Mormon Political Donors Helped Fund PBS Series

Posted May 1, 2007 at 6:52pm

A public television series on Mormon history that aired this week received some of its financing from a handful of politically active former Mormon church officials, including a member of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s fundraising team.

The Public Broadcasting Service series, “The Mormons,” which aired Monday and Tuesday night on local PBS affiliate WETA, was produced jointly by Frontline and American Experience. According to a PBS spokeswoman, 80 percent of the budget for the series, which was produced by famed biographer Helen Whitney, came from the taxpayer-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Frontline’s usual corporate sponsors.

The remaining 20 percent of the series’ undisclosed budget, PBS spokeswoman Carrie Johnson said, came from foundations and individual donors such as Blake Roney, chairman of Provo-based skin care products manufacturer Nu Skin Enterprises, and a member of Romney’s Utah state finance committee.

The series, which generally portrays the Mormon church in a favorable light, aired at a time when polls and pundits indicate Romney’s presidential campaign may not be able to overcome voters’ lack of familiarity with the Mormon faith. The series included segments on polygamy and some other controversial aspects of the church’s history.

According to campaign finance records, Roney has given almost $75,000 in federal campaign contributions to federal and state campaign accounts in recent years, much of which went to Republicans and federal candidates affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the mainline Mormon church based in Salt Lake City.

During the past decade, Roney has given more than $15,000 to Mormon lawmakers Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah). Roney, a former Latter-day Saints official, and his family have contributed to Romney’s presidential campaign war chest and his political action committee, doling out roughly $9,000 in the past two years, according to an analysis of campaign finance documents.

Steven Lund, Nu Skin’s vice chairman — a former LDS church official who also funded the PBS series — has given only sparingly to political causes in recent years, contributing $2,100 to Romney in January.

Sterling Colton, who was president of the Mormon temple in Bethesda, Md., from 1999 to 2002, also cut a check for an undisclosed amount to underwrite the PBS series, according to a donor list obtained by Roll Call. Colton has contributed more than $9,000 to Romney, Hatch and Mormon Sens. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah).

Also donating to the program was Peter Huntsman, head of a plastics manufacturer and brother of Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) — who is a Mormon — and the J. Willard & Alice S. Marriott Foundation, the family charity of the prominent Mormon hotel family.

As of Roll Call’s deadline Tuesday, the mainline Mormon church was withholding official judgment on the series until its second of the two parts had aired Tuesday night, LDS spokesman Michael Otterson said. But the series was promoted prominently on the church’s Web site this week, however.

“This is a very thoughtful series,” Otterson said. “I’m sure there will be members that dislike it intensely. I’m sure there will be members that think it is awful. As far as any institutional reaction, we’re going to wait and see both parts and see what church leaders think of it.”

Robert Millet, a religious studies professor at LDS-affiliated Brigham Young University who had seen the entire program before Tuesday, suggested that overall the response to the series likely will be mixed.

“I have to realize the persons who did it were not LDS,” said Millet, who previously worked as a church official with Roney and Lund. “I appreciated the opportunity to allow some of the Latter-day Saints to do the talking. More time was spent on some things than I think would be appropriately representative of the faith.”

“Given that it’s a PBS documentary, we can’t expect it to be a PR push for Mormonism because we would’ve done some things differently,” he added.

Millet said that Romney’s Mormon faith, which polls suggest may be tough for the former Massachusetts governor to overcome, presents a potentially sticky proposition for the LDS church and its officials, some of whom may need to balance their support for his nomination with federal laws barring religious groups from becoming overtly political.

“The church walks an interesting line,” Millet said. “While clearly there are a lot of [LDS members] who look seriously at the possibility of Mitt Romney getting the Republican nomination, the church has to keep a very clear political neutrality.”

Romney’s campaign declined to comment on the series and its funding, other than to confirm that Roney is a member of the candidate’s Utah fundraising team.

Johnson and other PBS officials staunchly defend the broadcaster’s decision to accept donations from politically active Mormon officials. PBS confirmed that officials looked into the matter before the series aired, claiming that Roney and Lund made their gifts two years ago and that the series adhered to restrictions on the mingling of donors and editorial content.

“PBS reviewed the funders of ‘The Mormons’… and found them acceptable under our policy-based tests for determining the acceptability of program funders,” according to a PBS statement. “More than 80 percent of the budget … was provided by the regular series funders.

“The project did not receive any funds from the Mormon Church itself,” PBS’ statement said.