Tim Ballard, founder of Operation Underground Railroad, has quietly parted ways with the controversial anti-trafficking group. The news comes as Sound of Freedom, a heavily fictionalized depiction of Ballard’s work for a division of ICE and his early career as a private anti-trafficking operator, continues to draw at the box office. The movie has brought in just under $50 million, largely on the strength of a marketing campaign encouraging religious audiences to not only attend the movie but “pay it forward” by buying tickets for other people, bringing unprecedented attention to both Ballard and OUR.
In recent days, sources with knowledge of OUR began to tell Motherboard that Ballard had left the organization. By one account, he’d gone to donors in a state of upset, saying that he’d been forced out and asking for their help with a new organization. Another person who’s worked with the group said that to the best of their knowledge, he was no longer with OUR and was focusing on his work with the Nazarene Fund, a Glenn Beck-backed organization that has focused on religious minorities in the Middle East but has more recently operated in Afghanistan and Ukraine. A third person familiar with OUR fundraising said that they had heard just this week that Ballard had broken with the organization.
In a statement, an OUR spokesperson said, “Founder, Tim Ballard has recently stepped away from Operation Underground Railroad prior to launch of the film, ‘Sound of Freedom.’” They added, “Matt Osborne continues to serve as the President and COO of the organization.” On LinkedIn, Osborne is listed as having served as the president and COO since February 2023, six months ago.
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Ballard has made no mention of his departure from OUR as he began a one-man press tour focused on the film and the Jim Caviezel-played character based on him. In recent days, he’s been interviewed on Fox News, telling Jesse Watters that criticism of the film by mainstream media outlets was playing into the hands of pedophiles, and by the New York Post, where he said “enforcing the border” is “the only compassionate thing to do if you care about children.” (Ballard has long claimed that a porous southern border leads to sex trafficking of children, a view not shared by most experts in anti-trafficking work.)
On his program, Watters introduced Ballard as the founder of the Spear Fund, a new organization that has not previously been mentioned. A barebones website for the Spear Fund lists Ballard as a co-founder along with a woman named Jessica Munoz, whose LinkedIn says she is an emergency medicine nurse practitioner in Hawaii. Ballard’s biography on Instagram—the platform he’s most active on—describes him as OUR’s founder and the current CEO of the Nazarene Fund. Though the website has few additional details—a description reads only, “The SPEAR Fund relies on experts in the field of anti trafficking to consult on its many projects”—a donation page is already active.
Ballard—who was appointed by the Trump administration as co-chair of the Public-Private Partnership Advisory Council to End Human Trafficking, a group tasked with advising the federal government on anti-trafficking policy—has long been a highly controversial figure. A variety of lurid stories he’s told about his and OUR’s improbably cinematic exploits have turned, on closer inspection, to not be accurate, and the organization was the subject of a protracted criminal investigation examining, among other things, whether OUR operators engaged in sexual acts with human trafficking victims; whether OUR operations had created demand for trafficking victims; and whether OUR has committed human trafficking itself by enticing people who were not previously traffickers with large sums of money. That investigation ultimately closed without charges being brought, but did real damage to the organization’s image with donors, according to multiple sources who have spoken with VICE News over the past three years. OUR nonetheless raised tens of millions of dollars each year, based largely on Ballard’s image and reputation and that of the supposed “jump team” which OUR claimed went abroad to enact daring raids and rescues of trafficked women and children.
In recent years, Ballard has firmly established himself in the right-wing media ecosystem, and Sound of Freedom has provided him a fresh opportunity to promote his brand as the leading authority on sex trafficking to new audiences. OUR referred further questions to a media contact for Ballard, who’s also listed as a spokesperson for Angel Studios, the force behind the distribution and marketing of Sound of Freedom; that person did not immediately respond to a request for comment.