Senator Grassley and the Televangelists

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When Senator Charles Grassley, then chair of the Senate Finance Committee, decided to examine issues in charitable accountability back in 2004, the entire nonprofit sector sat up and took notice.  National nonprofit trade associations made strenuous efforts to make nice and cooperate, while behind the scenes they grumbled at the prospect that Grassley and his staff might look at scandals at the United Way, the Nature Conservancy, and elsewhere and generate corrective laws and regulations.  Independent Sector, a nonpartisan coalition of approximately 600 charities, foundations and corporate giving programs, convened a highly publicized national panel to demonstrate the value of self-regulation and fend off legislation.  They succeeded in fending off new legislation, but the sector’s self-regulatory track record is a mix of hits and misses.

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Now no longer the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Grassley is no less concerned about protecting the charitable contributions of U.S. taxpayers.  In 2007, he launched a review of six televangelists to determine exactly how they were protecting the interests of taxpayers and the public at large.  His inquiries prompted a raft of challenges that he was trying to pierce the wall between church and state, that he was drawn by unknown unsavory reasons to attack these men and women of the cloth, that he is always hot to trot with new laws and regulations that would cause more damage than they would alleviate harm.  Although he could have dropped the inquiry and turned it over to Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, Grassley persisted despite opposition and obstruction from the televangelists and their supporters.  Earlier this month, he issued several reports detailing some eye-popping uses of tax-exempt funds by these religious leaders. 

The reports read like dry accounting documents, but reveal stunning expenditures by some of the nation’s most visible and prominent televangelists.  Most religious leaders couldn’t and wouldn’t fathom the kind of personal excesses the targets of Grassley’s probe apparently relished, with little concern for disclosure or explanation to the Internal Revenue Service or their charitable donors.  The televangelists in question might have been channeling Burt Lancaster’s performance as Elmer Gantry as they used their charitable recompense to finance their ostensibly religious programs and their lavish personal and professional lifestyles.


Sister Sharon Falconer at a revival:  Bill, see how many of those dear people can match God’s bountiful gift with their own offerings.


Televangelist Kenneth Copeland was less than forthcoming with Senator Grassley’s inquiries, even declining to reveal to Grassley the names of the 10 board members of Kenneth Copeland Ministries. Although KCM denied the existence of “integrated auxiliaries”, apparently subsidiaries, Grassley’s investigators found at least 21 that may have existed over the years, not including a 501(c)(3) called Pitcherman, Inc. which (with a board comprised of Kenneth, Gloria, and son John Copeland) exists to “receive charitable gifts from various entities, including offshore corporations and entities, and to distribute said monies to other qualified 501(c)3 churches, para-churches, ministries and evangelistic organizations…”  Also not included were Copeland interests in an aviation company, an airport, and a horse and cattle ranch. 

Grassley’s investigators couldn’t figure out if Kenneth Copeland received a salary or how much it might be, but he admitted at a KCM conference in 2008 that he is a billionaire.  That must make wife, Gloria’s $400,000 salary in the early 2000s plus the honoraria they both get for KCM speaking gigs sort of inconsequential.  Kenneth and Gloria live in an 18,000 square-foot home (the “parsonage”) on a 25-acre site owned by the televangelist’s religious operations, valued at $6,429,000 in 2008.  The home also has three boat slips, and four boats (the ski-boat is stored in an airplane hanger on the site).  Among the cars that have been registered in their names have been a 2007 Mercedes Benz S550, a 2005 XLR Cadillac Roadster Convertible and a 2003 Corvette Convertible. 


Elmer Gantry:  Is Sister Sharon preaching the word of Jesus or the gospel of Babbitt’s real estate business?


