Dark Money in the Church—Waiting for Christianity’s Wake-up Call

By Pete Evans and Barry Bowen

Trinity Foundation President Pete Evans delivered the following speech during the Corruption and Impunity in God’s Name forum at the International Anti-Corruption Conference 2022 held today in Washington, D.C. The conference is a project of Transparency International which is non-profit advocating for financial transparency on a global scale.

Thanks for your introduction Hazel, I’m Pete Evans, president of Trinity Foundation in Dallas, Texas and we’ve been investigating and exposing religious fraud and excess for over 3 decades now. I’ve been a licensed private investigator for most of that time and have worked undercover for months at a time in religious organizations on 3 occasions.  We regularly provide information to journalists and governmental agencies such as the exempt organization division of the IRS.

BUT, there is a veil of financial secrecy that shrouds and protects religious organizations.

Churches, Synagogues, Mosques, and other religious entities in America do not have to report any financial information either to the IRS, the public, or their own congregations.  This is known as “church status” and their financial disclosure is only voluntary.

We’ve seen this veil of secrecy lead to massive waste and extravagance, money laundering, bulk-cash smuggling, a tremendous indifference to the poor and downtrodden, and even rape, pedophilia, or sex-trafficking by televangelists, pastors, priests, and other church leaders—all in the name of God.

In 2007, cumulative reports from Trinity Foundation spurred Senator Charles Grassley of the US Senate Finance Committee to begin investigating religious fraud and self-dealing by requesting financial records and threatening numerous subpoenas to six prominent media ministries.

The threat of public testimony into abuses of the tax code before the senate scared the televangelists and heads of religious denominations.

So what became of the inquiry?  The Senate probe caused a momentary spike in awareness but was largely ignored by the US media and the investigation eventually went nowhere.

One of several reasons for the Senate’s failure to act was that the televangelists being investigated combined their resources to hire lawyers, lobbyists, and social media experts.

For publicity purposes, the suspected media ministries created a website that claimed religious persecution.  Of course, that was never the issue, it was always only about the misuse and extravagant waste of donor money.

What will it take to bring a wake-up call for transparency to religious organizations?

In 2008, Trent Huddleston, a former accountant at Oral Roberts University, America’s university of choice for charismatic and Pentecostal Christians, sued the university for discharging him “after fifteen months of intimidation and harassment.”

Huddleston alleged that university officials ordered him “to cook the books.” Buried on page 4 of the lawsuit was the most serious allegation: more than $1 billion US dollars flowed annually through an unrestricted account.

That should have spurred on an army of investigative reporters to follow the money. But nothing came of it. Aside from a couple of articles at the Tulsa World newspaper, journalists failed to explore the scandal.

Buried in government documents, inaccessible to journalists, there may exist Suspicious Activity Reports (or SARS) to verify allegations of money laundering at Oral Roberts University and prominent Christian media ministries.

Financial institutions are required to file Currency Transaction Reports when a person deposits or withdraws $10,000 or more in cash. When individuals attempt to avoid reporting requirements by making multiple deposits or withdrawals in a short amount of time, often called “structuring,” financial institutions are required to file these Suspicious Activity Reports (or SARS).

Unfortunately for investigative reporters and private investigators the Bank Secrecy Act prohibits the release of these reports to the public.

Additional allegations of massive money laundering involving religious organizations have surfaced with little media attention.

On May 3, 2000, the United States was preparing for a possible indictment of televangelist Benny Hinn for money laundering when the government’s main witness died of a suspicious heart attack.

Benny Hinn Ministries obtained a protective order to prevent disclosure of critical information.

But sometimes there are legal ways to obtain the truth. A Freedom of Information Act Request (or FOIA request) to the FBI revealed that Hinn’s former Chief Financial Officer Gene Polino allegedly embezzled $400,000 per week at one point.

One ideal way to smuggle dark money is via private aircraft, by boat, or similar means.  It’s typically called Bulk-Cash-Smuggling which Title 31 U.S.C. § 5332 “makes it a crime to smuggle or attempt to smuggle more than $10,000 in currency or monetary instruments into or out of the United States, with intent to evade U.S. currency reporting laws” (Also, see Title 31 U.S.C. §§ 5316 and 5317).

