The Covid-19 pandemic has delayed the courts from hearing numerous court cases. A year ago, Trinity Foundation shared a list of eight court cases we are monitoring. Our list is growing as more lawsuits have been filed against religious organizations.
In May 2020, we reported that a panel of judges upheld televangelist Todd Coontz’s conviction of tax evasion. Then justice got delayed again. Coontz appealed his conviction to the United States Supreme Court which finally denied his appeal on February 22, 2021.
In 2018, Mail America Communications sued Benny Hinn, alleging the televangelist’s World Healing Center Church owed the publisher almost $3 million. Oral arguments are scheduled for April 7, 2021.
National Outreach Foundation Inc. (NOFI), one of the few non-profit organizations to have its tax-exempt status revoked by the IRS in 2020, has sued the federal government in US Tax Court.
NOFI is operated by a husband-and-wife team with no additional independent board members or employees. Therefore, no oversight is available for the organization.
In 2017, NOFI generated $62,185,730 in revenue and spent only $425,125 in grants to charitable organizations. Therefore, less than 1% of revenue was spent on charity. If NOFI were a private charity it would be required to pay out at least 5% annually of its total assets.
Two of the most dangerous trends in Christianity are the growing rejection of financial transparency and removal of leadership oversight in megachurches and ministries. Such actions create an environment where wolves in sheep’s clothing turn the Church into a marketplace and victimize an undiscerning flock.
To document these trends, Trinity Foundation established the Governance Project, a database providing information on how religious organizations are governed.
While looking at amended articles of incorporation for televangelist churches, Trinity Foundation investigators discovered that many televangelists were eliminating church member voting rights. Church legal documents frequently used the phrase “the corporation elects to have no members.”
By vesting all decision-making power in a board of directors which are often hand-picked friends or employees, pastors consolidate power in their organizations and eliminate church member oversight.
Before donating to a particular organization, stop and consider a few warning signs first.
Trinity Foundation has spent several decades examining financial statements of religious organizations. There are common warning signs that show up on these documents that donors should be aware of. Sometimes accounting errors occur, but other times, warning signs may indicate fraud or deeper financial problems. If questions arise when reviewing a church financial statement or ministry Form 990, politely ask the organization’s leadership to address your concerns. Continue reading “Warning Signs When Reviewing Church or Ministry Financial Statements”
Nothing scares the American religious establishment more than the threat of real oversight and real disclosure. Perhaps a history lesson is in order before providing potential solutions.
In 1977, Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson authored a bill, which never passed, that would have required religious organizations soliciting funds to provide documentation for where the money was going.
The events that prompted the bill have long been forgotten but scandals involving the Catholic Pallottine order shocked donors in the 1970s. The Washington Post reported that priests purchased expensive Florida property and provided $54,000 to finance Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel’s divorce.
The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) was created in 1979 in response to growing political pressure for financial disclosure.
As ECFA’s history relates, “Senator Mark Hatfield addressed a group of key Christian leaders and challenged them to police their own mission agencies as a “Christian Better Business Bureau” or face the potential of government intervention. Consequently, ECFA was formed, standards were established, and a chartering process was initiated for applicant ministries.”
Yet ECFA has done a poor job of policing its own members or slowing down the immense growth of religious financial fraud in the Church.
Former ECFA members Harvest Bible Chapel and Gospel for Asia were accused of misusing donations.
Reports in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research estimate more than $60 billion is embezzled annually by so-called Christian leaders. This amount exceeds what is spent on world missions.
In 2005, Trinity Foundation contacted Dean Zerbe, aide to Senator Charles Grassley, and requested the Senate investigate financial fraud committed by televangelists. In response, Grassley and the Senate Finance Committee requested additional documentation. Trinity Foundation provided investigative reports on over two dozen ministries.
