posted that announcement on its website, it raised the price of — wholesale price of gasoline to all its dealers in New York by 20 cents a gallon and has increased the price of — the wholesale price of its gasoline six times in the last ten days, even though only one of its refineries down there, of the three it has in the Gulf Coast area, is even temporarily down, and of course, all of the oil that they are now charging these extra price for was refined way before the hurricane even occurred. So, you have the oil companies also now feasting on this tragedy, and we’re going to be having to watch more and more of these hypocrites who say one thing to the public, but then end up doing another thing in reality.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank Max Blumenthal for joining us, regular contributor to The Nation, author of the recent article, “Pat Robertson’s Katrina Cash.” And Juan, thanks for investigating this. His piece, Juan’s piece, appears in the New York Daily News, “Disaster Used As Political Payoff.”

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