The anti-child sex trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad has become increasingly popular in the age of QAnon, buoyed partly by former President Trump putting its founder on a council to guide federal policymaking. But not all of the stories OUR tells its donors hold up to scrutiny, and some of its so-called "missions" to save women and children from sex trafficking have been described by insiders as amateurish at best.
We spoke to people who trained with OUR in preparation for a rescue mission and then saw what was behind the curtain.
“Not only did I feel I was extremely underprepared to go out as a private citizen with no training provided by OUR, but what happened on that last day just completely shattered my image of them,” he said. “And it was just someone that I no longer wanted to align myself with.”
Meg Conley, a self-described former “mommy blogger,” similarly changed her view of the group when she was hired as a writer to cover an OUR mission in the Dominican Republic.
“This isn't like Gotham and [OUR founder Timothy] Ballard isn't Batman. Victims and survivors need to be provided with a community and culture in which they can be found, yes, and healed, of course, but on terms that they determine and in ways in which people like me are supporting them instead of supporting Ballard.”
This episode was produced by Julia Nutter and Sam Eagan.
VICE News Reports is hosted by Arielle Duhaime-Ross and produced by Jesse Alejandro Cottrell, Sophie Kazis, Jen Kinney, Janice Llamoca, Julia Nutter, and Sayre Quevedo. Our senior producers are Ashley Cleek and Adizah Eghan. Our associate producers are Steph Brown, Sam Eagan, and Adreanna Rodriguez. Sound design and music composition by Steve Bone, Pran Bandi and Kyle Murdock. Our intern is Leily Rezvani.
Our executive producer and VP of Vice Audio is Kate Osborn. Janet Lee is Senior Production Manager for VICE Audio.
Operation Underground Railroad has frequently shared stories of its missions. and their survivors, that are either wholly or partially false.
The group’s raids have been characterized by experts in the field as amateurish and often downright dangerous.
Recently, OUR has come under both federal and state investigation for a litany of crimes.
OUR has frequently used celebrity donors such as Tony Robbins and Glenn Beck to help market their work.
Read the transcript here:
ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Quick heads up: this episode discusses sexual violence and rape.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING]: Ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Rise Up for Children OUR gala.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING]: I stand here tonight beyond honored, not to just work for this organization, but to stand here on this stage and welcome this man to the stage. And I ask you: don't just welcome him, pray for him.
ANNA MERLAN: So what we're listening to is a live streamed fundraiser for a group we've been investigating for a few months now, called Operation Underground Railroad, or OUR.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING]: Ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor to introduce to you Mr. Tim Ballard.
ANNA MERLAN: It's run by this guy named Tim Ballard. He's the founder and sort of most recognizable face of the organization.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING] TIM BALLARD: We will go to the darkest places on this planet to find those in need. Our operators will do that. They are the heroes. They are the heroes and you are the heroes.
ANNA MERLAN: This is in November, well into the pandemic.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING] TIM BALLARD: Millions of children and women who are enslaved. We get to be part of finding these children, bringing them back to their families. We will never, ever give up.
ANNA MERLAN: OUR has become very popular by now. And they say that they raised a quarter of a million dollars during this fundraiser.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING] TIM BALLARD: There are literally millions of families, parents, mothers and fathers who do not know where their children are. This is what should be the headline every day until we have solved this problem. That is still our hope. That is still our prayer.
ANNA MERLAN: This group has gotten really big in the last couple of years, to the point where it really drew our attention. And as we started to dig in, we found that the stories that they tell about their work and these claims that they make about these international military-style rescue missions just don't hold up.
[MUSIC FADES, VICE NEWS REPORTS THEME]
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING]: Ballard has one mission: to track down child traffickers.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING]: They liberate enslaved children in countries across the world.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING]: Operation Underground Railroad has not only exposed the world of child sex trafficking, but has literally gone in to fight it.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING]: This little girl, and this is very typical: raped for money every day, 30 to 40 times a day. If that's not a crisis, if that's not an emergency, I don't know what is.
