A new documentary may be one of the highest-caliber shells fired across Pat Robertson's bow in a long time. Back in 1994, Robertson's humanitarian organization, Operation Blessing, claimed to have raised scads of money to help thousands of Rwandan refugees who fled across the border to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But according to Mission Congo, slated to premiere tonight at the Toronto International Film Festival, much of that money actually went to fund a diamond mining operation run by Robertson.
Mission Congo, by David Turner and Lara Zizic, opens at the Toronto film festival on Friday. It describes how claims about the scale of aid to Rwandan refugees were among a number of exaggerated or false assertions about the activities of Operation Blessing which pulls in hundreds of millions of dollars a year in donations, much of it through Robertson's televangelism. They include characterising a failed large-scale farming project as a huge success, and claims about providing schools and other infrastructure.Read more about the film at the festival Website. The allegations it makes would send a chill down the spine of any fair-minded viewer. Officials with Doctors Without Borders told the filmmakers that Operation Blessing was more or less nonexistent in one of the hardest-hit towns, Goma--only one tent and seven doctors. Then, several weeks later, even that minimal effort apparently stopped.
But some of the most damaging criticism of Robertson comes from former aid workers at Operation Blessing, who describe how mercy flights to save refugees were diverted hundreds of miles from the crisis to deliver equipment to a diamond mining concession run by the televangelist.
Robert Hinkle, the chief pilot for Operation Blessing in Zaire in 1994, said he received new orders. "They began asking me: can we haul a thousand-pound dredge over? I didn't know what the dredging deal was about," he said.Hinkle claims that a whopping 38 out of the 40 sorties he made into Congo actually went to help the mining operation. He was so disgusted that he removed Operation Blessing's livery from the plane. And apparently Robertson was so brazen that he passed off a landing strip for the mining operation as one he'd created for the relief effort.
The documentary describes how dredges, used to suck up diamonds from river beds, were delivered hundreds of miles from the crisis in Goma to a private commercial firm, African Development Company, registered in Bermuda and wholly owned by Robertson. ADC held a mining concession near the town of Kamonia on the far side of the country.
"Mission after mission was always just getting eight-inch dredgers, six-inch dredgers … and food supplies, quads, jeeps, out to the diamond dredging operation outside of Kamonia," Hinkle told the film-makers.
Even the aid that did get to Congo didn't do any good. Jessie Potts, who was Operation Blessing's operations manager in Goma, claimed the medicines that were sent were of almost no use in fighting the massive cholera outbreak down there. Additionally, a 100,000-acre farm in Dumi failed soon after being set up due to poor soil and the use of American seeds that were completely unsuitable for the region. A school that Operation Blessing set up there had long since been abandoned by the time the filmmakers arrived in 2011.
When Robertson's hometown paper, The Virginian-Pilot, got wind of what was happening, it did a series of stories that led Virginia's then-attorney general, Jim Gilmore, to order an investigation. That probe determined that Operation Rescue had made numerous fraudulent and misleading statements about the scope of the relief effort. Despite this, Robertson was never prosecuted--presumably because a good number of high-ranking politicians got donations from Marion Gordon.
Robertson's response? According to the Virginian-Pilot, he's making noises about suing the filmmakers. Never mind that the film is based heavily on the Virginian-Pilot's reporting, and there is no record of him ever pursuing legal action against the paper.
In a sane world, this film would be the end of Robertson, or at the very least knock him down a few notches. But in this climate, we just have to wait and see.
In a 2008 article for the Virginia Quarterly Review, Sizemore recalled that one of the pilots had kept notes on some of his trips. During a flight where Robertson was a passenger, one of those notes read, "Prayed for diamonds."What an asshole. (h/t to ericlewis0)
4:02 PM PT: Koosah makes another interesting point in the comments. If the money that was donated to Operation Blessing was in fact not used for charity, it might be taxable.
Sat Sep 07, 2013 at 5:38 AM PT: Rugbymom mentions in the comments that what Robertson is doing could potentially be tax fraud. Oh, we can dream ...