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Ted Cruz’s podcast partners with pastor who covered up sexual assault of teenager

A watchdog group filed an FEC complain against Cruz, alleging that his podcast violated campaign finance laws

By Jesse Valentine - June 05, 2024
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Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s podcast teamed up with a faith-based travel agency to offer listeners a guided tour of Israel. The tour was led by Chris Conlee, a pastor who admitted to covering up the sexual assault of a 17-year old girl.

Cruz co-hosts his podcast, Verdict with Ted Cruz, with radio personality Ben Ferguson. Starting in July 2023, Ferguson began promoting the Israel trip on the show. It was sponsored by Christian Expeditions, a travel agency that offers guided tours to sites of biblical significance.

“I got to tell you about an amazing trip that is coming up,” Ferguson said on an August 2023 episode. “And it is going to be so much fun, going with Verdict listeners to Israel, the cradle of Judaism, Christianity and many of the principles that we all hold dear as Americans … And you’ll do it all together with other Verdict listeners from around the country.”

The tour took place May 6 – 15. Accommodations started at $3,700 per person. Ferguson and Conlee both went on the trip. Cruz did not attend.

Conlee currently serves as the lead pastor of One City Church in Memphis, Tennessee. From 2002 to 2018, he was the lead pastor at Highpoint Church, also in Memphis. 

In Jan. 2018, Andy Savage, another pastor at Highpoint Church, confessed to having a “sexual incident” with a 17-year old girl in 1998, while he was serving as a youth minister at a church in Houston, Texas. Savage’s confession followed the publication of a blog post by the victim, in which she detailed how Savage coerced her into oral sex. Savage was 22 at the time of the assault.

Savage defended his conduct in an interview on Ferguson’s radio show.

“It was a very mutual, spontaneous, physical moment,” Savage told Ferguson. “Our hormones were obviously very much in that moment, and she performed oral sex.”

Conlee disclosed that he knew about the incident prior to hiring Savage. Following Savage’s confession, Conlee put out a public statement defending Savage and allegedly urged Savage to not resign. Both men were ultimately forced to step down over the incident in July 2018.

“In his own words from the pulpit in January, Chris Conlee disclosed he had known about Andy Savage’s conduct prior to inviting Andy to co-found or lead in Highpoint Church,” said Julia Dahl, another Highpoint Church co-founder. “With that knowledge, Chris elected to do nothing to protect that victim of sexual assault.”

The publication of a marriage advice book by Conlee was canceled as a result of the controversy. 

In 2019, it was rumored that Conlee was urged to resign in part due to him physically attacking a female staffer. Highpoint Church denies this.

Cruz’s podcast has come under fire for other business arrangements. It is produced by the radio conglomerate iHeartMedia.The company makes ad revenue payments to Cruz’s super PAC instead of Cruz himself, seemingly to circumvent laws that prohibit senators from having multiple income streams. The PAC has collected more than $630,000 as a result.

The arrangement could violate campaign finance laws. End Citizens United, a campaign finance watchdog group, filed an FEC complaint against Cruz in April.

Cruz told The Hill in Aug. 2023 that his podcast is intended to help his constituents.

“I’m not interested in being a pundit,” Cruz said. “But part of fighting successfully is communicating and explaining what the issues are that matter. So, I view the podcast as fulfilling one of the really important responsibilities of representing Texans.” 

Cruz is running for reelection to the U.S. Senate this year. His Democratic challenger is Rep. Collin Alred, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and a former NFL linebacker.


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