WASHINGTON The leading Republican on the Senate Finance Committee is investigating prominent televangelists and their financial conduct, pursuing reports of elaborate private jets, Rolls Royces and indulgent salaries.
"It is important that the Congress and the public have confidence that public charities, which benefit from very significant tax breaks, are operated in a manner that promotes continued trust," Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a Nov. 5 letter to the TV preachers.
Joyce Meyer and Benny Hinn are among representatives of six ministries asked to hand over their records of expenses and compensations to Grassley. Because of their non-profit "church status," all of the ministries are tax-exempt and not required to submit their financial information to the Internal Revenue Service.
"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. "I'm following up on complaints from the public and news coverage regarding certain practices at six ministries."
Other ministries that Grassley has identified for investigation are Paula and Randy White, in Tampa, Fla.; Gloria and Kenneth Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries in Newark, Texas; Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., and Creflo Dollar of World Changers International in College Park, Ga. who also sits on the Board of Regents for the Oral Roberts University.
Grassley requested the preachers disclose their personal and ministry- related finances. He asked for credit card statements; lists of expenses for second and third residences used by the ministers; the cost of hotels, travel and entertainment used for board meetings; cash and non-cash gifts given by the ministries, and lists of private vehicles. The media-oriented ministries have been given one month to comply with the requests.
The senator's goal is to bring transparency to the donor-funded, billion-dollar industry of TV evangelism, according to his statement.
Most of these ministries are financed by individuals, who often receive material gifts such as CDs and books in return for their support. Hinn also sells keepsakes, such as desk sculptures and decorative plates, on his Web site.
The practices of these types of ministries have been under scrutiny in the past several years, mainly in the mainstream press. The Tampa Tribune recently investigated Randy and Paula White. The Whites announced in August they are divorcing.
These and other investigative reports weighed on Grassley's decision. Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation, a watchdog of religious broadcasting, provides a way for donors who feel victimized by pastors and teachers to report it on his Web site.
Joyce Meyer, who was investigated by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2003, provides her ministry's financial reports online and undergoes a voluntary financial and legal audit each year.
"We are pleased to announce that during 2006, 82 percent of total expenses were spent on outreach and programs directed at reaching people," said a statement released by the ministry in early August 2007.
Crossing a line?
Some leaders are concerned the investigation might blur lines between church and state.
"This is cause for alarm that a Senate committee would presume to directly exercise financial oversight of religious ministries," Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the journal "First Things," told Christianity Today.
Kenneth Behr, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, said the investigation might be unfair.
"I think he's picking a fight," he said of Grassley, according to The Tampa Tribune. "He is not just asking them to come in and talk, he is asking them for everything."
Behr's organization has set standards for how churches, private Christian colleges and large ministries should handle their tax-exempt status in an ethical way. Members are required to hold to these standards. None of the six ministries under investigation are currently members.
"If your house is in order, you have nothing to fear and much to gain from this process," Florida pastor Joel Hunter told Christianity Today. Hunter's Orlando churchNorthland, A Church Distributedprovides its members with a financial report weekly.
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