Moderator Carl Quintanilla: “This is a company called Mannatech, a maker of nutritional supplements, with which you had a 10-year relationship. They offered claims that they could cure autism, cancer, they paid $7 million to settle a deceptive marketing lawsuit in Texas, and yet your involvement continued. Why?”
Ben Carson: “Well, that’s easy to answer. I didn’t have an involvement with them. That is total propaganda, and this is what happens in our society. Total propaganda. I did a couple of speeches for them, I do speeches for other people. They were paid speeches. It is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of a relationship with them. Do I take the product? Yes. I think it’s a good product.”
–Exchange at GOP debate on CNBC, Oct. 28, 2015
“I don’t have any formal relations with Mannatech. They [moderators] can easily find out that any videos I did with them [Mannatech] were not paid for, were things I truly believed. That would be easy to do. If they had another agenda, they could investigate and say, ‘See, there’s nothing there!’ But if they have a gotcha agenda, they conveniently ignore all the facts and try to influence public opinion.”
–Carson, news conference, Oct. 29, 2015
One of the buzziest moments of the CNBC debate was Carson’s rejection of his “involvement” with Mannatech Inc., a multi-level nutritional supplement company. A quick Google search surfaces Mannatech promotional videos featuring Carson, so it didn’t take too long for viewers to debunk his answer.
Mannatech and its co-founder in 2009 agreed to a $7 million settlement with the Texas attorney general over allegations that the company falsely marketed its dietary supplements as remedies for cancer and other serious illnesses. The company did not admit to wrongdoing.
Carson has blamed moderators for asking a “gotcha” question about his involvement with Mannatech. In a news conference the day after the debate, he acknowledged he appeared in promotional videos, but said that he was not paid for them.
The issue turns out to be more nuanced than Carson said during the debate, and how his critics have made it out to be in reaction to his debate comments. Let’s dig into the facts.
The veracity of Carson’s statement depends on how one defines “involvement,” “relationship” or “formal relations.” Does it mean direct payments from the company to Carson? Does it mean being publicly supportive of the company’s initiatives or products?
Carson has never been a paid endorser or spokesman for the company or its products, according to Mannatech. However, Carson has given glowing reviews of the company and his experience with the main ingredient in its products, glyconutrients, in paid speeches and unpaid testimonials.
In a January 2015 Newsmax interview, Carson said he gave a speech “10-plus years ago” and that he was not aware of the company’s legal problems in 2004. In the debate, Carson said he gave a “couple speeches.”
Carson delivered speeches at four Mannatech events — in 2004, 2011 and 2013. Mannatech donated to Carson’s nonprofit scholarship foundation, the Carson Scholars Fund, in lieu of a speakers fee for three of the events. In 2013, the company paid a speaker’s fee of $42,000, as per his agreement through the Washington Speakers Bureau, according to Mike Crouch, Mannatech’s director of communications.
“Dr. Carson has no direct association with Mannatech. He was never a paid endorser or spokesman for Mannatech. However, he is a current customer and has purchased Mannatech products on a regular basis for a number of years,” Crouch’s statement said.
Carson was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002, and had it surgically removed that year. In 2002 and 2003, he said in interviews that he had changed his diet significantly to include mostly organic fruits and vegetables. He found there was a “dietary connection to cancer rates,” especially of prostate and breast cancers. He became interested in how diet and stress affect people’s health, and the importance of preventive care rather than relying on surgeries to cure disease.
In his 2004 speech at a Mannatech event, Carson said he was introduced to glyconutrients through a patient after his diagnosis, and began taking the product. Glyconutrients are plant extracts that the company says are nutritious, natural and healthy sugars that boost the immune system. “Within about three weeks, my symptoms went away, and I was really quite amazed. And I actually toyed with the idea of not having surgery done,” Carson said.
But given his high profile, Carson said he feared his forgoing surgery would create “needless deaths” among cancer patients who followed his example to forgo surgery, but “may not be quite as diligent as I was about taking the product.”
“I do not advocate abandoning traditional medical cures that have been shown to work. What I would, however, advocate is using natural products to supplement what’s done by traditional medicine. The two things do not have to be adversarial. In fact, they can be extremely complementary,” Carson said in his 2004 speech.
“I’m not a Mannatech associate,” Carson continued. “I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to be one. I’m not a Mannatech spokesman. I don’t think that would be appropriate, either. I do refer people to appropriate people. I do not make any claims of being an expert in the area of glyconutrients. … I still take the products today, every single day. My wife takes them, too. We’re on a regular plan where we get our stuff every month.”
