Not since the sex and finance scandals of the '80s have so many televangelists come under fire.
The ministries of Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer, Eddie Long, as well as Randy and Paula White are currently under investigation by the Senate Finance Committee for lavish expenses and questionable management of donations.
Clcik play to watch Creflo Dollar's reaction to the investigation.
A top Republican senator announced his launch of a federal probe into some of America's most renown televangelistic organizations on Tuesday.
"The allegations involve governing boards that aren't independent and allow generous salaries and housing allowances and amenities such as private jets and Rolls Royces," said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who is leading the United States Senate Committee on Finance's investigation into the "possible misuse of donations."
Held to the Same Standards
Kenneth Behr, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, told CBNNews.com that "None of the six ministries are members of the ECFA, and if they were, we would have looked into those types of transactions."
The Christian organization monitors the monetary practices of many ministries, asking them whether tax exempt donations are supposed to finance lavish lifestyles. It also inquires about the independence of their governing boards.
Behr noted that legitimate concerns have been raised by the government about the spending of religious organizations claiming to be non-profit.
What's in Store?
Behr brought up some of the possible legal ramifications that could result from the investigations.
He recalled that nonprofit organizations, including the Red Cross, were under investigation a couple years ago and "were given a slap on the hands and kept their tax-exempt status."
Behr said that honest responses from the ministries should allow them to stay afloat.
"To the far extreme, tax penalties could be imposed upon the ministries," Behr said. "It's not likely, but if the investigation shows that unrelated business incomes or excess benefits transactions took place within the organizations, they could lose their tax-exempt status. In this case, they would be guilty of 'private inurement,' which means that they were working for the gain of private individuals, not for the community good as non-profits should."
On Dec. 6, the six ministries must give an account of their expenditures to the Senate Finance Committee.
Taking a Closer Look
What exactly are the investigations looking to uncover?
Here's what Grassley's inquiry letters want the ministries to divulge:
- Benny Hinn's World Healing Center Church, Inc. and Benny Hinn Ministries will be required to give account for a home in Dana Point, Calif., a private jet and "layover trips" made during ministry business travel.
- Kenneth and Gloria Copeland's Kenneth Copeland Ministries of Newark, Texas must explain church assets transferred to a for-profit company, Gloria Copelands's $1 million loan to that company, and Kenneth Copeland's $2 million gift marking the 40th anniversary of his ministry.
- Creflo and Taffi Dollar's World Changers Church International and Creflo Dollar Ministries are being questioned about private planes, board makeup, donations and compensation, as well as "love offerings" to visiting ministers.
- Randy and Paula White's Without Walls International Church and Paula White Ministries will provide more information about the purchase of homes in Malibu, Calif., New York and San Antonio, Texas, along with credit card charges made for cosmetic surgery and clothing. Also under inquiry is the reported purchase of a convertible Bentley given as a gift to fellow televangelist T.D. Jakes.
- Joyce and David Meyer's Joyce Meyer Ministries will answer to questions about money and jewelry contributions, as well as the management of funds accumulated during overseas crusades. A $23,000 "commode with marble top" and a $30,000 conference table will also be brought into question, along with other expenditures at their ministry headquarters.
- Eddie Long's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and Bishop Eddie Long Ministries will provide more information about Long's salary and a $1.4 million real estate transaction. Questions were also raised about whether he or the board holds exclusive authority over the organization.
Here are some responses from the ministries:
- A spokeswoman for Copeland said that his ministry follows all laws and best practices governing churches and religious groups and "will continue to do so."
- Dollar said his ministry is an "open book" and will fully cooperate. He also asked if the probe could "affect the privacy of every community church in America."
- Paula White said "We take our financial responsibilities to our partners very seriously and to the best of our knowledge, we comply with all tax laws. Our audited financial statements appear on our Web site. 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."
- Meyer's ministry issued the following statement Wednesday: "JMM is committed to conducting itself with excellence and integrity, choosing to go above and beyond the level of accountability required by law and/or that expected by most donors. Since 1995, JMM has voluntarily undergone an independent annual financial audit." An attorney for Meyer's ministry also issued a statement saying the organization was given tax-exempt status by the IRS in October.
- Long stated that he plans to fully comply and that "Birth Ministries has several safeguards put in place to ensure all transactions are in compliance with laws applicable to churches."
Trinity Foundation and MinistryWatch are two Christian organizations that worked to bring about the current investigation.
On its Web site, Trinity is described as "the leading 'watchdog' of religious media, conducting investigations and providing information used to expose fraud and abuses committed in the name of God."
Ole Anthony, the head of Trinity, says he has been working with the media for 20 years to expose televangelists, but he was unhappy with the lack of progress in reforms and decided to turn to Grassley's Senate Finance Committee.
"We've been working with them for two years," said Anthony. "We have furnished them with enough information to fill a small Volkswagen. What we hope is that this will lead to reform in religious non-profits."
The other whistleblower, MinistryWatch, says on its Web site that it is dedicated to "stimulate the adoption of best practices and encourage progress and innovation within the world of Christian ministries as donors become interested in the efficiency and effectiveness of an organization."
Rod Pitzer, who directs research for MinistryWatch says that Christian organizations irresponsibly handling their funds "give a black eye to churches and Christians who are trying to do things in the right manner."
Sources: CBN News, The Associated Press, CBS News, Forbes, Trinity Foundation, MinistryWatch