Sen. Grassley's investigation of televangelists takes new twists

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A group of 20 conservative and Christian activists sent a letter to the Senate Finance Committee on May 2 expressing concern over Sen. Charles Grassley's investigation of six televangelists. The letter says Grassley ignored normal processes and targeted organizations "which share the same branch of evangelicalism and … promote socially conservative public policy positions."

The letter—signed by evangelical heavyweights Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel and the dean of Liberty University's School of Law, conservative icon Paul Weyrich, and the American Family Association's Donald Wildmon, among others—is the latest in a saga that began last year.

On Nov. 6 Grassley, the committee's ranking Republican, asked for detailed financial information from Paula and Randy White's Without Walls International Church, Benny Hinn Ministries, Joyce Meyer Ministries, Kenneth Copeland Ministries, Eddie Long's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, and Creflo Dollar's World Changers Church International.

Only Joyce Meyer met the original 30-day time period. On the rest, Grassley turned up the heat. His latest request, sent in early March, included the signature of Sen. Max Baucus, the chairman of the committee.

That development was significant because when the chair and the ranking minority member agree, the committee can issue subpoenas. The threat seemed to have an effect.  

When the March 31 deadline on the Grassley-Baucus letter passed, only Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar had not complied. Copeland's organization has since mounted a spirited counter-offensive, posting videos on his Web site and issuing a statement on April 11 actually asking for an IRS audit, in accordance with the procedures of the Church Audit Procedures Act of 1984.  

If Grassley wants information, they say, he can then ask the IRS for it. Ministry watchdogs say it's a clever strategy because IRS audits are confidential, take a long time to complete due to IRS staff shortages, and—by regulation—immunize an organization from additional scrutiny for at least five years.


'Dangerous precedent'
Staver, a signer of the May 2 letter supporting the televangelists, is convinced that the procedures in CAPA are the best way to proceed. He further asserts that the investigation is a "symptom of a greater problem, the problem of the legislative branch putting together a committee to investigate anything that ends up in the popular media. This investigation sets a dangerous precedent," Staver said.

He added that the implications of the senators' actions could have widespread implications.

"The individual facts about how these ministries use money may be unsettling, but the precedent Grassley is setting is even more unsettling," the lawyer said. "If we don't defend the rights of churches and ministries we don't agree with, we could see that the rights of churches we do agree with might be next."

But donor advocates say ministries are defending their own rights at the expense of beleaguered donors, who Grassley is trying to protect. Further, if Grassley is looking at more regulation of ministries and other non-profits, ministry self-policing, rather than self-defense, might convince him more regulations are not necessary, supporters maintain.

In any case, Grassley's office said that CAPA simply doesn't apply. Grassley, who was one of the CAPA's sponsors, maintains that such investigations are in the purview of the committee, which—according to Grassley spokeswoman Jill Kozeny—is responsible for passing laws and "evaluating the adequacy of those laws."  

In a written statement, she added:  "The investigation isn't concerned with church doctrine. It is considering the adequacy of tax-exempt laws, which haven't been updated in any substantial way since 1968."

Such investigations are not, in fact, new.  Since 2001 Grassley or the Senate Finance Committee has investigated the Smithsonian Institution, college endowment funds, non-profit hospitals, and non-profit foundations. The criminal convictions against Jack Abramoff were the result, at least in part, of investigations into tax-exempt organizations Abramoff had created.

Kozeny added that while "subpoenas are certainly a tool of the committee," Grassley hopes the organizations will voluntarily comply with requests for financial information.