DUHAIME-ROSS: This is VICE News Reports, and I’m your host -- Arielle Duhaime Ross.
ANNA MERLAN: I’m Anna Merlan -- a senior reporter for VICE’s site Motherboard
TIM MARCHMAN: I’m Tim Marchman -- editorial director of Features at Motherboard
DUHAIME-ROSS: So Anna, Tim you two teamed up for the last, nine months or so right…
ANNA MERLAN: Yeah.
TIM MARCHMAN: Yeah.
DUHAIME-ROSS: ...to report on this group called Operation Underground Railroad. Can you just tell me first off, what is Operation Underground Railroad?
ANNA MERLAN: So, Operation Underground Railroad is a nonprofit foundation based in the U.S. It started up in 2013 with the mission to fight sex trafficking and specifically child sex trafficking all over the world.
TIM MARCHMAN: And they have grown a lot in the last few years, have become very high profile in fact. They’ve partnered with celebrities like Glenn Beck and Tony Robbins, the famous self-help guru.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING] TONY ROBBINS: It’s this army of men and women who are unbelievably dedicated and incredibly effective.
TIM MARCHMAN: Various actresses and athletes have also partnered with OUR to promote the organization. The coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING] MIKE TOMILN: What we do for a living is an awesome platform to help our community and our country come together.
TIM MARCHMAN: He’s supported OUR in the past.
TIM MARCHMAN: And in the last couple of years, they've gotten a lot more support as QAnon narratives about child sex trafficking have become increasingly prevalent.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING]: The conspiracy theory QAnon has cracked into the mainstream discourse…
DUHAIME-ROSS: So this might be kind of obvious at this point, but I'm sort of getting a conservative right-wing vibe from this group?
ANNA MERLAN: Yeah, that's true. But it actually has pretty broad appeal. The narrative they put out is that there is a huge problem in the world of child sex trafficking that they can fix directly. In the last tax records that are publicly available, OUR made $21 million in donations and grants in the year of 2019.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING] TIM BALLARD: If me and my team don’t find these kids, no one is going to.
ANNA MERLAN: What we found is that they are often selling a bill of goods that is not entirely accurate. And according to a lot of experts we spoke to, might even be contributing to the problem of trafficking.
DUHAIME-ROSS: Okay, so tell me more about what does practically speaking. What does it mean when they say that they fight sex trafficking?
TIM MARCHMAN: So OUR operates on what's called the “raid and rescue” model. People with experience in the military or in law enforcement go in and purportedly rescue victims of trafficking. That has been prominent since probably the early aughts.
TIM MARCHMAN: Part of the context for OUR is dating back to the George W. Bush administration. The U.S. government has been scoring foreign countries on how they fight against human trafficking. It's pretty serious. Foreign governments and foreign law enforcement agencies are definitely willing to jump through a lot of hoops to make sure that they hit the marks the State Department wants them to hit. And one of the ways, in some cases, they found themselves able to do so is by working with groups like OUR.
ANNA MERLAN: So we have reached out to OUR multiple times and asked for interviews with their founder, Tim Ballard, but they have declined these invitations. What they do say in their promotional materials and when Ballard speaks publicly is that these countries don't have the money to deal with trafficking or that there is just too much corruption in these countries to adequately address the problem. And that's why OUR was founded. And what they do is recruit volunteers, specifically they say they are looking for people with a law enforcement or military background, to be part of sting operations by OUR in foreign countries. They say that these volunteers will help arrest traffickers and rescue trafficked people in cooperation with local law enforcement.
DUHAIME-ROSS: For a volunteer job, that sounds pretty intense and sort of specialized.
ANNA MERLAN: Yeah, this is how they do their direct action work. And we know that this is how they do it because it's all on their YouTube page. I’ll show you.
