Utah Gov. Spencer Cox hesitantly waded into the controversy surrounding anti-human-trafficking activist Tim Ballard and his possible run for U.S. Senate next year, saying the allegations against Ballard, if true, are “incredibly disturbing” and “unconscionable.”
The governor also said he personally confirmed that a recent condemnation of Ballard by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was real.
Ballard has been at the center of a firestorm involving allegations of sexual misconduct and other questionable behavior. Last week, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rebuked Ballard for what a spokesperson called “morally unacceptable” behavior. In its statement, the church accused Ballard of trying to exploit his friendship with senior apostle M. Russell Ballard. The two men are unrelated.
“I wondered, like everybody else, what was happening? There had to be something out there. To have The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issue a statement like that, a very strong statement, very rare that they do something like that,” Cox said Thursday during his monthly news conference.
Many Ballard supporters have added their voices to the chorus of people suggesting the condemnation from the church was somehow not sanctioned.
”We’ve received countless communications from concerned members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who told us that they called the church offices to inquire whether or not the statement leaked to a tabloid was actually from the church,” Todd Tueller, CEO of The SPEAR Fund, an anti-trafficking group where Ballard is now a senior adviser, said in a statement.
Tueller alleged that Ballard backers, and The SPEAR Fund itself, have been told the condemnation “did not come from the church.”
According to church officials and the reporting of The Salt Lake Tribune, VICE News and the church-owned Deseret News, the condemnation of Ballard is an official statement from the Utah-based faith.
”There was a lot of pushback, like did this really come from the church? Did it come from a rogue spokesperson?” Cox told reporters. “I reached out to the church personally and was assured that it did come from the church, that it had been vetted through all the normal church processes.”
Earlier this year, Ballard stepped away from Operation Underground Railroad, the anti-trafficking group he founded. While the reasons for his departure remain murky, VICE News reported that he left at the conclusion of an investigation into multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.
“We believe in a system where people are innocent until proven guilty,” Cox said. “The allegations from several different women are incredibly disturbing and just awful. I hope they’re not true, but we have multiple organizations that are speaking out, and that’s deeply troubling.”
Ballard has angrily denied those accusations and suggested they were made public to derail his potential bid for U.S. Senate next year.
2024 U.S. Senate race
Even if Ballard does enter the race, he probably can’t count on Cox as a supporter. The Republican governor offered a “tentative” endorsement of outgoing Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, who officially entered the race for Sen. Mitt Romney’s seat earlier this year.
“I just love Brad,” Cox said. “I just really like Brad. I think he would be really good.”
Cox quickly attempted to walk back his full-throated support for Wilson, noting he expects other candidates to join the race after Romney opted against a second term. However, Cox is a lead host of a fundraiser for Wilson’s campaign next month. Several other high-profile Utahns are listed on the invitation, including former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and Gail Miller.
Journalist Robert Gehrke contributed to this story.