Claims of Utah group’s involvement in child exploitation investigations under scrutiny
Editor’s note: The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with the Salt Lake City Weekly, Standard-Examiner, Park Record and Daily Herald.
It’s been a year since news broke that Operation Underground Railroad, a Utah based anti-trafficking nonprofit that has gained international prominence, was under investigation by the Davis County Attorney’s office. But little new has come to light about the nature or scope of the probe.
The Utah Investigative Journalism Project, however, has pieced together clues from a variety of sources that the donation-rich nonprofit may be under scrutiny for exaggerating its role in law-enforcement crackdowns on child predators as a means of self-promotion and fundraising. It also had a special partnership with the Utah Attorney General’s Office that may have been exploited toward these ends.
From 2017 to 2020, Operation Underground Railroad (OUR) funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the AG’s office through its Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. While the donations were strictly for use in promoting the mental health of officers involved in investigating child predators and human trafficking, OUR claimed direct involvement in the arrests of perpetrators and said its collaboration with law enforcement enabled more than 200 investigations.
The Internet Crimes Against Children program (ICAC) is funded by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Created more than two decades ago to address the increasing number of kids and teens being exploited through the internet, the program works to help state and local law enforcement use technology-based investigations to prosecute child sex crimes.
The federal program provides financial and training support to dozens of local law enforcement agencies. It’s most recent reporting shows it has provided $1.2 million in funding to the Utah program, including $459,553 in 2019 alone.
OUR, meanwhile provided multiple donations to Utah’s program over the years, donating up to $250,000 yearly from 2017 to 2020, according to public tax records and the AG’s office.
Those OUR donations, however, were directed explicitly to fund an officer wellness unit and nothing else. The wellness program helps ICAC investigators by offering therapy and mental health services at no cost. Oftentimes, officers investigating these crimes see graphic images of child abuse, creating a mental strain and a need to process what they’ve seen during their work.
“We’d been approached by OUR to donate to our Internet Crimes against Children Task Force. We told them we’d be interested in that if the money could be used for the officer wellness program to extend it statewide,” said Leo Lucey, chief of the AG’s criminal/investigations division.
Started in 2013, the wellness program ran on a limited basis until 2017, as budget constraints meant only a few officers could avail themselves of its services. In 2017, though, the budget was expanded to $750,000 annually due to donations and its services were offered to all officers involved in ICAC operations.
Indications that the claimed extent of OUR’s involvement in the ICAC program might be questionable were first raised in an Instagram post by Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings. In a message posted before news broke of his investigation into the organization, Rawlings wrote: “Please beware of any individual, entity or organization who solicits your money and may be claiming credit for work to protect children that is actually done by our task force and/or other law-enforcement organizations in Utah and around the world. Get the details before parting with your cash. … They have had absolutely zero involvement in any of these arrests and successful prosecutions you see on display on the ‘Wall of Shame’ in the Davis County Attorney’s Office.”
OUR was never specifically named in that or other similar posts.
When the Utah AG’s office became aware that OUR was under criminal investigation, it terminated its financial ties to the nonprofit, spokesman Richard Piatt said.
It wasn’t the first time a law enforcement agency severed ties with OUR. Last year, the Washington State Patrol stopped accepting donations from the Utah nonprofit that had helped fund its controversial Operation Net Nanny stings, which resulted in the arrests of nearly 300 accused child predators but which critics accused of entrapment. When asked about OUR’s partnership with the Washington State Patrol, a spokesperson for the state agency told The Spokesman Review in May that, “it became increasingly apparent that OUR needed us more than we needed them. And they were using our success in the promotion of their activities.”
Extensive investigations by the news organization VICE have also sounded the alarm about OUR’s inflated claims of being at the forefront in the anti-trafficking fight and its integral collaboration with law enforcement. “What we found aren’t outright falsehoods but a pattern of image-burnishing and mythology-building, a series of exaggerations that are, in the aggregate, quite misleading,” VICE reported in December. More recently, VICE reported it had confirmed through anonymous sources that the Utah investigation by Rawlings had widened to include involvement by the FBI.
CharityWatch, a nonprofit formerly known as the American Institute of Philanthropy, downgraded its rating of OUR last year to a question mark based on reports of the investigation by the Davis County prosecutor.
’35 Rescued, 24 Arrested’
OUR appears to have used its partnership with the Utah AG’s office to make false claims about its involvement in ICAC, despite only donating to the officer wellness program.
In September 2017, OUR boasted on its blog that its assistance directly helped Utah’s ICAC Task Force in making arrests. The blog post states: “Support provided to Utah ICAC by Operation Underground Railroad within the last 3 months has led to the arrest of 7 more individuals for sexual exploitation of children involving the Internet.” OUR also claimed that the task force was able to initiate nearly 200 more investigations “due to our collaborative efforts in the past three months.”
In July 2019, the organization made similar claims in a blog post, saying its support of ICAC led to 10 arrests, 24 rescues and 55 investigations from January to April of that year.