The Copelands appear to be generous with family, employing parents, children, and grandchildren as salaried employees of the Church.  Gloria’s brother Doug Neece, owner of a company called Integrity Media, was paid $20 million in 1996 and $22.4 million in 1997 for services to the church. More recent information wasn’t available.  Son John was able to acquire three properties from the church for $73,000, the purchase occurring after the sites were determined to have an oil and gas producing field (the church owns several other producing gas wells).  Board members have been generous with the KCM as well, including one who gave them a Citation 1 jet in 2007 (the church owns five aircraft).  Generosity to the Church is generosity to the Copelands, as it appears that the church pays for most of their living and operating expenses.  The jets for example have ferried Gloria to shopping trips in Naples, Fla., John on hunting trips, Kenneth to visit his chiropractor in Arkansas, and the family to another home in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

Among the Copelands’ charitable fundraising targets is funding to construct the “Revival Capital of the World.” The mini-city would include the headquarters of the Church, a radio and television center, a resort hotel, a “kingdom park,” and a retirement community called “Wisdom Heights.” 


Church leader in “Elmer Gantry”: Like it or not, we are in competition with the entertainment business.


Unlike the Copelands and others who at least provided partial information, Creflo and Taffi Dollar stiffed the Grassley investigators for information about any of their financial dealings, including their salaries and the members of the boards of World Changers and its many related or auxiliary affiliate organizations. Creflo and Taffi Dollar run the World Changers Church International (Creflo is CEO, Taffi was CFO in 2008, but listed as Secretary in 2010, and the registered agent of WCCI is son Jeremy). 

Though the Dollars were tight-lipped, it is clear from public records that the couple enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. According to Georgia real estate records, the Dollars own two multi-million dollar mansions, both of which appear to have been given to them by WCCI, though Creflo Dollar told the New York Timesthat he didn’t own them.  One of the properties, purchased by WCCI but owned by the Dollars, was listed for sale at $3 million in 2006, $1.99 million in 2008, and $1.395 million in 2010, which would give the Dollars a more than lucrative return for their unknown and probably nonexistent investment.  The Dollars also had access to a WCCI-owned luxury New York apartment in addition to the Atlanta-area homes. 

Sources told Grassley’s staff that the Church had given Creflo and Taffi each Rolls-Royces, but Creflo told the press that there was only one Rolls in their possession, and it was “purchased by the donors, or the members of the church, and it was a surprise to me.”  However, in other comments to the press, Creflo Dollar has talked about his Rolls-Royces in the plural, in part because, according to The New Yorker, one of the “selling points” of the ministry is the Dollars’ “glamorous life style.”

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Like the Copelands, the Dollars also have a taste for aircraft.  They typically use a GulfStream jet owned by the for-profit World Heirs, Inc., which lists Creflo as CEO and Taffi as secretary.  They also sometimes use a LearJet that is listed in public documents as owned by WCCI itself.  World Heirs sold another GulfStream to, surprisingly, Kenneth Copeland.  Why the private jets?  Dollar says he needs them because commercial airline schedules to New York (where he has additional operations) don’t fit his schedule.  However, flight logs show that Creflo flew many more places than just New York to preach, including trips to the Azores, the Bahamas, and “Kenneth Copeland’s ranch.”

The Dollars’ church operations do not file 990s, but somehow from church sources or on occasion Creflo Dollar himself, the press has put his receipt of donations for his Atlanta operation alone at roughly $70 million.  But little else can be determined about the revenues and expenditures of the Dollar ministry and its subsidiaries, because even Senator Grassley from the Senate Finance Committee couldn’t get the Dollars to cooperate with any information. 


Elmer Gantry:  And you, Brother.  You can’t go to church on Sunday and cheat at business on Monday.


Bishop Eddie Long responded to the Grassley inquiry, but not necessarily to the questions that the investigators posed.  The recent news about Long regarding charges of sexual misconduct with at least four young men (link) , all of whom have filed suits against Long, were not a part of Grassley’s investigation, nor were Long’s well publicized campaigns to cure homosexuality.  But the finances of Long’s religious operations have been fodder for the press for years and may well have prompted the Senator’s attention.

Unlike his investigated peers, Bishop Long’s organizations, the Bishop Eddie L. Long Ministries (BELL) and his New Birth Missionary Baptist Church do not have boards full of the church leader’s family members (the nonprofit BELL was officially dissolved in 2002,  but it seems to function under other organizational names).  But that doesn’t mean that Long thinks much of boards of directors, telling the press that a “biblical leader” shouldn’t have to answer to a board, and in any case, the board of his ministry relinquished total authority to him alone, ridding his church of an “ungodly governmental structure.”