Trinity Foundation tracks televangelist jets daily with our Pastor Planes social media accounts (Instagram and Twitter). We’ve observed flights to the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Nevis, and other well-known tax haven nations over the years.

One of our informants has a nickname for televangelist jets—he calls them “laundry tubes.”  The televangelist he worked for smuggled stacks of cash from country to country and then back to the US on his jet—tons of money and jewels.  When offerings were taken in other countries, this particular televangelist would personally gather some of the money and the best of the jewelry to keep for himself.

On one occasion, the cash on this jet was stacked to the ceiling of the aircraft.  On another occasion, this particular televangelist smuggled a bunch of valuable red rubies from the offering plate out of Russia on his jet and our informant was detained and questioned by Russian authorities for three days about the rubies.

Another televangelist’s jet was reportedly used for bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars into the country illegally and on one occasion gunrunning of machine guns.

In the 1990s, a DEA informant reported a pallet stacked with cash in a Mexican airport destined for Haiti.  The cash was thinly covered by televangelist Robert Tilton’s brochures.

In 2015, our small organization expanded our investigations abroad.

Shortly prior to the COVID Pandemic, Trinity Foundation reported bulk cash smuggling to the FBI by one large multi-national church with hundreds of church locations in the Western Hemisphere funneling money overseas, out of the US.

On multiple occasions IRS officials have acknowledged the dark money problem in churches. In 2005, IRS Commissioner Mark Everson sent a letter to Senator Chuck Grassley claiming because churches were not required to file an informational return, “we have little ability to monitor their operations against diversion of assets.”

In recent years, some of America’s largest religious non-profit institutions have been reclassified as churches to avoid reporting requirements.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Gospel for Asia and CRU (formerly named Campus Crusade for Christ) no longer file a Form 990 which discloses compensation for ministry executives.

Back to Senator Grassley’s already weakened 2007 inquiry, in 2011 Grassley requested the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, known as ECFA for short, to establish a commission to study and offer solutions to abused tax code loopholes.

The ECFA requires its members to be financially transparent, but in practice, looks the other way and rarely enforces its requirements.

In this case, the ECFA commission became a textbook example of regulatory capture­­ (also called agency capture or state capture) whereby the organizations to be regulated take control of the process. Some CPAs and attorneys of the same six ministries under threat of subpoena were appointed to the ECFA task force, like foxes guarding the henhouse.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media never reported on the lobbying efforts that were taking place behind the scenes. Televangelist Benny Hinn would later tell his TV audience that he spent $5 million fighting the inquiry.

Hinn hired two former IRS Commissioners, Larry Gibbs and Fred Goldberg, to represent him during the inquiry.

Invariably, these unreported church funds make their way into the political process. Dark money buys influence.

Some televangelists also use church and ministry-owned jets to travel to political rallies and religious events with political campaigning overtones.

Last month, Kenneth Copeland flew on his church-owned jet to West Palm Beach, Florida to join Trump’s entourage in Trump’s jet flying to Pennsylvania where Copeland prayed at a campaign rally on behalf of Senate candidate Dr. Oz.

Should these aircraft receive a tax-exemption? The IRS needs to investigate and provide guidance on inappropriate uses of non-commercial aircraft.

Ministry’s dark money even reaches the politicians sometimes. According to one of our informants, a non-profit religious TV network would give money to employees to illegally donate to politicians.

So what can be done about the problems of church and ministry financial abuses?

Here’s a multi-prong approach necessary to address the growing decline of financial transparency and the increase of dark money in religious institutions.

  1. Increase financial transparency in religious institutions.
  2. Amend laws to provide greater access to financial data such as SARS.
  3. Educate the public regarding donor responsibility.

Churches and ministries must be required to file a Form 990 which discloses total revenue, total expenses and the compensation of executives.

Congress should amend both the 1974 Privacy Act and Bank Secrecy Act to allow for the release of information in the public interest.  For example, both for-profit and not-for-profit corporations should be required to submit to increased scrutiny by the public—these are not private persons, they are man-made entities.

Additionally, non-profit companies should not be allowed to form shell companies, limited liability companies, or shadow companies.

Allow journalists to obtain Currency Transaction Reports and Suspicious Activity Reports by filing FOIA requests.

