On Tuesday March 14th, a group of former and inactive Mormons—who have leaked dozens of internal documents exposing the inner workings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—sent a legal letter to the LDS Church warning that MormonLeaks has no intention of ending their crusade for transparency.
Since launching in December, MormonLeaks has published a steady stream of controversial internal documents that have drastically altered how many Mormons view the secretive, gerontocratic governing body of well-paid Apostles and prophets who oversee the business dealings and dogma evolution of the LDS Church.
Their unlikely hero is Marc Randazza, a troll-spirited Las Vegas-based attorney whose private office has been used for porn shoots. He provides First Amendment counsel to adult entertainment companies, the Muslim American Women’s PAC, and alt-right bloggers. “I am agnostic about my clients’ views,” he told Gizmodo.
“I imagine that if you believe in a divine being, you believe that this being can see what is happening behind closed doors—no matter who is in that meeting,” Randazza’s letter reads. “If that being can see it, then why not all of its children?”
The letter was a response to a takedown notice the Church issued earlier this month after MormonLeaks published an internal PowerPoint made for senior Church leaders showing the people, organizations, and ideas that are leading members away from the Church. Ex-Mormons have even been referring to it as the “enemies list” in forums and on podcasts.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) notice requested MormonLeaks remove the documents on the basis that they are copyrighted and not authorized for distribution by the intellectual property owners. Randazza’s letter warns if the Church continues to press the copyright claim, MormonLeaks will file a claim against the Church under a statute of the DMCA, which penalizes wrongful takedown notices.
Members of the MormonLeaks board aren’t sure why this leak, their 66th document posted on MormonLeaks.io, is the one that drove the Church to take action. They have theories. For instance, one slide of the presentation reads like an “enemies list” and includes excommunicated Mormon podcasters and bloggers who have criticized the Church and advocated for LGBTQ and gender equality within the institution. Or maybe this was just the first document that the Church could finally make a copyright claim on. (The LDS Church declined to comment on this story.)
One page of the presentation shows 17 bubbles positioned on a spectrum from “far left” to “far right.” The most leftist influence, according to this infograph is the feminist group Ordain Women, a group dedicated to gender equality in Mormonism—a radical notion within an organization whose leadership is literally called the “patriarchal order.” On the right, there are the false prophets and end-time preppers. In the middle lies lies “lack of righteousness” and “pornography.”
But Randazza, who penned the unorthodox response letter, said MormonLeaks has a right to publish any LDS Church document they receive lawfully since the Church operates like a multi-billion-dollar corporate conglomerate that influences public policy. “My client obtained this document lawfully and had a right to distribute it in its capacity as a journalistic resource devoted to discussing facts about the LDS Church,” the letter reads.
Mormons are expected to tithe ten percent of their income to the Church, which claims 15.6 million global members. About half of those members live in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, 1.6 percent of Americans are Mormons. That is a sliver of the population, but it is only slightly smaller than the percentage of Jewish Americans—1.9 percent. In Utah, more than half the population is Mormon. No other religious denomination claims such a high percentage of souls in any one state. The Church earns around $7 billion per year from tithings, according to a 2012 Reuters investigation. And that doesn’t even include the earnings from the multiple for-profit arms that manage offices, residential buildings, shopping malls, farms, and ranches. Control of how that money is spent ultimately lies in the hands of the Church’s governing bodies, the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and the President and his two counselors.
But many of those members are extremely misguided on how their money is spent and how their leaders are compensated, according to Bill Reel, an active Mormon who interviews Mormon scholars and authors on his podcast Mormon Discussions. Reel attends services weekly but promotes “healthy changes” within the Church. He’s concerned MormonLeaks could potentially encourage people to break laws and nondisclosure agreements, but he’s impressed with the impact the organization has made in just a few months.
“The Church has tried throughout our history to paint it as if the leaders have gotten paid nothing,” Reel told Gizmodo. “And when they have mentioned getting paid, it’s just a small, modest living stipend. What we’ve come to find out because of MormonLeaks is that these guys get a base salary of $120 thousand.”