In his 2007 book, “Take the Risk,” Carson explains he believed after taking glyconutrients that he could manage or even cure the disease with nutritional supplements and a healthy diet. After surgery, Carson found out that his cancer was one millimeter away from his prostate gland and metastisizing throughout his body. Had he waited on surgery just a few months, he could have died.
Carson later filmed promotional videos without pay while he attended Mannatech corporate events, the company said. Carson campaign spokesman Doug Watts said the videos were to be used for internal and archive purposes, per the contract with the Washington Speakers Bureau. Mannatech removed videos ahead of Carson’s campaign announcement to comply with federal campaign finance regulations, the company said.
“Obviously, someone egregiously breached the contract,” Watts said. “The videos were part of his speech presentation. When we learned they were being used by distributors, we contacted Mannatech and demanded they be taken down. I believe they made best efforts to substantially comply, but there was not universal compliance.”
Some of these videos still exist on YouTube. In one, Carson gives a testimonial about the importance of nutrition and a healthy diet, and compliments Mannatech for its use of natural ingredients: “Basically, what the company is doing is trying to find a way to restore natural diet as a medicine, or as a mechanism, for maintaining health.”
In another, Carson talks about integrative health, nutrition and healthy diet with Mannatech’s co-chief executive and chief science officer. Carson talks about the benefits of glyconutrients and his decision to take nutritional supplements. He does not endorse a particular product in either clip.
Carson also appeared in a promotional video for the Mission 5 Million movement, a Mannatech initiative to donate nutritional powder to orphanages and relief organizations around the world through an affiliated non-profit. Carson praised the company’s social entrepreneurship, calling the initiative a “really crafty model” that encourages sales associates to create social change. Carson spoke at the launch event of this initiative in 2013.
Reg McDaniel, former Mannatech medical director who recruited Carson as speaker at Mannatech’s events, told The Fact Checker that distributors tried to convince Carson to give public endorsements for Mannatech’s products, but Carson refused.
When the National Review first wrote about Carson’s connections to the company in January 2015, Mannatech’s Web site had featured Carson in connection with its products, and carried a video of Carson promoting a PBS special on brain health and glyconutrients. The company told the National Review that some of the company’s independent distributors had sponsored Carson to be a speaker in the PBS special.
In an interview on CNN, Carson’s business manager Armstrong Williams claimed he had negotiated a contract on behalf of Carson for his video testimonials and the PBS special. But then he withdrew those comments in an interview with Breitbart News. Williams confirmed to The Fact Checker there was no contract for promotional videos or the PBS special, and that he had misspoken during the CNN interview.
In 2011, Carson claimed in a speech at a Mannatech event that the company paid a portion of the $2.5 million endowed chair in his name at Johns Hopkins University, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. When the Journal asked Johns Hopkins for the donor information, the school said it needed permission from Mannatech to do so. (The video of the 2011 speech was taken down after the Journal’s Oct. 5, 2015 article.)
The Fact Checker asked Mannatech to release its donation information to the school, and the company replied that there is “simply no record of Mannatech Inc., providing a donation to Johns Hopkins or Dr. Carson’s endowed chair at Johns Hopkins. If Dr. Carson said that Mannatech had provided a donation to his endowed chair at Johns Hopkins, he was mistaken.” Watts said Carson misspoke, as he was doing fundraising at the time for Johns Hopkins and had confused his information.
The Pinocchio Test
We have not found evidence that the company had a direct financial or contractual relationship with Carson, or that he was paid for the promotional videos. One speech earned a fee, and three resulted in contributions to a Carson charity.
Carson has minimized his role with Mannatech since the National Review began raising questions in January. That has contributed to the confusion over the details of his history with Mannatech. Initially, he said he gave a speech 10-plus years ago. During the debate, he said that he “did a couple of speeches” for the company. Eventually, after the debate, he acknowledged he also shot unpaid videos.
For 10 years, Carson has been a Mannatech customer and has spoken positively about the company, its initiatives, its philosophy and the main ingredient in its products, glyconutrients. He did not do formal endorsements. He can blame independent distributors for publishing the videos beyond their intended purpose, but he can’t claim it’s a “total propaganda” that he had ties to the company before and after the lawsuit.
We wavered between Two and Three Pinocchios. His initial answer at the debate was in the realm of Three, but his follow-up explanation acknowledging unpaid videos showed there was more than “a couple speeches,” as he said the night before.
Carson is using technical and legalistic language to distance himself from Mannatech. But the public isn’t necessarily looking for evidence of signed contracts between Carson and Mannatech or a “paid endorser” label. That puts him squarely in the Two Pinocchio criteria. Using the reasonable person standard, as we do at The Fact Checker, Carson clearly has had some “involvement” with the company — albeit an informal, unpaid one.
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