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.
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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.
After a lengthy investigation, Virginia’s Office of Consumer Affairs determined that Robertson “willfully induced contributions from the public through the use of misleading statements and other implications.” Yet when the office called for legal action against Robertson in 1999, Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, a Republican, intervened with his own report, agreeing that Robertson had made deceptive appeals but overruling the recommendation for his prosecution. Two years earlier, while Virginia’s investigation was gathering steam, Robertson donated $35,000 to Earley’s campaign–Earley’s largest contribution. With Earley’s report came a sense of vindication. “From the very beginning,” Robertson claimed, “we were trying to provide help and assistance to those who were facing disease and death in the war-torn, chaotic nation of Zaire.”
(Earley is now president of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an evangelical social-work organization founded by born-again, former Nixon dirty-trickster Charles Colson. PFM has accepted White House faith-based-initiative money and is currently engaged in hurricane relief efforts in Louisiana. Earley remains a close ally of Robertson.)
Absolved of his sins, Robertson dug his heels back in African soil. In 1999 he signed an $8 million agreement with Liberian tyrant Charles Taylor that guaranteed Robertson’s Freedom Gold Ltd.–an offshore company registered to the same address as his Christian Broadcasting Network–mining rights in Liberia, and gave Taylor a 10 percent stake in the company. When the United States intervened in Liberia in 2003, forcing Taylor and the Al Qaeda operatives he was harboring to flee, Robertson accused President Bush of “undermining a Christian, Baptist president to bring in Muslim rebels to take over the country.”
Robertson’s scheming hasn’t abated one bit. He is accused of violating his ministry’s tax-exempt, nonprofit status by using it to market a diet shake he licensed this August to the health chain General Nutrition Corp. (Robertson continues to advertise the shake on his personal website.) He has withstood criticism from fellow evangelicals for investing $520,000 in a racehorse named Mr. Pat, violating biblical admonitions against gambling. He was even accused of “Jim Crow-style racial discrimination” by black employees who successfully sued his Christian Coalition in 2001 for forcing them enter its offices through a back door and eat in a segregated area (Robertson has since resigned).
The Bush Administration has studiously overlooked Robertson’s misdeeds. In October 2002, just months after he denounced the White House’s faith-based initiative as “a real Pandora’s box”–and one month before midterm elections–Robertson pocketed $500,000 in government grants to Operation Blessing. Since then, with the sole exception of his criticism of the US intervention in Liberia, Robertson has served as a willing surrogate for the Administration. His Regent University gave John Ashcroft a cushy professorship to cool his heels after his contentious tenure as US Attorney General. And Robertson’s legal foundation, the American Center for Law and Justice, is spearheading the effort to rally right-wing Christian support for Judge John G. Roberts Jr.’s confirmation as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Now, as fallout from the President’s handling of Hurricane Katrina threatens to derail the GOP’s long-term agenda, Robertson is back at the plate for Bush, echoing the White House’s line that state and local authorities–and even the disaster victims themselves–are to blame for the tragedy engulfing New Orleans.
The September 5 edition of The 700 Club included a report by Christian Broadcasting Network correspondent Gary Lane from outside the ruined New Orleans Convention Center, which had housed mostly impoverished black disaster victims throughout the weekend. “A number of possessions left behind suggest the mindset of some of the evacuees,” Lane said. “They include this voodoo cup with the saying, ‘May the curse be with you.’ ” A shot of a plastic souvenir cup from one of New Orleans’s countless trinket shops appeared on the screen. “Also music CDs with the titles Guerrilla Warfare and Thugs ‘R’ Us,” Lane stated, pointing out a pile of rap CDs strewn on the ground.
The 700 Club‘s featured guest was Wellington Boone, a black minister invited by Robertson to provide a counterpoint to the ubiquitous Rev. Jesse Jackson. Boone is a member of the Coalition on Revival, a Christian Reconstructionist organization that advocates replacing the US Constitution with biblical law. Throughout his career, he has distinguished himself from his black clerical colleagues with such remarks as “I believe that slavery, and the understanding of it when you see it God’s way, was redemptive” and “The black community must stop criticizing Uncle Tom. He is a role model.”
Though Boone’s appearance on The 700 Club consisted mostly of benign appeals for “laser-beam prayer,” CBN featured a separate interview with Boone on its website in which he declared, “We need to consider the culture of those people still stranded in New Orleans. The looting of property, the trashing of property, et cetera, speaks to the basic character of the people.” He added, “These people who have gone through slavery, segregation and the Voting Rights Act are doing this to themselves.”
Boone’s appearance on The 700 Club had been preceded by an interview with Operation Blessing President Bill Horan. Horan discussed his group’s activities in Biloxi, Mississippi, where it plans to set up a mobile kitchen, and in Houston, Dallas and Beaumont, Texas, where it is disbursing cash grants to numerous, mostly unspecified mega-churches, purportedly to support their work with evacuated hurricane victims.
As for the people still stranded in New Orleans who “are doing this to themselves,” as Boone said, Operation Blessing has a special plan: avoid them like the plague.
“I’ve actually heard reports that they [the people of Mississippi] were in worse trouble” than those in New Orleans, claimed Gordon Robertson, the son of Pat Robertson and vice president of The 700 Club. “They were actually harder hit.”
“Oh, absolutely,” agreed Horan.
At the segment’s conclusion, Gordon Robertson asked Horan, “What can people do today? If you were asking for help today, what’s the number-one need?”
“It’s cash. Cash is what we need more than anything,” Horan pleaded. “The more cash we get, the more good we can do.” And the Bush Administration, through FEMA, is doing its best to insure that Pat Robertson is getting that cash just as quickly as humanly possible.