When Ryan McKnight, founder of MormonLeaks, received the financial documents right after launching MormonLeaks, he knew the project would soon become the bane of the LDS Church. “I was shocked. I never really imagined we would get that kind of documentation so early on,” McKnight said. “My heart was racing thinking about the implications of publishing that.”
This wasn’t McKnight’s first experience leaking sensitive Church information. In November 2015, he played an integral part in leaking a new Church policy that barred children of same-sex parents from blessings and baptisms. The controversial rule inspired thousands of Church resignations. Last October, McKnight published 15 videos given to him, which showed the top Church leaders discussing politics, marijuana, same-sex marriage, and (ironically) whether “WikiLeaks or a group like WikiLeaks could embarrass or damage the Church.” After watching a presentation on the threat of leaks, the leaders only asked questions about the sexuality and corruption of Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, and the “homosexual agenda” of the media reporting on leaks. One video, from 2009, shows former Senator Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, telling the leaders he voted in support of the Iraq War because he thought it could open up the Middle East to Mormon missionaries.
After the videos received national media attention, McKnight got a barrage of messages from current and former Church employees who wanted to share information and tips, so he decided to create a secure site where people could send him documents. He put out a call on /r/exmormon, a subreddit with nearly 40 thousand subscribers, for help building a secure anonymous submission site. Several cybersecurity professionals approached him, but after vetting everyone, McKnight chose to work with a man who uses the pseudonym Privacy P. Pratt (a reference to Parley P. Pratt, a celebrated early leader of the Church, who was the great-great-grandfather of Mitt Romney and the great-great-great-grandfather of Jon Huntsman Jr.). He built the MormonLeaks site using SecureDrop, the same anonymous information-sharing platform The Washington Post, The Guardian, and Gizmodo Media Group use.
“I’ve always hated the government having control over my life and I think whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning are heroes,” Privacy P. Pratt told Gizmodo. “But when I was in the Church, I didn’t realize religions can have just as much hold over people’s lives as the government can. I hope we’re pioneers for other religious institutions.”
Scott K. Fausett joined the Mormon Leaks team next, becoming the vice president. Fausett is still a member of the Church and hopes the leaks will encourage senior leaders to be more transparent. As a gay man with three children, he was especially disheartened by the leaked policy change regarding children of same-sex parents. Fausett recalls his bishop and stake president (local leader) telling him when he was a child that he could be cured from his homosexuality so long as he went on a mission, married a woman in the temple, and had children. Fausett has since realized that was bad advice and is no longer married. He wants his children to grow up in a more accepting, healthier Church than the one that raised him. “We are not out to destroy the Church. We are out to create a more open environment,” Fausett said. “We’re also not encouraging people to do anything illegal. We’re not asking them to break into filing cabinets. We’re just providing an avenue for people who may already have information to share.”
So far, MormonLeaks has published pay stubs, financial reports, budgets, public relation memos on the 2002 Olympics in Utah and a book about a historic mass slaughter committed by a Mormon militia, and the “temple ordinance” and posthumous baptism of 17 public figures including Bob Marley, Albert Einstein, Adolph Hitler, and Sacajawea.
Many of these leaks garnered regional and religious media attention, but the LDS Church remained relatively silent—until March 1 when their intellectual property office sent a letter to McKnight and Fausett asking them to remove an eight-slide presentation allegedly shown to Church leaders in December 2015. The Church succeeded in having the third-party upload service remove the PowerPoint, but not before several other people had copied the document and spread it around the internet.