A disdain for “ungodly structures” does not mean that the Bishop eschews affiliated organizations and subsidiaries.  The Grassley report lists a dozen “related entities” and roughly the same number of “integrated auxiliaries.” Many are obviously charitable and service oriented, such as the LongFellows Youth Academy (providing “structured programming for male teenagers to promote lifestyle changes), a religious pre-K-12 grade school, New Birth Development (supporting the church’s economic development  ventures), and a senior housing corporation.  The interlocking managerial and subsidiary relationships among these entities are mind-boggling, begging for a graphic rather than a list.  Oddly, however, none of the Bishop’s nonprofit-sounding affiliated organizations filed 990s with the IRS. 

How much does Long earn for his ministry?  He wasn’t willing to share that information with Grassley’s staff voluntarily, but the report indicated that his salary at BELL and through BELL subsidiaries may have been about $1,625,275 in 2000.  The rumors of a million dollar salary have revolved around Long for years, but without reports, definitive numbers are lacking (he seems to have been paid $494,493 just by BELL alone in 2000).  He lives in a 12,000 square-foot, 8-bedroom, 9-bathroom home owned by BELL which the organization bought in the late 1990s for $1.425 million.  Under his own name, Long owns another 5,000 square-foot home.  He could just as well live in his cars, having acknowledged in 2004 that he drove a BELL-owned Rolls and, as has been widely reported, was given a $350,000 Bentley by the organization.

Not to be outdone by his peers, Long likes aircraft too.  One of his affiliated organizations leases a Grumman turbojet from Long Charter Air LLC for $30,000 a month.  The address for Long Charter Air is the same address as the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and its incorporation papers list Long as the initial member of the corporation and other church members as officers, plus on dissolution of the LLC, all assets are designated to go to Long personally.  Several trips to various Caribbean islands and to Las Vegas have been taken on the turbojet, but the church leader didn’t release a tabulation of the use of the plane. 


Sister Sharon Falconer at a revival:  You darlings can’t make milk and God just won’t make money.


Husband and wife team Randy and Paula White did not escape Grassley’s scrutiny. The Whites announced their plans to divorce in 2007, leaving Randy as the sole senior pastor at Without Walls International Church (WWIC) and Paula as the leader of Paula White Ministries (PWM).  Under Randy’s leadership, WWIC defaulted on a $1 million loan, though when WWIC came out of foreclosure proceedings, Randy stepped down and Paula took over as senior pastor. 

Randy might have talked to the Senator’s staff but for a policy that seems to have covered lots of departing WWIC and PWM staff, requiring all employees to sign a confidentiality agreement prohibiting them from “ever discussing anything pertaining to the organization.”  Former staff were afraid of being sued by the church and at least one received a friendly letter from WWIC with a helpful reminder about the confidentiality agreement. 

Like the other televangelists, WWIC and PWM make money from selling the tapes, DVDs, and books of their high profile religious leaders.  In the case of the Whites, at least during 2004 and 2005, their tapes and books were produced by companies personally owned by Randy and Paula, with the church required to make inventory purchases from their companies of $541,000 and $330,000.  In nonprofit parlance, those are called related party transactions, usually frowned upon. 

WWIC specifically has a number of related organizations, including KABB Enterprises, apparently set up to purchase a Day’s Inn motel, and several nonprofits and for-profits located at WWIC’s address.  Disentangling the financial flows of the Whites’ corporations without more disclosure than the Whites gave the Grassley investigators is impossible.  Audited financials for WWIC alone showed revenues of $39.9 million in 2006 and a variety of interesting though vague expenditures, including an $880,000 housing allowance. 

