From a Ugandan jail cell to the Iowa presidential campaign, secretive evangelist Peter Waldron is no stranger to conflict.
Peter Waldron’s journey from a jail cell in Uganda to the inner circle of Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign in Iowa did not follow a straight line.
An evangelical missionary with a penchant for secrets — he was caught with an assault rifle in Africa and accused of being a spy — Waldron popped up in Des Moines in early 2011 to participate in the GOP primaries. He thought he’d be working for insurgent Republican Herman Cain. Instead, he met a tough-talking, born-again congresswoman from Minnesota whom he regarded as a kindred maverick spirit.
“From that point on,” Waldron said, “I was absolutely committed to Michele Bachmann.”
Waldron, 65, is now the man behind a pair of inquiries by the Federal Election Commission and the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, raising allegations of campaign finance violations that have given the four-term congresswoman more bad publicity than anything lobbed her way by the political left.
Close Bachmann associates write Waldron off as a loose cannon and disgruntled employee. But for Waldron, a former radio evangelist, his actions are consistent with his decadeslong mission to spread the word of God and follow his Christian precepts.
It’s a quest that has taken him to hot spots around the globe and left even his best friends and family often wondering what he’s up to.
If his 2006 arrest in Uganda on weapons charges sounds like it could have been a movie, it nearly was. A movie trailer for a planned film on the 37-day episode poses the same questions that have dogged Waldron for the past seven years: “Was he a spy? Was he a missionary? A businessman? A mercenary? A bounty hunter? Who was Peter Waldron? What did he know that risked the lives of his own family and friends?”
Waldron still won’t answer that question, citing a promise made to an unnamed person or persons more than 40 years ago. That was shortly after he got out of the Army and took a job with a contractor doing business in Beirut, then at the height of Lebanon’s civil war. The only suggestion from the movie trailer that Waldron specifically denies is that he worked for the CIA.
Waldron also claims to have provided “soft aid” to the mujahedeen guerrillas fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and raised money for the contras in Nicaragua, both semi-clandestine projects of the Reagan administration.
Back in the United States, Waldron ran afoul of some officials in Tampa, Fla., who questioned the effectiveness of a publicly subsidized youth charity he ran there in the 1990s.
Waldron’s political résumé begins with the Reagan campaign and stretches into the 1990s and 2000s, when he worked on the campaigns of Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush. In 1999, he worked on the short-lived presidential campaign of evangelical Christian Gary Bauer.
In 2002, he was off to help distribute antiretroviral drugs to HIV-infected patients in Uganda, a project that was in concert with George W. Bush’s emergency plan for AIDS relief in Africa. That’s where Waldron got involved with a group of Congolese soldiers he said were pursuing a $2 million bounty for Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a spiritually based cult that employed child warriors in a campaign of terror.
Kony was wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, though the organization has dismissed the notion of a reward for the guerrilla’s head. Waldron saw Kony’s capture as part of his Christian mission and freely admits to being in contact with Congolese soldiers who thought they had a bead on him. “My primary reason was to capture a murderer,” he said.
But that’s not the only thing that could have made the government of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni nervous. Waldron also was a frequent speaker at evangelical gatherings and was publishing a newsletter, the Africa Dispatch, which criticized the arrest of Museveni’s main opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, and chronicled the urban rioting that followed.
In February 2006, two days before the nation’s first multiparty elections in 25 years, Waldron was arrested in his rented compound, where Ugandan police said they found a cache of assault weapons and ammunition.
According to an account in the Daily Monitor, Waldron and several Congolese men were held in connection with illegally possessing guns, to which authorities added accusations of terrorism and anti-government propaganda.
According to Reuters, Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura, inspector general of police, told a news conference that Waldron was suspected of links to a group in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and that he “planned to set up a political party here based on Christian precepts.”
Waldron, on the advice of his lawyer, initially denied that there were any weapons. He now admits that he kept an assault rifle on hand for personal protection. “Who lives in a Third World nation without an AK-47?” he said.
Waldron says his 37-day confinement in Luzira Prison, in a suburb of the Ugandan capital of Kampala, was marked by harsh interrogation techniques he likens to “torture,” even though he has been advised not to use that word. “They were convinced I was a CIA spy sent to assassinate the president and overthrow the government,” he said.
A cause celebre
Waldron’s arrest made him a cause celebre in the Christian network back in the States. Among those who came to his defense was Twin Cities writer Dave Racer, who became Waldron’s de facto publicist, churning out news releases decrying the Ugandans’ “trumped up charges.”
Racer, who is also a close supporter of Bachmann’s, says he is now trying to stay out of their current campaign ethics standoff, which he calls a “sad thing.” But he says this about Waldron: “You wouldn’t think of Peter as your typical conservative evangelical pastor. He’s more a man of mystery and intrigue.”
By Waldron’s account, it took a call from President George W. Bush to get him out of jail. The Star Tribune has not been able to verify Bush’s direct intervention, but Racer and another associate who worked on his release say it was handled at the highest levels of government.
That associate is D.C. political consultant Bob Heckman, who had worked with Waldron on the Bauer campaign and kept high-level contacts in the Bush White House. Heckman is also the aide who brought Waldron into the Bachmann campaign in Iowa.
“Peter is a larger-than-life character,” Heckman said of Waldron. “I reached out to him because he is one of the best field people in the country. He’s as good as anyone I’ve ever worked with in interfacing with church leaders.”
Other Bachmann aides say Waldron’s role in her campaign has been overstated.
“He was just a contractor hired to do one little thing,” said campaign manager Keith Nahigian. “His only thing was minister recruitment and minister liaison, and while we had some ministers endorse, we had a lot of big ones not endorse.”
Also among Waldron’s critics is Bachmann debate coach Brett O’Donnell, a top campaign strategist whom Waldron accuses of having a “Rasputin-like” hold over the candidate.
O’Donnell, who went on to work for the Mitt Romney campaign, described Waldron as a “disgruntled employee” who apparently felt sidelined on the campaign.
Waldron’s complaint alleges that the campaign improperly dipped into money from Bachmann’s independent political organization, MichelePAC, to pay longtime fundraising consultant Guy Short and Iowa state campaign chairman Kent Sorenson for work they did on the presidential campaign.
Waldron and several other staffers also have had payments withheld until they sign confidentiality agreements. Campaign officials say such agreements are routine. They also have denied Waldron’s campaign finance allegations and raised questions about his motives.
Waldron’s backers, however, reject the narrative of Waldron as a marginalized campaign aide with a vendetta.
Prominent Nashville evangelist Paul Crites, who has known Waldron since his radio ministry days three decades ago, calls him an “old school” pastor who follows a clear moral compass.
“If you’re asking me about Peter Waldron,” Crites said, “I can tell you he’s an honorable man. But he walks to the beat of a different drummer. He’s devoted to the truth, so I’m sure he’s upset a few apple carts.”
Kevin Diaz • firstname.lastname@example.org