Holding Out Help, a Baptist “Mormon rescue” ministry in Sandy, Utah, may be in violation of their tax-exempt status as well as several statutes meant to protect victims’ rights. Tonia Tewell, Executive Director for Holding Out Help, began the organization in 2009 to provide “[s]upport for those that come from a polygamist community…” according to recent tax filings. Tewell’s ministry is currently tax exempt, which requires that “[t]he organization must not be organized or operated for the benefit of private interests” and "none of its earnings may inure to any private shareholder or individual.”
Some suggest Tewell’s organization is merely a front for forced religious conversions, which appears to be supported by statements from Tewell’s associates. Pastor Ben Heile, a Holding Out Help supporter, was quoted in 2019 saying, “[t]he desire to engage this community and reverse that curse [of their plural family] is what we’re called to in Christ.” Additionally, Tewell associate Ron Clement stated, “[w]e do share Christ with [the plural community] intentionally.” Some from the plural community claim extreme tactics are used by Tewell and her organization to influence vulnerable individuals to leave their plural communities.
Recent tax filings suggest Tewell’s ministry has become very lucrative in recent years with only a small fraction of the tax-exempt proceeds going toward the organization’s stated purpose. In 2021, Holding Out Help received over $1.4 Million in contributions and grants, $175k of which were from government funding. However, only $30k of those funds were paid for “subsistence assistance” to 225 recipients, an average of $137 per recipient.
These numbers suggest only 2% of tax-exempt funds going to Holding Out Help actually went to the subsistence of the victims Tewell claims to be supporting.
Similarly low percentages of subsistence payouts appear in Holding Out Help’s tax fillings for 2020 (7%), 2019 (4%) and 2018 (8%).
Besides the issues that appear in Tewell’s tax filings, other activities may also be cause for concern.
As has been previously reported to DCCSOCIETY.ORG, emails and text messages between Tonia Tewell and SCSB Executive Director Jennifer Lambert suggest Tewell produced an alleged victim who was a minor to Lambert in a zoom meeting. Tewell refers to the child as “[m]y new kid,” abusing her duty to protect the victim’s confidentiality. In another instance, Tewell discusses details of photos and audio recordings of an alleged victim of domestic violence in an email to Lambert, appearing once again to violate Holding Out Help’s eligibility requirements to receive government funding.
Maintaining confidentially and trust is vital when it comes to victim’s rights. Many vulnerable individuals do not have enough information to know the difference between real and predatory help organizations.
Follow the money
Preying on young people leaving plural communities and sensationalized TV programs featuring polygamist culture can be big business, yet there is very little public awareness to counter the exploitation from predatory organizations masquerading as victim’s advocates.
In a 2019 article titled, "Escaping the Perils of Sensationalist Television Reduction", Michelle Mueller, Ph.D discusses the recent popularity and public fascination with polygamist and plural family culture in reality TV. One of the sources for Mueller’s article discusses the now defunct "Escaping Polygamy" series saying, “[t]he show falsifies events… and focuses on the most culturally shocking aspects in order to provoke moral outrage in the audience.” The show’s producers “[took] advantage of vulnerable young adults, encouraging them or even bribing them to leave their families and religious groups.” Another source in the article describes individuals being paid “$5,000 per episode” to participate in the TV production.
At the time of Mueller’s publication in 2019, RIVR Media, the producers of “Escaping Polygamy,” had a link to Holding Out Help on their “casting call” webpage, indicating a potentially close relationship the production had with Tewell’s organization.
In a more recent project, Ian Lake, one of the trustees for Holding Out help is credited on Netflix’ docu-drama "Keep Sweet; Pray and Obey". When reviewing the show, RogerEbert.com asks the question, “[w]hen does a true crime documentary cross the line between telling a story, and exploiting it? “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey” unintentionally raises that question…”
Holding Out Help recently hosted a meet and greet fundraiser for Keep Sweet producer Roger Hoole and other cast members on March 10, 2023. The production timeline of Keep Sweet also appears to coincide with a massive influx of revenue Holding Out Help received in 2021, going from their seven-year average of $336k per year, to over $1.4 Million in a single year. Although the exact source of the tax-exempt revenue is unclear, it may suggest Holding Out Help is using their organization to exploit potential victims who are leaving the plural community as source material for TV productions.
Additionally, it appears Tonia Tewell is working on a new docu-drama exploiting DCCS members. In text messages to SCSB Executive Director Jennifer Lambert, Tewell states, “[w]e’ve also been filming a documentary on this whole mess quietly!” Tewell links the production to a civil lawsuit when she mentions lawyer-turned-producer Roger Hoole and Jaclyn Robertson by name. Informants suggest producers for the new production are once again offering to pay some individuals, this time up to tens of thousands of dollars to be involved as plaintiffs in civil lawsuits that may be tied to their TV productions.
It may be difficult to understand why the issues surrounding “Mormon rescue” organizations has not received more scrutiny. One potential reason the media has not reported on the alleged corruption could be the apparent relationship shared by Tonia Tewell and Fox13 news reporter Adam Herbetts. In text messages to Lambert, Tewell frequently refers to her connection to Herbetts saying, “[s]hould I see if Adam Herbetts will follow it?”, “I sent it to Adam, he is going to try to follow the money” and “I’ll call Adam & see if he can help.”
The silence of Herbetts and other media outlets regarding these issues suggests a reluctance to jeopardize the close relationships they may have with these organizations.
All data cited in this article is public record.
If you feel you were a victim of Holding Out Help or similar “Mormon rescue” organizations; or if you believe money you donated to Tonia Tewell or Holding Out Help was spent inappropriately, please send your story to DCCSOCIETY.ORG and / or contact the IRS to file a complaint.
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