Law enforcement and regulatory agencies like the IRS should provide status reports to whistleblowers. Currently, when Trinity Foundation submits a complaint to the IRS, the IRS is prohibited from revealing if an audit or criminal investigation has been launched or closed.

In the rare cases the IRS revokes the tax-exempt status of a non-profit, the IRS sends the organization a revocation letter which is confidential. These letters should be available via FOIA requests so journalists and donors can see if the organization used donations to pay any penalties.

The United States Congress could also take a cue from Australia’s external standards for non-profit organizations. Australia requires non-profit organizations, including churches, to disclose how funds are spent when they are used in foreign countries.

After Hillsong Church’s Australian leadership was informed that sending cash to Romanian individuals would need to be reported, the church sent them money anyway from Hillsong Global LLC, an American church-related company. Hillsong Global does not file a 990 which would disclose this kind of transaction.

There is complete opacity, the system is broken down, it’s not working!

With these legal changes, greater transparency would reduce the ability of churches and ministries to launder money and illegally buy political influence. The time to act is now.

If anyone wants to talk about this, I’ve got lots of examples!

(End of Speech)

APPENDIX

Here are some recent examples:

In 2019, a private jet belonging to the international leader of the Philippine-based The Kingdom of Jesus Christ Church, Apollo Quiboloy was detained for bulk-cash smuggling.  His employee, Felina Salinas, was caught with a suitcase containing more than $300,000 in Hawaii. Apollo Quiboloy, a preacher that promotes himself on social media as “the Appointed Son of God” claims over 6 million followers in over 200 countries.

In November 2021, Quiboloy was indicted by a Federal Grand Jury and is on the FBI’s most wanted list for Sex Trafficking by Force, Fraud and Coercion, and Sex Trafficking of Children by Force, Fraud, and Coercion; Conspiracy; and Bulk Cash Smuggling.

We used to call televangelist Benny Hinn the “Teflon televangelist” because of his slippery avoidance of prosecution or tax revocation by the US government.  His ministry claims to be a church and has the secretive “church status”.

However, Brazilian televangelist Edir Macedo, may be the greasiest, slimiest tele-preacher.  Macedo, perhaps the wealthiest televangelist in the world, was arrested in August 2009 in Brazil for siphoning billions of dollars from mostly poor followers to buy TV stations, businesses, and jewelry for himself.    He was charged along with nine others for massive money laundering through fake companies but was never convicted.

Macedo’s church (but not Macedo) was accused again of money laundering in 2020.  According to Brazilian news site Poder360, in one fiscal year, May 2018 to April 2019, at least 5.9 billion reals–approximately $1.093 billion in US dollars–moved through church bank accounts in a questionable manner.

Malawi televangelist Shepherd Bushiri, who claims to walk on air, was arrested two years ago in South Africa for money laundering the equivalent of over $6 million dollars.  Bushiri skipped bail and fled to Malawi where he enjoys protection from the government. Pretoria, South Africa’s News 24 has reported the South African government faces a January 25, 2023 deadline to complete its investigation. Then  a final extradition hearing should be held.

 

More on Hinn

Hinn’s former attorney Larry Gibbs works for Miller & Chevalier, a law firm that specializes in “thwarting investigations.” It’s no joke, the law firm website says, “Given the stigma of being accused of criminal activity, clients seek our early and rapid intervention to thwart investigations before they become public.”

Hinn’s other former attorney Fred Goldberg was the IRS Commissioner that granted the Church of Scientology its tax exemption.

It’s likely that Gibbs or Goldberg met with Senator Grassley on Hinn’s behalf, but neither registered as lobbyists.

Hinn’s Ministry with its church status files no Form 990 and does not disclose how much money the organization spends on legal expenses.

Jim Bakker

While not a recent example, many people have forgotten that as televangelist Jim Bakker’s media empire collapsed, journalists reported the existence of two sets of books: The fictitious numbers and the real numbers.

More on Politics:

In 2020, TV preacher Robert Morris flew to Washington, D.C. in Daystar Television’s Gulfstream G5 jet for the National & Global Day of Prayer and repentance featuring a prayer proclamation from Donald Trump.

Daystar’s jet and televangelist James Robison’s jet traveled to California where Robison and Daystar president Marcus Lamb (and family) attended a political fundraising event at the Ritz Carlton in Dana Point.

