(Photo: Pastor Planes tracked 13 aircraft on November 20, 2022.)
For eighteen months Pastor Planes, a project of Trinity Foundation, has published daily tracking maps of televangelist, ministry and Christian university jet flights to bring transparency to religious non-profit use of private aircraft.
Private jets are often examples of poor stewardship and a waste of donor funds.
And then it happened! Twitter suspended Celebrity Jets, a popular account well known for real-time tracking of jets owned by Hollywood celebrities. Celebrity Jets was accused of “doxing” — which is a word that typically refers to revealing the address of a person’s home. In this new context it refers to posting real-time location of an aircraft.
When retired Catholic priest Louis Robert Gigante died in October at 90 years of age, the news of his death was missed by most of America’s religion reporters, yet there are important lessons to learn from examining Gigante’s life story.
Gigante served at St. Athanasius Church in New York City, launched the South East Bronx Community Organization (SEBCO), a large developer of affordable housing, and was famous for being the brother of mafia boss Vincent Gigante, who headed the Genovese Crime Family for more than 20 years.
By serving as a secular, non-order priest, Gigante avoided taking a vow of poverty. Gigante preached the weddings and funerals of mafia associates and spoke in favor of lenient sentences after mafia members were convicted of crimes.
In 1989, The Village Voice newspaper published an incredible expose of Gigante’s business practices: “A four-month Voice investigation of Gigante and SEBCO has revealed that the priest and his publicly financed developments have been a $50 million opportunity for the Mafia.”
In addition to operating the non-profit SEBCO, Gigante owned the for-profit SEBCO Management company which did business with the non-profit. This kind of business relationship is described as self-dealing and is illegal when a non-profit executive excessively profits off the non-profit organization.
Self-dealing creates conflicts of interest and opportunities for financial abuse. The Village Voice reported, “It should come as no surprise that the priest’s company has gotten every SEBCO contract.”
Jamal Bryant, pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church appears to have violated the Johnson Amendment with an Instagram post on November 28, 2022:
The Johnson Amendment, adopted in 1954, made it illegal for non-profit organizations to endorse or oppose political candidates.
Following the fall 2022 elections, Trinity Foundation, which is a non-partisan watchdog organization, reported both Jamal Bryant and televangelist Kenneth Copeland to the Internal Revenue Service for violating the Johnson Amendment.
Copeland flew his church-owned jet to West Palm Beach, Florida, to join Donald Trump’s entourage for a political campaign event.
Bryant and his church supported Democrat candidate Raphael Warnock. Meanwhile, Copeland supported Republican candidate Mehmet Oz.
Today is National Giving Day and many Americans are supporting their favorite non-profit organizations. If you would like to donate to Trinity Foundation, please visit our donation page.
To the informants, readers, donors, journalists, and podcasters that interact with Trinity Foundation, we would like to say thank you for your support.
Your tips have aided our investigations, your interviews have educated the public regarding religious fraud and your donations have financed our work.
Again, thank you.
Year in Review
After Trinity Foundation founder Ole Anthony died in 2021, several documentary filmmakers contacted Trinity Foundation regarding the possibility of making a documentary about Ole’s life and our investigations. The project is currently on hold.
In March, Discovery+, the online platform of the Discovery Network, premiered the documentary Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed. The third episode featured Trinity Foundation staff investigator Barry Bowen discussing Hillsong’s use of limited liability companies and accumulation of property in Maricopa County, Arizona.
Note: This is the second article in a series examining financial records and receipts for pastors and religious organizations. Future articles will explore travel expenses, per diem expenses and fundraising.
In 2019 an audit of Fellowship Church, one of America’s largest multi-site megachurches pastored by Ed Young Jr., uncovered financial crimes. Two years later, church financial administrator Lara Ford pled guilty to embezzling more than $1 million.
Ford used Automated Clearing House to transfer at least $363,834 from the church’s Allaso Ranch account and $324,313 from another church account to her personal bank accounts. The thefts were disguised as payments to vendors and refunds for children unable to attend the church camp.
