(Article updated with information about televangelists obtaining loans from mafia-connected individuals.)
The three-episode Discovery+ documentary series King of the Con tells the life story Barry Minkow, an infamous conman turned pastor, who subsequently robbed a church of $3 million dollars. The Bible warns of people like Minkow, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.” – Proverbs 26:11 NIV
Minkow’s life could serve as a playbook for corrupt televangelists as so many of the same techniques are repeatedly used.
Through interviews Minkow describes how he rationalized his criminal behavior. “Looking back, it sounds crazy but at the time I really didn’t think it was so bad.”
As a teenager, Minkow started ZZZZ Best, a carpet cleaning company, in Inglewood, a small city near Los Angeles. When he was 19 years old, ZZZZ Best went public. As investors purchased stocks, the company’s value soared and a year later was worth $280 million. (Wikipedia provides a good overview of Minkow’s crimes.)
Minkow hired publicist Jeri Carr to promote his company. Local media enjoyed telling the story of a high school student launching a successful business. Carr and the media didn’t know that Minkow was also operating an illegal insurance restoration scheme. Insurance companies were billed for work that was never performed.
Early in the history in ZZZZ Best, Minkow needed funding to grow and turned to mafia-connected Jack Catain for a loan. The mafia generated large profits by loan sharking which is providing high-interest loans to people and businesses that banks considered too risky to serve. This may surprise many Christians but at least two televangelists have received loans from mafia-connected figures.
In his autobiography The Soul-Winning Century, Rex Humbard revealed how he received a loan from Jimmy Hoffa, the infamous president of the Teamsters. The union’s pension fund also financed criminal enterprises as Hoffa made lucrative loans to mafia, according to Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith.
Robert Tilton’s church obtained a loan from Herman Beebe, an associate of Carlos Marcello, former head of the New Orleans mafia. In 1993, Tilton testified about the loan in federal court, “After we had gotten the loan from his insurance company we began to hear rumors and people saying that when you borrowed money from these particular people, that if you missed a payment they were prone to come and take over your properties, and that they were the type of people that we did not want to have any type of association with, and so we paid the loan off as quickly as possible.”
After ZZZZ Best’s Ponzi scheme collapsed following critical news coverage and a federal investigation, a jury convicted Minkow of fraud.
Rebranding by Creating a New Life Story
Following his prison release, Minkow rebranded himself by playing the role of a reformed ex-criminal.
People love redemption stories. Minkow became a pastor and started the Fraud Discovery Institute. Minkow’s charismatic preaching and interesting stories drew an audience. His investigations into fraudulent companies gained the respect of journalists.
Minkow claimed that while in prison he befriended an inmate nicknamed Peanut who challenged him to stop taking shortcuts in life. According to Minkow, Peanut’s advice was life changing. However, Scott Lowther, senior pastor of Community Bible Church in San Diego where Minkow previously served as pastor, doubts that Peanut ever existed.
Sometimes religious leaders invent false testimonies to market themselves.
While Minkow ran ZZZZ Best, America’s most famous “Christian” comedian Mike Warnke falsely claimed to be a former satanist. As Minkow served his first prison sentence, televangelist Benny Hinn wrote his dishonest autobiography Good Morning, Holy Spirit containing the lie, “My father was the mayor of Jaffa during my childhood.” Jim Bakker authored the book I Was Wrong to remake himself as the repentant pastor.
In the early 1900s televangelists Robert Tilton, Larry Lea, and W.V. Grant were exposed by ABC Prime Time Live with Diane Sawyer helped by Trinity Foundation; and within a few years, W.V. Grant was convicted and spent a year in prison for income tax evasion.
Like a leopard that can’t lose its spots (from Jeremiah 13:23) both Robert Tilton and W.V. Grant never stopped using the worst fundraising techniques up until the present day.
Stealing Church Funds
After a member of Minkow’s church lost his wife to cancer, the widower donated money to the church to fund the building of a hospital in Africa for AIDS patients. Minkow took the money for himself.
$50,000 was stolen from the church weeks before Minkow resigned. Although he was never charged, Minkow was the primary suspect as the security system was turned off during the time of the “break-in.” When Minkow quit his job as pastor, the church was practically broke.
While stealing from the church, Minkow hatched a criminal scheme through his Fraud Discovery Institute. Minkow shorted the stock of Lennar Corporation before he released a report accusing the large home construction company of fraud.
Minkow rationalized his criminal behavior. “It became a lifestyle and always with the excuse that I’m uncovering fraud. The church is growing. We’re expanding. No one’s getting hurt. It’s all good.”
Minkow enjoyed the excitement that accompanied his criminal conduct, “When you’re in the middle of doing something wrong, those consequences get cropped out. You know what I mean? You just see the fun. It’s pleasure on credit, right?”
Pastor Lowther believes that Minkow has never reformed. “Barry used what God intended for good, Barry used for his own personal evil and that’s the ultimate prostitution, I suppose.”