The Dangerous Legal Structures of Hillsong Church

(Photo: Hillsong founder Brian Houston in the documentary “Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed”)

Jesus once told a parable about two different people constructing houses. One built on a foundation of stone and the other on sand. When the rains came the house built on sand collapsed. The foundation was critical for a lasting home. In the parable, the foundation represented the words of Jesus and obeying them.

In a similar manner Hillsong Church was constructed on a foundation of sand.

Australian pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston founded Hillsong in Australia and launched a bold strategy to plant churches internationally.

In 2010, the legal structure for Hillsong in the United States was being constructed. Attorney Stephen Lentz, father of Carl Lentz who would become Hillsong’s most popular American pastor, drew up the articles of incorporation for Hillsong Ministries USA, Inc. and used language common to many televangelist churches’ governing documents. Stephen Lentz wrote in Article 6, “The Corporation shall have no members.”

These words started appearing frequently in church corporation documents in the 1990s. In 1994, before Joel Osteen became pastor, Lakewood Church restated its articles of incorporation with the words “The corporation elects to have no members.”

The churches of televangelists Mike Murdock, Eddie Long and Creflo Dollar also adopted similar language. Ironically, the bylaws of Grace Community Church, pastored by well known Hillsong critic John MacArthur, use the exact same words as Hillsong Ministries USA: “The Corporation shall have no members.”

This odd phrase prevents church attendees from being “corporate members”, which means that church attendees have no voting rights in the church. Instead, key decision making is restricted to the church board of directors or church elders.

Continue reading “The Dangerous Legal Structures of Hillsong Church”

Documentary Investigates Charismatic Hillsong Church

Trinity Foundation staff investigator Barry Bowen was interviewed for the new documentary Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed.

The three-episode documentary series focuses critical attention on the celebrity-driven church famous for its popular worship music and charismatic preachers Brian Houston and Carl Lentz.

Houston is currently facing a three-week court hearing in Australia. Houston has been accused of failing to report his father, deceased pastor Frank Houston, to authorities for sexually abusing children.

Former members illuminate the dark side of Hillsong by sharing their stories.

The documentary is viewable at the Discovery Network’s online streaming website Discovery+ . A free one-trial is available for people to sign up and view the documentary.

Barry explained how Hillsong registered churches in America as limited liability companies and acquired millions of dollars of real estate in Maricopa County, Arizona. More details about Hillsong’s governance model is found in our article The Dangerous Legal Structure of Hillsong Church.

One of our favorite activities at Trinity Foundation is assisting journalists and filmmakers in investigating abuses of religious organizations. So if you are a journalist and need help uncovering the paper trail of a pastor or priest, church or ministry, send us an email or call us.

Paula White Promotes Cult Leader Mrs. Moon

On December 5th, televangelist Paula White spoke at a prayer rally in South Korea on behalf of Hak Ja Han (better known as Mrs. Moon or True Mother), the widow of Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon.

In her opening remarks, White said, “What a great joy and honor it is to be here today giving honor to the distinguished faith leaders and to all those that are serving in capacity of religion and faith and making a tremendous difference. I am honored to participate in this historic interfaith prayer rally for the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. I want to take a moment and honor, as well as encourage, Mother Moon for her great work as a spiritual leader who loves the LORD and seeks to carry out and to comfort the heart of God in all the areas of conflict in the world. She is truly a jewel from God.”

Before White spoke, a water ceremony for peace was held. The Unification Church has been observing this ritual since 1985.

Continue reading “Paula White Promotes Cult Leader Mrs. Moon”

Philippine Televangelist Charged With Sex Trafficking, Operated Church as Business

(Photo: Apollo Quiboloy is identified as the “Appointed Son of God” during a TV broadcast of his Sunday sermon.)

Apollo Quiboloy, the Philippines’ most popular televangelist (1.2 million followers on Facebook), was recently charged with sex trafficking.

The Associated Press reported, “The indictment accuses Quiboloy and others of recruiting women and girls, typically 12 to 25 years old, as ‘pastorals’ who cooked his meals, cleaned his houses, massaged him and traveled with him around the world. Some also had sex with Quiboloy on scheduled “night duty,” including some minors such as a 15-year-old girl, according to the indictment.”

Quiboloy has the support of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and might be found innocent of the charges.