[OUR OPERATIVES TALKING]
ANNA MERLAN: We're watching OUR operatives somewhere in Haiti, we're not sure where. And the video says they're training police officers. It shows them practicing with zip tie handcuffs, helping them aim guns. It's a little unclear.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING] OUR OPERATIVE: Perimeter one is gonna blow past the strike team.
ANNA MERLAN: OUR operatives scour the city in a va along with local law enforcement. They spot suspects, burst out and arrest them.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING] OUR OPERATIVE: Un, Deux, Trois… GO GO GO.
ANNA MERLAN: And at the end of the video, we see the blurred faces of what appears to be young girls. And the words appear on screen, “Now their healing begins.”
DUHAIME-ROSS: It really -- this feels like a trailer for a movie. And these sting operations that they're doing and then posting about online, this is all legal?
TIM MARCHMAN: So in terms of U.S. law, OUR and groups like it are acting as private citizens. If they act in concert with local law enforcement and foreign countries, and they're operating under local law in those countries. Then yes, everything's legal.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING] TIM BALLARD: Our operators and our aftercare teams are in the darkest corners of the earth all the time, doing heroic work.
TIM MARCHMAN: But OUR has faced criticism from experts we know for some time, that this “raid and rescue” style isn't as effective as they make it out to be. One first things we looked into what one of their most high profile cases involving a girl they’ve called Liliana.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING] FORMER PRESIDENT TRUMP: Well, thank you very much, everybody. We appreciate it. We're here to talk about human trafficking on the Southern border.
TIM MARCHMAN: In 2019, Tim Ballard, the founder of OUR, was invited to The White House to share Lillliana’s story.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING] TIM BALLARD: Thank you so much Mr. President. Thank you very much. One little girl I can tell you about, in fact, I introduced this little girl to Ms. Trump during a private briefing. This little girl was kidnapped in central America, 11 years old, groomed for two years, with the intent of getting her ready to come to America. They brought this little girl through part of the Southern border where there was no wall, easily got her to New York City. And this is hard to hear, but this is the truth and everyone needs to hear this. This little girl, and this is a very typical: raped for money every day, 30 to 40 times a day. If that's not a crisis, if that's not an emergency, I don't know what is.
ANNA MERLAN: Ballard tells this story on repeat in highlighting the need for the border wall. He’s delivered it in congressional testimony. He's written about it in op-eds. He's talked about it on the news. But the case is simply nothing like what Ballard says it was.
DUHAIME-ROSS: Wait, what do you mean by that?
ANNA MERLAN: So we found the court transcripts and records from the sex trafficking case that Liliana was involved with. We found in those transcripts and records that she is from Mexico, not Central America. She was 14, not 11 when she was trafficked. And she was not kidnapped. She came across the border willingly with a romantic partner.
ANNA MERLAN: The fact that she went willingly with a boyfriend speaks to the complicated nature of sex trafficking and how often people are victimized by people that they're in relationships with. It is a lot more complicated than being kidnapped. Ballard also asserts that OUR helped Liliana quote, “escape her hell.” He's used that phrase. But, as we found out through court testimony and transcripts, she rescued herself. No one had anything to do with it, but herself and her fellow survivors.
DUHAIME-ROSS: Okay, so OUR is misrepresenting what happened to Liliana. How did the organization respond when you asked them about this?
ANNA MERLAN: You know, we asked about these details and this story and they gave us two statements. In one they said that the organization is, “committed to supporting survivors in their healing process from sex trafficking, abuse, and exploitation.” And then they wrote in a separate statement that VICE’s “agenda-driven objective is to comb through years of information in an effort to find any, even minor, discrepancy, and to twist anything found into a negative portrayal of an honorable organization.”
TIM MARCHMAN: So, we published this information in our first story about OUR and right after that we started hearing from more and more people who had actually worked with and for them. And that changed everything for our investigation.
DUHAIME-ROSS: That's after the break.