When asked about the claims made by OUR, Piatt, the AG’s spokesman, said the office was not aware of them but acknowledged the agency did provide arrest statistics to the organization.
“OUR received quarterly statistical reports that showed the number of arrests,” Piatt told the Utah Investigative Journalism Project. “Since they had donated to the Officer Wellness Program, they were kept in the loop about what ICAC had been doing.”
Piatt explicitly stated that OUR had zero involvement in ICAC beyond its donations.
“They did not, and wouldn’t be allowed to participate in ICAC operations,” Piatt said. “One hundred percent of OUR’s donations were used for the Officer Wellness program. OUR was not part of active or day-to-day operations of ICAC in any way.”
Additionally, Piatt said that Attorney General Sean Reyes, who has been a vocal supporter of OUR, was on its advisory board and has participated in its undercover operations and fundraising, was “walled off” from the agreement and donations and had nothing to do with facilitating them.
Outside of the officer wellness program, Piatt said OUR did provide some training to the Utah ICAC task force. He said the organization brought in a guest speaker to a training for forensic investigations specific to ICAC work.
‘Transparency definitely helps’
Experts say public and private partnerships are not uncommon and they can be done ethically, though conflicts of interest can arise. David Buhler is a regents professor for the Political Science Department at the University of Utah and was formerly a state senator, executive director of the state Commerce Department and commissioner of higher education. He says when examining the general nature of private-public partnerships, it’s important to look at why an organization may be making donations.
“Look at the motives. Are they getting some gain?” Buhler asked. “Are they getting any kind of unfair benefit that isn’t available to those who aren’t participating?”
In OUR’s case, the nonprofit was provided investigation and arrest statistics from the AG’s office, which it used on its website to promote the organization and, likely, provided it a talking point for fundraising, which has exploded in recent years. OUR’s most recent tax filing showed it received $17.5 million in donations in 2018 alone.
Buhler, still speaking in generalities, said that conflicts of interest can especially occur if government regulators or law enforcement are involved.
“I think you have to look at the individual circumstances,” Buhler said, “particularly for agencies or offices that are involved in either regulation or law enforcement, then I think it can become more problematic. There’s some things you can do to safeguard, like having transparency definitely helps.”
Years before the AG’s office began accepting donations from OUR, auditors in Utah’s capitol were already blasting the lack of transparency in how the ICAC program was run and how money was spent. A 2015 budget report to the Legislature said there was insufficient accounting, making it impossible to verify that funds given were being spent correctly.
The report stated that accounting errors were due to “previous management” not wanting to reveal details of the ICAC program. It also said investigators weren’t reporting their time correctly while they worked on the task force. The report went on to say that neither personnel issues nor the fear of program transparency justified the accounting problem.
“This issue could indicate lack of strong overall management of these programs, and is a concern that needs to be addressed in the future,” the report said.
If the AG addressed the concerns brought up in the report, it’s unclear how, as financial information on the ICAC task force remains limited. In February 2018, Reyes came before Utah’s Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee to answer questions on his budget and potential cuts of state funding for an ICAC program meant to teach children internet safety. In the hearing, Reyes mentioned there were partnerships between the AG’s ICAC program and private companies but he didn’t go into detail. Reyes mentioned that ICAC partnered with Microsoft, Adobe and “many others.” OUR was never mentioned.
“Because of our private partnerships that we have, over $200,000 for our mobile forensic unit that helps our ICAC team was purchased,” Reyes said. He also boasted about the officer wellness unit, saying the AG’s office was able to secure funding for the unit without ever coming to the state for more money.
“We haven’t come to the state (for the officer wellness unit),” Reyes said. “We’ve been able to subsidize that.”
Aside from Reyes speaking about the ICAC budget in 2018, details about the nature of the unit’s funding was scarce or nonexistent. On Utah’s public-facing transparent budget portal, the task force has no information beyond its revenue and expenditures, making it impossible to discern how the office was spending funds it received from OUR or other private organizations. It remains unclear if the AG’s office ever informed legislators, the public or anyone else about the money it was receiving from OUR.
A public records request filed by the Utah Investigative Journalism Project seeking information on how much money the office received from OUR and written communications between the nonprofit and the state agency was denied by the AG’s office, citing the confidentiality of the ongoing investigation. OUR did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
After this story was published in a UIJP partner outlet, however, OUR provided a statement from its CEO Brad Damon:
“Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.) has been proud to partner with, and support the efforts of, Utah’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC). We remain appreciative of ICAC’s work to protect children and bring predators to justice. Throughout the years of our support for the Utah ICAC, we have been informed that our funding was being used for ICAC’s investigations that directly led to arrests and supported other important law enforcement functions. We respect that ICAC makes its own decisions on the use of its funding, including any appropriate mental health services to be made available for law enforcement personnel.”
The Utah Investigative Journalism Project is a nonprofit dedicated to supporting local media and providing important investigative reporting to our communities. To learn more, visit utahinvestigative.org.