Every cloud has a silver lining. Hurricane Katrina has devastated New Orleans, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands homeless, and plunging the entire city into chaos. In the hurricane’s wake, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its director, Michael Brown, forced out of his former job at the International Arabian Horse Association, with no credentials in disaster relief, have become targets of withering criticism. Yet FEMA’s relief efforts have brought considerable assistance to at least one man who stands to benefit from Hurricane Katrina perhaps more than any other individual: Pat Robertson.
With the Bush Administration’s approval, Robertson’s $66 million relief organization, Operation Blessing, has been prominently featured on FEMA’s list of charitable groups accepting donations for hurricane relief. Dozens of media outlets, including the New York Times, CNN and the Associated Press, duly reprinted FEMA’s list, unwittingly acting as agents soliciting cash for Robertson. “How in the heck did that happen?” Richard Walden, president of the disaster-relief group Operation USA, asked of Operation Blessing’s inclusion on FEMA’s list. “That gives Pat Robertson millions of extra dollars.”
Though Operation USA has conducted disaster relief for more than twenty-five years on five continents, like scores of other secular relief groups currently helping victims of Hurricane Katrina, it was omitted from FEMA’s list. In fact, only two non-“faith-based” organizations were included. (One of them, the American Red Cross, is being blocked from entering New Orleans by FEMA’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security.) FEMA, meanwhile, has reportedly turned away Wal-Mart trucks carrying food and water to the stricken city, teams of firemen from Maryland and Texas, volunteer morticians and a convoy of 1,000 boat owners offering to help rescue stranded flood victims. While relief efforts falter in the face of colossal bureaucratic incompetence, the Bush Administration’s promotion of Operation Blessing has ensured that the floodwaters swallowing New Orleans will be a rising tide lifting Robertson’s boat.
Robertson recently ignited a media firestorm when he called for the assassination of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez during a broadcast of The 700 Club. He has also blamed the 9/11 attacks on America’s tolerance of abortion and homosexuality and declared the Supreme Court a greater threat to the United States than Al Qaeda. Robertson assiduously cultivates his celebrity with remarks like these, casting himself as a divisive bigot to his foes and a righteous prophet to his allies in Christian right circles. But there is much more to Robertson than the headline-grabbing hothead he plays on TV.
Far from the media’s gaze, Robertson has used the tax-exempt, nonprofit Operation Blessing as a front for his shadowy financial schemes, while exerting his influence within the GOP to cover his tracks. In 1994 he made an emotional plea on The 700 Club for cash donations to Operation Blessing to support airlifts of refugees from the Rwandan civil war to Zaire (now Congo). Reporter Bill Sizemore of The Virginian Pilot later discovered that Operation Blessing’s planes were transporting diamond-mining equipment for the African Development Corporation, a Robertson-owned venture initiated with the cooperation of Zaire’s then-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.