[VICE NEWS REPORTS THEME]
DUHAIME-ROSS: Okay. So Tim and Anna, you started looking into this anti-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad to see what these operations were really like, right? Were they actually helping people out on these missions?
TIM MARCHMAN: So that's a really interesting question. After our first story, we heard from a lot of people who have worked with and for OUR .
TIM MARCHMAN: One of the most interesting people we talked to was a young man we’ll call William who was trained to do one of these missions.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] TIM MARCHMAN: So, we've agreed to keep some details about you not public. But, can you tell us a bit about yourself generally, who and where you are?
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] WILLIAM: Definitely. So I'm from Texas.
TIM MARCHMAN: So, William's not this guy's real name. Uh, we changed it to protect his privacy. He's concerned that if he speaks out about his experiences with OUR, supporters might, you know, harass him.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] WILLIAM: Religion was a big part of my life growing up. I was raised in a Southern Baptist home. I was an anti-human trafficking activist for quite a few years before actually getting involved with OUR.
TIM MARCHMAN: When he was a young guy, he was really concerned about the issue of sex trafficking. At one point, he found a video of Operation Underground Railroad that featured Tim Ballard and some of his operatives going to Haiti. And that struck William as the kind of work he wanted to be doing. So when he was quite young, he wasn't even old enough to drink, he applied to OUR. Much to his surprise, they actually bring him in.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] TIM MARCHMAN: How did it feel when you were accepted?
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] WILLIAM: It was great. It was one of the happiest days of my life. They were going to give me this world-class training because that's how they present themselves. It just felt like it would be a more proactive, a more direct way of helping the victims of human trafficking.
TIM MARCHMAN: He goes to this multi day training in 2018…in some generic hotel conference room in Idaho. And even though this training is purportedly led by people with a military background... William says the training consisted mostly of things you would do at summer camp
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] WILLIAM: But on the third day of the training, we had a scavenger hunt that we had to do.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] TIM MARCHMAN: A scavenger hunt?
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] WILLIAM: A scavenger hunt. A lot of our training really just consisted of activities that felt like they were for kids.
TIM MARCHMAN: And a lot of this doesn't make that much sense to William -- but he is going along with it until the last day, at a session with one of the head trainers. The guy in fact who is leading the training:
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] WILLIAM: He tells us about, you know, how proud he is of us and that we made it to the end and we should be proud of ourselves. He tells us he starts to tell us about how important it is that we represent OUR. And you know, the risks that can come with it. So he starts saying that they're an NGO, we're not a government agency. That means that if anything goes wrong, OUR gets shut down and you know, that's fair. Uh, but I don't know what he's referring to.
TIM MARCHMAN: Then, the trainer explains…
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] WILLIAM: So he says, “Gentlemen, we're all red blooded American males. We're visual creatures. So at any time you may feel tempted to do something with one of the women you need to tell us so we can get you out of there. Many men have come before and told me they feel tempted and then I respect them so much for it.”
DUHAIME-ROSS: All right. So, OUR is telling these recruits, who are there to help victims of sex trafficking...that it is possible they might feel attracted, to these women and children that they are supposedly saving?
TIM MARCHMAN: Exactly. Yeah. William's saying that according to this trainer for OUR, that there's a history of OUR volunteers going on these raids saying that they're tempted by, you know, women who are survivors of sex trafficking who they're supposed to be saving or rescuing. We asked OUR about this and the other claims William made and they did not respond.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] WILLIAM: It was such a jarring and shocking thing to hear from the people who were supposed to be rescuing victims that, “Oh, by the way, as an operative, you might exploit one of the victims.” I couldn't even wrap my head around it at the time.
DUHAIME-ROSS: I got to say, all of this really gives me the creeps. I also really don't like the term “tempted by” because that always makes me feel like it's actually the victim's fault, which iT’S clearly not.
TIM MARCHMAN: Right.