Ford’s crimes are described as fraudulent disbursements.
These crimes are easy to disguise. By creating fake invoices, a dishonest church administrator can manufacture a paper trail to cover his or her theft of church funds.
How common are these crimes?
Occupational Fraud 2022: A Report to the Nations, a report from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners based on an examination of more than 2,000 cases of financial fraud in 133 nations, estimated on average “organizations lose 5% of revenue to fraud each year.”
The report noted, “Financial statement fraud schemes are the least common but most costly.”
Examples of financial statement fraud schemes include billing shell companies for fictitious expenses, falsifying wages and submitting duplicate receipts for the same expense.
The Small Church Pastor Submitting Duplicate Receipts
Pastor Don Galardi lived in a modest home and drove an old truck. The outside world and church congregation would not expect the pastor of engaging in improper financial activities.
(Pastor Kenneth Copeland praying at Trump Rally for Dr. Oz.)
This weekend Pastor Planes, the Trinity Foundation jet tracking project, observed a couple of interesting televangelist flights. During our investigations we look for flights with little to no ministry purpose.
On Saturday, November 5th, Kenneth Copeland flew from Fort Worth Alliance Airport to Palm Beach International Airport aboard his church’s Gulfstream G5 jet.
(Photo: ADSB Exchange tracking map of Copeland’s Gulfstream G5 identified with tail number N1967J.)
Then Copeland and Paula White-Cain flew to Arnold Palmer Regional Airport outside Pittsburgh for a Donald Trump political rally where Copeland prayed. From all appearances, the televangelists flew aboard Donald Trump’s Boeing 757 jet to the rally on Saturday.
During the Sunday morning service, Paula told her congregation about the flight which included many important people.
(Photo: ADSB Exchange tracking map of Trump’s jet with tail number N757AF.)
Trump promoted Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz during the rally. After Trump’s jet returned to Palm Beach International Airport, Copeland flew back to Fort Worth.
Should pastors participate in campaign rallies where politicians are endorsed?
According to Trinity Foundation President Pete Evans, enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates, has been virtually ignored by the Exempt Organizations Division of the IRS with regard to religious organizations. Evans says, “No matter what your political bent, Kenneth Copeland and Paula White-Cain are thumbing their noses at this law and the IRS.”
Such political events raise important questions: Did Copeland’s church jet flight to Florida have a ministry purpose? If not, did Copeland reimburse the church for travel expenses? Should the jet’s tax exempt status be revoked.
The Eagle Mountain International Church (which also operates with the trade name Kenneth Copeland Ministries) purchased the Gulfstream G5 jet from actor Tyler Perry in 2017. The church previously purchased a Citation X (Cessna 750) jet in 2005. Currently the two jets are based at Fort Worth Alliance Airport rather than Kenneth Copeland Airport.
In a 2007 filing with the Tarrant County Appraisal District, Copeland’s church listed the Cessna Citation X as “reasonably necessary for worship.”
(Photo: In the 1970s, televangelist pioneer Oral Roberts acquired mansions in Beverly Hills and Palm Springs, CA, leading his Tulsa, OK-based ministry from afar.)
Oct. 31 was the day Martin Luther posted the 95 theses on the Wittenberg Church door—October 31, 1517—which began the reformation, also called by some the 2nd wave of Christianity. He critiqued expensive church real estate along with many other practices of the Catholic Church and the Papacy. Today, Luther’s anger would probably be directed at the aberrant activities of the megachurches. The reformation is over 500 years old and we still struggle with some of the same problems.
To expand their reach and receive larger donations, televangelists and megachurch pastors are planting churches hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles, from their base of operations. Some pastors appear to be motivated by pursuit of wealth, planting churches in wealthy communities. Others are drawn by the allure of Hollywood, taking up residence in Beverly Hills.
The investment in long distance ministry frequently produces extravagant housing expenses and over-the-top travel costs. Why fly first class when your donors will finance a jet?