MormonLeaks then enlisted the legal assistance of Randazza, who has built a reputation as the Saul Goodman of the First Amendment. The attorney has represented adult entertainment sites like Milf Hunter, Bang Bus, and Kink.com. He crowdsourced an investigation on the person behind a revenge porn site. To prove that Klingon is a “living language” that can’t be copyrighted, Randazza wrote portions of a brief in the fictional alien language. After infamous pickup artist Julien Blanc sued 8chan for criticizing him because he told his clients to grope Japanese women, Randazza, representing 8chan, wrote the most 8chan legal rebuke imaginable:
I would like to offer a bounty of $5,000 to anyone in Tokyo who beats the bejesus [out] of your client, as long as the ass whuppery results in his hospitalization, and it is in response to him assaulting a Japanese woman (double the pledge if it is the woman herself who puts him in the hospital). This may seem extreme, or even cruel. But, Mr. Blanc could use his magic white guy power to heal himself, and then turn into Mazinga, and then blast the assailant to kingdom come. Mazinga is wicked bad ass, and he can totally fuck shit up.
Randazza’s statement to the LDS Church isn’t as irreverent as some of his past viral antics, but it’s probably one of the more surprising letters they’ve ever received, as it praises their tolerance of the “The Book of Mormon” musical written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone:
I found the LDS church’s reaction to The Book of Mormon, the musical, to be inspiring in the context of religious tolerance/intolerance of free speech. Where most religions react to mockery with anger, and sometimes even violence, the LDS Church embraced what others might have considered to be an insult. (If you are unfamiliar, the LDS church purchased an ad in the Parker & Stone production’s playbill). There is no better way to demonstrate the strength of your beliefs than to tolerate criticism and mockery of them.
“I’m as diehard of an atheist as you’re going to find. But I’ve had an outsized amount of respect for the Mormon Church since I saw ‘The Book of Mormon,’” Randazza told Gizmodo. “You’ve seen my more bombastic shit. Julien Blanc was a lot of fun. But I’m more proud of my work when I can be a peacemaker rather than a sword-rattler.”
The letter also suggests that the Church’s efforts thus far have only created a Streisand effect:
You should understand that even if my client were to never lay eyes or fingers upon it again, it would still be disseminated worldwide. You tried to blow out a single candle, but in the process, you knocked it over into a field of dried leaves. You may have extinguished that initial flame. However, your attempted censorship simply caused the document to be further reproduced and redistributed that even a hypothetical divine being could not possibly undo the dissemination... In short, your efforts so far have backfired. Further efforts will backfire more.
The attorney believes this somewhat restrained (for him) response will keep the Church from meddling with MormonLeaks. But the people mentioned in the PowerPoint know that the Church hangs on to grudges. John Dehlin was excommunicated in 2015 largely because of his popular podcast, Mormon Stories, in which Mormons discuss struggles with their faith. Since then, he has only become more influential in the ex-Mormon community. “On the one hand being in that document was a badge of honor showing that I’m having a big impact. On the other hand, the fact that they’re running around smearing my name is deeply troubling,” Dehlin said. “All I do is help people tell their story. If that makes me an enemy of the Church then that’s really bizarre. What their PowerPoint doesn’t mention is their misogyny, their homophobia, their deception at hiding their own troubling history. It doesn’t show any self-awareness that they’re actually causing their own demise. And they want to blame the messengers.”
On the far left side of the slide’s social spectrum is Ordain Women, a group started by Kate Kelly in January 2013. In June 2014 she was tried and convicted of apostasy, and excommunicated. When she prepared her defense, she had to use a leaked copy of the Mormon Church Handbook that was published by WikiLeaks in 2009, because women aren’t permitted to see the manual. “I’m not allowed to put my female eyes on this official Church handbook,” Kelly said. “That’s why MormonLeaks is particularly important to women—women have the least access to the back operations of the Church.”
As far as the board for MormonLeaks is concerned, disenfranchised Mormons will continue to have more access to Church documents, even if they’re chipped away leak-by-leak. Over the weekend, they set up private servers in Switzerland and have re-published the full PowerPoint. “If the Church wants to stop us they’ll need a court order. We’re not going to take their attempts to shut us down without a fight,” McKnight said. “There is only one easy way for them to shut us down and that would be for them to agree to be open and transparent in regards to their corporate finances and procedures. But I don’t expect that to happen.”