DUHAIME-ROSS: Okay. So William is done with the training. Does he actually go on a mission? Does he get into OUR?
TIM MARCHMAN: So, he was offered a spot on the jump team. He was very disillusioned, didn't want to, after having had that experience.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] WILLIAM: Not only did I feel I was extremely under prepared to go out as a private citizen with no training provided by OUR, what happened on that last day, just completely shattered my image of them. And it was just someone that I no longer wanted to align myself with.
TIM MARCHMAN: One of the things that we found really significant about William's story is that this is a group that talks up its macho military background. But, here they are, about to send a really inexperienced young guy out of the country to combat human trafficking and rescue kids, even though he doesn’t have any obvious qualifications and he clearly doesn't feel willing or ready to do this. It doesn't square with the narrative they tell about their expertise in this field.
DUHAIME-ROSS: So were you actually able to talk to somebody on the record about how these raids actually go down?
ANNA MERLAN: So yeah, we've actually talked to several people who have been on raids with OUR, but they are not people who can be recorded for the podcast. And then we met Meg Conley.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] ANNA MERLAN: Meg, thank you for being here, can you introduce yourself?
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] MEG CONLEY: Sure. I'm Meg Conley. I am a member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
ANNA MERLAN: And she wrote an essay for Slate about her experience going on one of these raids with OUR.
ANNA MERLAN: So back in 2014, Meg met Tim Ballard through the Mormon church. Her parents attended church with him. And one day, Tim gives Meg a call just out of the blue.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] MEG CONLEY: He talks on the phone like he talks in his fundraising videos, like he's very assured.
ANNA MERLAN: And, you know, he starts sort of telling her about how he started OUR, about how, you know, they're going to do this work and save these children that nobody else is willing to do.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] MEG CONLEY: He had read my work and really liked my writing and felt like I would be able to tell this story in a way that no one else could.
ANNA MERLAN: And then he asks her…
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] MEG CONLEY: Would I be interested in coming on a raid and writing about it so that people understood what work they were doing.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] MEG CONLEY: I had been writing in, I mean, I hate the term “mommy blog” because I think it is reductive, but I had been essentially a mommy blogger for a couple of years. AndI gained some readership especially within LDS spaces.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] ANNA MERLAN: And at the time, did you have any sort of interest or background in sort of anti-human trafficking, activism or work of that kind?
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] MEG CONLEY: No!
DUHAIME-ROSS: That seems like a really big jump from what essentially is a mommy blogger to hunting sex traffickers?
ANNA MERLAN: Yeah. But, you know, she said that she felt like this was a calling for a greater mission.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] MEG CONLEY: LDS women, until the nineties early 2000s were raised to be homemakers. And so I was making this home, uh, and not finding much meaning in it. My dad had died, and so I was in this deep grief. And so when Tim Ballard told me he'd been called by God to fight evil in the world. It felt like a work that I wasn't qualified to do, but I was qualified to witness and write about. By the time we hung up, I had committed.
ANNA MERLAN: Within just a few weeks and with the exchange of just a few emails between her and the OUR team, she's in the Dominican Republic on a sting operation.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] MEG CONLEY: Everybody is vibrating with this anticipatory energy. The atmosphere in the house was this Christmas Eve atmosphere. And that felt odd for me because I was afraid. And I also felt, worried for everyone because even if the raid went really well the next day, I knew I was going to see some people who were going to be arrested and then imprisoned, which is no small thing, no matter what a person has done. As I fell asleep that night, the jump team was loudly doing CrossFit by the pool as a way to get ready for the raid the next morning.
ANNA MERLAN: So this was the plan: someone on Ballard's team had convinced an alleged trafficker in the Dominican Republic to come to the house with as many kids as they could find.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] MEG CONLEY: Tim would give a signal for local law enforcement to raid the house.