The late televangelist Fred Price illustrates the trend of long distance ministry by planting a church in New York City while his home was located over 2100 miles away in California.
In 2007, Business Jet Traveler asked Price, pastor of Crenshaw Christian Center, “How much do you fly for the church?” Price responded, “A couple of years back, when we were first establishing the church in New York, my wife and I flew every single week-52 weeks-Los Angeles to New York and return. Now the least we’d go is once a month and recently we’ve had to go twice a month.”
Joseph Prince, the Singapore-based televangelist, has launched two churches in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and acquired a large plot of land in Colleyville, TX for future expansion. If there is one city in the world that doesn’t need another televangelist, it is Colleyville, the home of Robert Morris, pastor of Gateway Church, James Robison, head of LIFE Outreach International, Matthew Crouch, head of Trinity Broadcasting Network, and Joni Lamb, head of Daystar Television.
Church members and donors to the churches and ministries cited in this article should ponder critical questions. Can a pastor effectively lead his congregation from afar? Are million-dollar mansions good stewardship?
Norman Quintero, CEO of TeleAmerica Television Network and Senior Pastor of Iglesia Getsemani in Anaheim, California, has sued Benny Hinn, Hinn-associate Donald B. Price and publicist Ronn Torossian for defamation. Hinn was served the lawsuit while speaking during a “Miracle Service.” The exchange can be viewed on YouTube.
In a lawsuit filed in Superior Court Orange County, California, Quintero alleges that Price published a website “to destroy Dr. Quintero’s personal reputation.” According to the lawsuit, “The Website states, or at least implies, that Dr. Quintero has been convicted on criminal charges. The statement is false.”
While the offending website norman-quintero.com is now offline, a backup copy of the website can be viewed at the Internet Archive.
Price, a loyal officer at Benny Hinn Ministries, also runs eMinistries Consulting and Family Altar of the Air.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit lacks many details on Hinn’s alleged role in the defamation. Hinn’s alleged role will probably surface during court testimony.
The court battles began in 2021, with Price suing Quintero in Dallas County Court “for tortious interference with contract, tortious interference with prospective contract, defamation, and business disparagement, stemming from a failed real estate transaction,” as one court filing summarizes the case.
The case took a quick detour in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas before being remanded to the lower court because of a question about Quintero’s residency.
However, the court may have questioned the wrong person’s residency. Price’s lawsuit says, “Plaintiff, Donald B. Price, is an individual residing in Dallas County, Texas.”
Trinity Foundation investigators, which are based in Dallas, searched Dallas County Appraisal District and found zero evidence of Price residing in Dallas County. Why would Price live in Dallas, when his “ministry” Family Altar of the Air owns a 14,500 square-foot mansion worth $6 million a short distance away in Collin County?
Family Altar of the Air also owns a Florida mansion worth over $4 million.
Just how many homes does Price and his organizations own? Is this good stewardship?
Perhaps these “ministry” leaders should sell an extra home to fund their ministry rather than rely on the generosity of donors.
Missing money is a big red flag for investigators. So, let’s examine the Form 990s filed by televangelist Juanita Bynum’s new non-profit organization which was incorporated in 2016.
But first, a math quiz: Zero minus zero equals …
For 2016, The Juanita Bynum II Ministry Inc (That’s the official ministry name) reported zero total assets and zero liabilities. Subtracting zero from zero yielded an amazing answer: $163,854 in net assets.
What happened to net assets in 2017? They disappeared.
For 2017, the ministry reported total revenue of $383,272 and total expenses of $242,450 resulting in a surplus of $140,822 which disappeared with the net assets reported from the previous year.
For 2018, the ministry reported total revenue of $639,280 and total expenses of $399,139 resulting in a surplus of $240,141 which also disappeared.
At the end of 2018, the non-profit organization reported zero net assets.
The IRS should conduct an audit to determine where the $544,817 in unreported surpluses went.
Another troubling issue was noticed while reviewing the 990s. On page one of each 990, the ministry reports zero board members. There is zero accountability for the organization.