Robert Gehrke: LDS Church delivers a shocking blow to Tim Ballard’s hero status

New VICE News reporting the faith’s condemnation of “morally unacceptable” behavior come as Ballard is said to be building a Senate campaign.

I can’t say for sure because it’s never happened to me, but I have to think that having an official spokesperson from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issue a statement condemning your “morally unacceptable” dealings with regard to a prominent leader of the faith isn’t generating the kind of buzz one would want around a widely anticipated U.S. Senate bid.

But that’s the predicament Tim Ballard, the former head of anti-child trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad, found himself in Friday morning after VICE News dropped yet another devastating bombshell.

Relying on a series of investigative reports collected by the FBI, the VICE reporters spelled out the gory details of how Tim Ballard allegedly trafficked on the name and reputation of senior apostle M. Russell Ballard.

The two men are not related by blood and, based on the church’s official statement, the friendly relationship they once had is no more.

According to the church remarks, the men developed a friendship around “looking after God’s children wherever they are,” but they have not had any contact in many months. “Once it became clear Tim Ballard had betrayed their friendship, through the unauthorized use of President Ballard’s name for Tim Ballard’s personal advantage and activity regarded as morally unacceptable, President Ballard withdrew his association.”

(Saul Martinez | The New York Times) Tim Ballard, founder of Operation Underground Railroad, speaks at the Turning Point Action conference, in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Sunday, July 16, 2023.

It added: “President Ballard never authorized his name, or the name of the church, to be used for Tim’s personal or financial interests.”

According to the documents at the core of the VICE piece, that’s exactly what Tim Ballard did — suggesting he was in close contact with the 94-year-old church leader during rescue operations and implying that the Latter-day Saint apostle was a partner in a business venture built around Tim Ballard’s growing popularity.

There was also the face-palm-y tidbit about Janet Russon, a psychic who would advise Tim Ballard on his operations. I heard from one participant that she would put herself into a sort of trance and point to locations on a map and tell the would-be rescuers where they could find the exploited children. I had not heard, however, that she professed to be communing with the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi. Bizarre stuff.

The public rebuke from the church’s public affairs office is nothing short of astonishing. Nobody I have talked to can recall an official statement singling out such a high-profile member of the church for self-enriching business practices that were, in their words, “morally unacceptable.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle M. Russell Ballard speaks at General Conference on Palm Sunday, April 2, 2023.

It’s about time this sort of stuff comes to light. The Utah news media — myself included — have been so enamored with the notion that Tim Ballard is out there rescuing kids that we have barely tugged at the loose threads of the narrative he has built up around himself.

Now, with Tim Ballard’s celebrity reaching new heights — the subject of a heavily fictionalized version of his life story, making the rounds on conservative talk shows and podcasts, testifying before Congress and supposedly contemplating a run for the U.S. Senate — we need a lot more of this sort of scrutiny.

Because, as I wrote before, when I questioned the veracity of the origin story, he tells about how he came to create Operation Underground Railroad, people giving Tim Ballard their money deserve, at a minimum, to know the truth.

And, especially if he intends to ask Utah voters to send him to Congress, we all deserve to know whether this guy, who presents himself as a warrior for truth, has conducted himself in ways that have been “morally unacceptable.”