ANNA MERLAN: So, Meg says that Tim had told them that once he gave the signal, everyone in the backyard would go upstairs until the raid was over.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] MEG CONLEY: And wait up there while the raid happened. It sounds like a movie, right? Like you're in this cut-rate, Jason Bourne movie.
ANNA MERLAN: And the whole thing is being filmed for a documentary, again, to raise awareness supposedly. And so they asked Meg to sort of help make the space kind of look authentic, like people were ready for a sex party.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] MEG CONLEY: They said, “We want it to look like a party. We want it to look like we, this is real. We're really expecting to have a good time today. Why don't you blow up some balloons?” It felt ridiculous even at the time. And this is when I still believed in what they were doing. And the party bus arrived. And the kids were sent out the back door and it was my job to greet them. The youngest ones looked like middle schoolers. Dressed the way that my twelve-year-old would dress if she was going to a pool party.
ANNA MERLAN: Remember Meg was there apparently to write about this raid, not be part of it.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] MEG CONLEY: I was told again and again that I would not be around, the actual raid while I was outside with the children, you know, just smiling and passing out chips and soda. Someone opens the back door, a jump team member and says, “Meg, Tim wants you inside.”
ANNA MERLAN: So she goes inside and Tim Ballard is inside with a group of men who she later finds out are the alleged traffickers. And she is there as Ballard counts out money onto a coffee table and then gives a signal for the raid to begin.
[SOUND FROM THE RAID]
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] MEG CONLEY: It's so chaotic and all I can think is like, “I wasn't supposed to be in this room.” And so I moved to the back door as quickly as I can. And when I open it, there's a man with a gun there and he's yelling at me to get down because I'm being arrested. And so I end up on the floor next to traffickers.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] ANNA MERLAN: So what's going through your mind?
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] MEG CONLEY: “What the fuck?”
ANNA MERLAN: OUR and a group tha helped them on this mission both claim the Dominican police did ultimately arrest seven people accused of sex trafficking, though we haven’t been able to independently verify that.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] MEG CONLEY: And then when the kids are led through the house, it's, you know, their bare legs and feet. And crying and you can hear them crying, even if you can’t see them cause you’re on the ground, because some of them had been in the pool as they're walking over me. Water is dropping onto my arms. but they’re also crying. And so you don't know whether the water is coming from their eyes or their bathing suit.
ANNA MERLAN: So OUR claimed that 26 people were rescued that day, 13 of whom were children. However, Meg asked people on the jump team where those 26 people were taken. So what she found out is that according to a local organization called the National Council for Children and Adolescents, it didn't have the capacity to actually take in those 26 women and girls who were rescued and they were actually released in less than a week.
DUHAIME-ROSS: So they set up a sting operation that they put together, and then they lose track of the children they supposedly saved?
ANNA MERLAN: Right, and in fact, this story actually brings up another issue. One of the primary criticisms of OUR that we've heard over and over from sex trafficking experts is that they may actually inadvertently be creating demand for these victims by showing up in developing countries and offering a lot of money in exchange for people bringing underage victims to them.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] MEG CONLEY: I was told on the raid that two of the kids were trafficked for the first time that day for this raid, which means that OUR created demand that was fulfilled.
ANNA MERLAN: OUR disputes this. They say that their operating procedures clearly state that “at no time are we to create demand for trafficking victims.”
DUHAIME-ROSS: But if this story is true, if that is the case in many instances, then they're actually creating the problem that they claim to be fixing.
DUHAIME-ROSS: How has OUR responded to Meg's claims?
TIM MARCHMAN: So, OUR didn't really push back on anything she was saying. What they did was put out a fact sheet. And they also put out a video where Tim Ballard, in a very aggressive and animated fashion , talked about how wonderful the operation had been.
[ARCHIVAL RECORDING] TIM BALLARD: Hey everyone, Tim Ballard here, founder of Operation Underground Railroad, super excited to talk about a case we did seven years ago in 2014, our first real functional year. It turned out to be really one of the most successful cases we worked, especially early on.