The Senate inquiry went public in 2007, when Grassley’s staff requested financial records from six prominent TV ministries. However, televangelists wanted the IRS to investigate rather than Congress because the IRS is subject to the 1974 Privacy Act and would be required to keep more information confidential. Only a few complied and then even marginally.
In 2011 Grassley’s staff released reports on four of the TV ministries revealing conflicts of interest, self-dealing, and examples of extravagant spending. Trinity Foundation had provided the Senate with 36 investigative reports.
Grassley requested ECFA set up a commission to study areas of abuse identified by his staff and to offer solutions.
Lobbyists and Christian leaders met with Grassley in attempts to thwart the Senate inquiry and arguably succeeded. No subpoenas were ever issued.
ECFA set up a commission but failed to offer solutions to the growing financial fraud. The commission obtained “expert testimony” from televangelists’ attorneys without including the testimony of the televangelists’ critics. A one-sided consensus emerged for no new oversight or legislative remedies to close tax loopholes exploited by televangelists.
The government-sanctioned commission was captured by the very people it should have been holding accountable. Economists and political scientists describe this failure of oversight as regulatory capture.
Trinity Foundation would like to suggest four bold actions.
Take a stand against the prosperity gospel
Imagine Martin Luther attempting to reform the Catholic Church without addressing the evil of indulgences. Such a scenario seems ridiculous, yet that is how ECFA treats the prosperity gospel. ECFA is quietly neutral where it should be most outspoken. ECFA’s Doctrinal Standards never mention the prosperity gospel or related abuses.
At a minimum, ECFA should advise its members to avoid falsely promising that God will enrich people that give to their ministries. Not only is this an abuse of scripture, it is advance-fee fraud. According to the FBI, “An advance fee scheme occurs when the victim pays money to someone in anticipation of receiving something of greater value—such as a loan, contract, investment, or gift—and then receives little or nothing in return.”
Allow Wall Watchers to join ECFA
When Wall Watchers, the parent organization of Ministry Watch, attempted to join ECFA, its membership application was declined. Ministry Watch rates ministries, issues donor alerts, and warns Christians not to donate to organizations that spend donor funds recklessly or without transparency.
After its rejection, Wall Watchers reported on its website, “The denial of Wall Watchers application for ECFA membership was based on a difference in philosophy concerning the rating of ministries, not because Wall Watchers could not meet ECFA’s Standards. The ECFA Board concluded that Wall Watchers’ pursuit of its objectives as a member of the ECFA could create divisiveness within the membership of the ECFA.”
If ECFA intends to get serious about religious financial fraud and excess, it must be welcoming to victims, whistleblowers and Christians that investigate such fraud.
Select a president and board members willing to fight religious fraud
In 2017, ECFA’s board of directors included 15 people. ECFA’s website currently lists 11 board members and officers. Who will replace the board members that have recently left? ECFA should seek out people that are advocates for the victims of religious financial fraud. It is time to give them a real voice, rather than being a voice of the religious establishment.
Why not ask someone like Rusty Leonard to join the board? New perspectives should be welcomed.
Require member organizations to disclose how much key employees are paid
On March 12, 2009, Joyce Meyer Ministries joined ECFA. Joyce Meyer’s compensation should have been disclosed to ECFA during the application process. However, Meyer has never disclosed this amount to her donors. She hides behind a claim of church status to avoid filing a Form 990 which discloses salaries of highest paid non-profit employees.
Was Meyer compensated $2 million per year from her ministry? Possibly. At least one of the televangelists Grassley examined was paid this much.
Senate Finance Committee staffers prepared a memo for Grassley outlining tax loopholes being exploited by religious organizations. The memo also examined excessive compensation. Could the following quote written by Grassley aides be about Joyce Meyer?
“Staff reviewed a compensation study prepared for one of the six churches by a leading compensation consulting firm that also does studies for for-profit organizations. … Taking into consideration the compensation of for-profit CEOs and media personalities like Oprah Winfrey, Britney Spears, Madonna, Rosie O‘Donnell, and David Letterman, and mindful that the minister also receives income from book royalties and consulting fees, the consulting company recommended that the minister‘s total compensation be set at $2 million.”