One accountant working for WWIC apparently quit after Randy White ordered him to have WWIC pay his personal $24,000 American Express card bill (including $13,000 for the purchase and installation of mirrors) even though that would have made the entity unable to make payroll that week.  That’s a small bill compared to their rumored compensation levels – as much as $5 million in around 2004 or 2005.  Although the report was never revealed, apparently Randy White presented a compensation study done by “The Strategic Compensation Group of America” to justify whatever the board of WWIC approved as his and Paula’s salaries.  WWIC did provide information on its compensation to members of the family, which the Grassley report summarized as payments to “Paula’s son and Randy’s son, daughter, father and sister, up to $420,000, $560,000, $700,000 and $1,075,000 in tax years 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007.”

Prior to the divorce, the Whites owned a $2.681 million home (improved with the addition of an in-ground pool and spa) in the Bayshore area of Tampa, and a $3.5 million condo in Trump Tower in New York City.  The costs of these properties appear to have been paid for through the WWIC housing allowance.  They liked cars too, driving among other vehicles a 2007 Bentley convertible.  There must be something about Bentleys, as Paula gave Bishop T.D. Jakes a Bentley convertible as a 50th birthday gift.  Randy is generous too, putting his post-divorce girlfriend and her parents on salary and authorizing WWIC to pay for plastic surgery for one of the organization’s pastors. 

The ministry – either WWIC or PWM – purchased a Gulfstream GII for $1.2 million, but also pays for ferrying the Whites around by chartered flights.  One source told Grassley’s investigators that the Whites chartered a flight to Las Vegas for a boxing match and were accompanied by sports personalities including Gary Sheffield, Darryl Strawberry, Michael Pittman, and Anthony Telford.  The boxing match tickets alone, costing between $17,000 and $18,000, were charged to the WWIC AMEX card.  Their chartered flights, particularly on a Learjet used predominantly by Paula, were frequently to “the islands” and often involved re-filing flight plans once out of U.S. airspace to head to the Cayman Islands. 


Sister Sharon Falconer to Gantry:  No more tents.  No more running around like a circus.  No more haggling with committees.  My own tabernacle.  A permanent home…A place of worship for everybody of every faith.  That’s my first love. 


Senator Charles Grassley is hardly anti-religious.  A longstanding Republican senator, Grassley is also a devout Baptist.  One of his Senate Finance Committee staff who worked on the investigation is an ordained minister – as well as an expert on tax exempt law and finance.  This was no crusade against these four televangelists (plus Benny Hinn and Joyce Meyer, both of whom not only cooperated somewhat more than Dollar, Long, Copeland, and the Whites, but have made changes meant to improve their charitable accountability). Just like his investigations into nonprofit accountability in 2004, they were not “against” nonprofits in the slightest.  Grassley is an old school “do the right thing” kind of legislator, with a history of calling for accountability and probity regardless of the politics or beliefs of the entity or its leadership. 

Rather than calling for new laws and regulations, Grassley has asked the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) to look at the information his staff compiled and make recommendations.  Although self-regulation has a spotty history in most industries, in the nonprofit sector ECFA has been top-notch in its reviews of its faith-based members.

Maybe something good will come of the Grassley investigation and the ECFA review. These televangelists are typically thought of as emissaries of the “prosperity gospel,” the notion that belief and wealth go hand in hand.  The ministers’ high flying lifestyles with mansions, Gulfstreams, and Bentleys exemplify the prosperity they promote.  But should their prosperity be paid for by the tax exempt dollars of taxpayers?  It is impossible to look at the findings in these reports, based on almost no information voluntarily provided by the four televangelists, without hoping that the ECFA could channel “Elmer Gantry” and cry out, “We’ll show ‘em how to clean up this town!  Tonight!  Right now.”  serendipitous grant applications to January 15th. Let’s hope that USAID finds what it’s not looking for and that a nonprofit gets the contract to help them stumble into it.

  • David Cearley

    While there is plenty of fraud and abuse by televangelists, I would think the higher education business would deserve far more scrutiny, if only because there are so many more opportunities for abuse and so many more potential targets. I would imagine University presidents with million dollar salaries, free multimillion dollar homes, paid meals, and the same access to limos and private jets. You don’t really think the president of Harvard drives a Prius, do you? How about their billion dollar bank account?