Meanwhile, Quiboloy’s twisted theology and business practices should have served as warning signs, but discernment is lacking in the church today.

Continue reading “Philippine Televangelist Charged With Sex Trafficking, Operated Church as Business”

Pandora Papers Data Leak: Scandalous Catholic Order Discovered to Have $300 Million in Offshore Trusts

The Mexican Catholic religious order Legionaries of Christ (LOC) created financial trusts that are currently holding $300 million in assets following a sex scandal and a 2010 Vatican announcement it would seize the order’s assets, reports the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

Three financial trusts with ties to the LOC were created in New Zealand. Their existence was discovered in a leak of financial records which has been named the Pandora Papers. The trusts invested in residential real estate.

“In statements to ICIJ, the Legion acknowledged it had set up one of the three trusts, but distanced itself from the other two, which held the majority of the funds designated for the Legion.”

When the ICIJ asked the LOC about disclosure of its assets, the ICIJ was told the “religious institutes do not have an obligation to send detailed information to the Vatican regarding their internal financial decisions or organization.”

The ICIJ organized the Pandora Papers project and recruited hundreds of journalists to examine almost 12 million records leaked from 14 offshore services firms. The ICIJ is describing the Pandora Papers as “The largest investigation in journalism history.” Continue reading “Pandora Papers Data Leak: Scandalous Catholic Order Discovered to Have $300 Million in Offshore Trusts”

Edir Macedo’s Church Accused of Money Laundering in Angola

Four of Universal Church of the Kingdom of God’s leaders have been indicted in Angola, Africa, for money laundering.

The Brazil-based church is exporting the prosperity gospel into Africa much like America’s televangelists.

Church founder Edir Macedo is the owner of Brazilian TV Network RecordTV and a bank. Macedo is copying the lifestyle of America’s most notorious televangelists by owning his own fleet of jets and a helicopter.

Revista Forum reported, “Macedo’s right-hand man and former artistic vice president of Rede Record, Bishop Honorilton Gonçalves da Costa, was indicted” along with “Angolan Bishop Antonio Pedro Correia da Silva, former president of the church in the country, and pastors Valdir de Sousa dos Santos and Fernando Henriques Teixeira.”

Money laundering accusations have plagued the church for more than a decade.

In 2020, Rio de Janeiro’s Public Prosecutor’s Office and Brazil’s Financial Activities Control Board accused church leaders of laundering $1 billion – i.e. using fake companies to pass funds through different accounts abroad and then returning them in the form of loans.

In 2008, Edir Macedo was arrested but not convicted of embezzling $2 billion which was allegedly laundered.

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Don’t be Conned by the Pay for Prayer Scam… Want your money back?

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Hey YOU,  If you are one of the close to 125,000 people who PAID for the “Christian Prayer Center” to pray for you between 2011 and 2015, PLEASE READ ON.  This fraudulent organization has been directed by the Washington State attorney general to give you your money back! However, you have less than 3 months to apply to get your money back.

The trusted magazine, Christianity Today, reported that their whole website and Facebook page was a big fat FAKE, it was a LIE…  The sites creator, Benjamon Rogovy pocketed over $7 million dollars.   Rogovy also targeted the entire Spanish Speaking world as well with his pay for prayer scam website, Oracion Cristiana.

The testimonials of healings were fake.   The impression that they had several pastors on staff to pray for you was a lie.  They had none.  Please read the Christianity Today article here.
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Yonggi Cho Church to be Audited

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On February 21st, 2014, Pastor Yonggi Cho was convicted of embezzling over $12M from his large Korean mega-church over a period of years. Now, the Korean authorities are set to audit the world’s largest church, the Yoido Full Gospel Church, based on suspicion that over $60 million dollars were embezzled by Pastor Cho and his associates. General account funds and money given for overseas missions were diverted as severance pay without approval from the church.  Read more about this from the Korea Times, here.

When Cho was convicted 2 and 1/2 year ago, journalist Lee Grady offered these important suggestions for church members and church leadership:

      1. Never build a cult of personality.
      2. Develop a culture of openness.
      3. Insist on financial transparency.
      4. Don’t build a family dynasty.
      5. Beware of creating a greed monster.
      6. Never tolerate a spirit of entitlement.”