Is Meyer enriching herself at donor expense? Her donors deserve answers.
Following the Jim Bakker scandal, televangelist D. James Kennedy testified in a Congressional hearing and said, “I would think that if a person is going to give money to something, that they have … a responsibility to learn where it is going.”
How can donors avoid funding lavish lifestyles if they lack salary data and more facts about where the money goes, such as the IRS form 990?
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.
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.”
Christian Post reporter Michael Gryboski recently asked Ole Anthony here at the Trinity Foundation what he thought about televangelist Mike Murdock’s endorsement of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump. Anthony told CP that “it’s not surprising that Murdock is drawn to Donald Trump, because both of them like making outrageous statements.” Ole also said, “Mike Murdock’s endorsement of Trump – along with the whole spate of pastoral political endorsements – is an attempt to get credibility and to be ‘next to power.’ Spiritually, it’s the worst kind of heresy.” Read the article here.
Forgive our tongue-in-cheek headline … Trump’s company, the “Trump Shuttle” went broke. “The Trump Shuttle never turned a profit and collapsed within a year. Because he had taken out so much debt to finance the project, Trump was forced to default on his loans and lost the company to his creditors,” according to the National Review, which also reported that Trump praised China’s government for its handling of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1990.
Katrina Fardette, 28, of Cocoa Beach, Fla., has Lupus, and her condition is worsening.
After giving to televangelists for many years, none would help.
Her parents, Larry and Darcy left their home in California to help their daughter, but her medical expenses (and their own physical disabilities) drained their finances. Darcy is plagued with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Larry with severe arthritis, which has prevented both of them from working.
The couple ended up living week to week in a Motel 6.
Because they had sent various televangelists and ministries almost $20,000 over the years, the Fardettes sent requests to 18 different ministries, expecting someone to respond to their plight.
Incredibly, not one responded with any help.
A small Episcopal church in Jacksonville, Fla., is helping them. Trinity Foundation has contributed funds as we’ve been able. But their needs require more than a piecemeal solution.
Why are we involved? The Fardettes reached out to Trinity Foundation after we were mentioned as investigators of religious fraud in comedian John Oliver’s HBO program “Last Week Tonight.” (Their experience has only confirmed what we’ve discovered over the years – televangelists care more about expanding their own lavish lifestyles than the needs of their followers).
We hope this crowdfunding campaign will provide Katrina the real help she needs, lift the Fardettes out of their desperate situation and confirm their trust in God and human compassion.
Thank you to everyone that donated to the Fardettes. We raised slightly more than $2,000 for them, less than what we had hoped for, but enough to tide them over until they could get established in a new home.
John Oliver and his staff created their own church to illustrate the absurdity of IRS enforcement of existing religious non-profit guidelines. As of this writing about 4.4 million people have viewed this blistering satire and critique of Robert Tilton, Mike Murdock, Gloria Copeland, and Creflo Dollar as well as giving honorable mention to TBN, Daystar TV, and Inspiration Ministries (a/k/a INSP, formerly, the Inspirational Network). Like a modern-day Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal, John Oliver calls out the televangelists. Great work John Oliver and your fine crew!
From CBS’ interview with Ole Anthony: “In Creflo’s church, there is no accountability. He runs it like a fiefdom,” said Anthony, president of the Trinity Foundation in Texas, a church fundraising watchdog group. “The chairman of the board of Texas Instruments or AT&T can have a whole fleet of jets, but they’re not begging for money from people and getting a tax write-off in order for them to establish such a lifestyle,” Anthony added.
CBS This Morning co-hosts Gayle King, Norah O’Donnell, and Charlie Rose each reacted with shock and/or sadness at the contrast between Dollar’s indulgent lifestyle and a supportive church member having to ride the bus to get herself to Dollar’s church.