TIM MARCHMAN: But it turns out that this raid might be a huge liability for them. So we first learned back in October that a local prosecutor was looking into OUR to find out whether they had essentially defrauded donors. But since then, what we've learned is that the investigation is much, much larger. It's not just a local prosecutor who's involved. It's also the IRS, the Department of Homeland security, and the FBI. Among the matters being looked into are whether OUR operators have engaged in sexual acts with human trafficking victims, whether operators have been intoxicated while on missions, and whether OUR has committed human trafficking itself by enticing people who were not previously traffickers with large sums of money.
ANNA MERLAN: We’ve asked OUR numerous times for an interview with Tim Ballard and other executives, but they’ve always declined. They did give us a statement this past March which reads in part, “In carrying out its mission, OUR has sought to comply with all laws that regulate non-profits since its inception in 2013. We have remained highly focused on our financial stewardship of donor funds and being transparent about OUR's use of the great financial support we receive from our donors. If asked, OUR will cooperate fully with any official inquiry into its operations.” And, of course, in response to our reporting, they have denied any wrongdoing even as they continue to make claims about the way they save victims of trafficking that as we have been reporting, do not totally hold up to scrutiny.
ANNA MERLAN: But at the same time, there does seem to be a shift in understanding on this. There are several examples of former OUR people sort of publicly distancing themselves, not just from the group, but from the “raid and rescue” model overall. And there are more people, like Meg, who are speaking out and telling donors that this isn't the most helpful response if you want to stop trafficking.
[INTERVIEW RECORDING] MEG CONLEY: This isn't like Gotham and Ballard isn't Batman. Victims, and survivors need to be provided with a community and culture in which they can be found yes, and healed, of course. But, on terms that they determine, and in ways in which people like me are supporting them instead of supporting Ballard.
DUHAIME-ROSS: What are ways that have been proven to help people in sex trafficking situations? Because of course I totally understand why somebody would want to intervene or help victims in these situations, right? Like this is sort of unquestionably a bad thing that exists in the world.
ANNA MERLAN: What the experts have told us is that you help people bolster their livelihoods. You help people, for instance, figure out ways to earn money in their home villages so they don't have to leave home. And that work does not look like a Vin Diesel movie.
ANNA MERLAN: It is clear people are concerned about trafficking - whether that comes from Q-Anon or perhaps a genuine human rights mission. And people want a way to help. And so groups like OUR are gaining a lot of traction, because trafficking is a prominent issue. It has broad appeal as an issue in the world. But after talking to experts and people close to the group, what we found is that OUR is potentially contributing to the problem, not helping it. And that is not widely understood at all.
DUHAIME-ROSS: VICE World News asked Operation Underground Railroad about the allegations from William and from Meg Conley, but they didn’t get back to us. We should also mention that according to a source, one of their former backers, Tony Robbins has paused donations to OUR, pending the outcome of these reported federal and state investigations.
Special thanks to Tim Marchman and Anna Merlan. You can read more of their reporting at motherboard.vice.com.
VICE News Reports is produced by Jesse Alejandro Cottrell, Sophie Kazis, Jen Kinney, Janice Llamoca, Julia Nutter, and Sayre Quevedo. Our senior producers are Ashley Cleek and Adizah Eghan. Our associate producers are Sam Eagan, and Adreanna Rodriguez. Sound Design and music composition by Steve Bone, Pran Bandi and Kyle Murdock.
Our executive producer and VP of Vice Audio is Kate Osborn. Janet Lee is Senior Production Manager for VICE Audio. Production coordination by Steph Brown.
Our theme music is by Steve Bone.
From iHeart executive producers Nikki Eee-TOR and Lindsay Hoffman.
I’m Arielle Duhaime Ross. I know podcast hosts say this constantly but for real, please rate and review the pod. It really helps people find the show. VICE News Reports drops every Thursday, so be sure to check back in next week.