Six popular Christian televangelists are being investigated by the federal government for "possible misuse of donations."
The U.S. Senate Finance Committee sent letters to Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, Randy and Paula White, Creflo Dollar, and Eddie Long, asking them all for detailed information on expenses, executive compensation, and amenities given to executives.
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a ranking member of the Committee on Finance, is leading the investigation.
"Recent articles and news reports regarding possible misuse of donations made to religious organizations have caused some concern for the Finance Committee," Grassley wrote to the ministries in letters asking for detailed financial records.
Obliged to Investigate
Grassley cited allegations involving governing boards that aren't independent and that allow generous salaries, housing allowances, and amenities, such as private jets and Rolls Royces. The Iowa senator said he has an obligation to donors to investigate.
"I don't want to conclude that there's a problem, but I have an obligation to donors and the taxpayers to find out more," Grassley said in a statement about the investigation.
Because the ministries have a church tax status, they do not have to file IRS 990 forms like other non-profit organizations, according to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountibility. That leaves much of their financial information unavailable.
The ministries have until Dec. 6 to submit audited financial statements, compensation reports, records for ministry jet travel, and other documents.
Some Ministries Respond to CBN News
CBN News has contacted all of the ministries for comment. Five have replied so far.
Benny Hinn's ministry told CBN News that the church's board of directors and legal counsel are "determining the best course of action to best cooperate with the committee's inquiry."
"We regard this as an important matter and will not respond until further information becomes available," Ronn Torossian, spokesperson for Hinn Ministries, said. "World Healing Center Church complies with the laws that govern church and non-profit organizations and will continue to do so."
Joyce Meyer Ministries said they were not taking interviews but referred to comments on their Web site.
"Joyce Meyer Ministries is committed to financial transparency," the statement read. "We are diligently working on the presented requests and will continue to take the necessary steps to maintain our financial integrity."
The ministry also said that audited financial statements are available on its Web site.
"JMM is committed to conducting itself with excellence and integrity, choosing to go above and beyond the level of accountability required by law," the statement continued.
Creflo Dollar's ministry said they would cooperate with the request, but would consult well-respected legal professionals.
"World Changers Church International has had a history of compliance with the Internal Revenue Service. So in this same manner, we will, of course, comply with any valid request from the United States Senate," Dollar said in a statement.
"My life and my ministry have always been an open book, and that won't change now," he added.
Kenneth Copeland Ministries responded to CBN News through an independent public relations firm.
"Eagle Mountain International Church (a.k.a. Kenneth Copeland Ministries) operates in accordance with all federal and state laws, as well as best practices, for churches and religious nonprofit organizations and will continue to do so. We are in receipt of Senator Grassley's letter and are in the process of responding to it," the statement read. They are not giving any other statements or granting interviews at this time.
Shiela Withum, publicist for Paula White, sent CBN News a statement from White about the Senate investigation.
"We take our financial responsibilities to our partners very seriously and to the best of our knowledge we comply with all tax laws," White wrote. "Our audited financial statements appear on our website. However, we are concerned about the possible precedent and ramifications of this request. We will be reviewing the request and its implications in detail over the coming weeks as we prepare our response."
Investigation Fueled by Complaints
The letters sent by Grassley are the culmination of an investigation fueled by complaints from organizations like the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation and Ministry Watch in North Carolina, which prides itself in providing advice for donors to Christian organizations.
"Churches like these are ruled as a dictatorship," Rod Pitzer, who directs research at Ministry Watch, told CBS News.
Ole Anthony, leader of the Trinity Foundation, said that after 20 years of working to expose the fraud and abuse of televangelists, he finally went to the Senate.
"We've been working with them for two years," Anthony told CBS News. "What we hope is that this will lead to reform in religious nonprofits."
Although Grassley is not proposing any changes to the law or tax code, he has suggested that that could be possible after the investigation.
"Based on initial review, the way ministries operate has changed significantly over the last 20 years to 25 years, while the tax laws governing them for the most part have not," his office told Christianity Today.
The Senate Finance Committee has exclusive Senate jurisdiction over federal tax policy, including the policy governing the billions of dollars donated to and controlled by the nation's tax-exempt groups.