Besides shining a spotlight on the bad behavior of religious leaders, court cases often bring unique attention to church and ministry governance issues. Cross examination frequently provides answers to questions church members have long sought.
The finances of churches and ministries which are often secret may become a matter of public record during litigation.
For organizations filing a Form 990, legal expenses are disclosed on the Statement of Expenses page.
* Evan and Joshua Edwards – Evan and his son are accused of using their non-profit organization ASLAN International Ministry to fraudulently obtain a Paycheck Protection Program loan. According to ProPublica, the ministry received a loan of $8,417,200 in 2020 to retain 486 employees during COVID. USA Today reported the family used part of the money toward purchasing a $3.7 million home in Orlando among other misdeeds.
A trial date has not yet been set. The court docket is available on PACER.
(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.
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.
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.
Increase financial transparency in religious institutions.
Amend laws to provide greater access to financial data such as SARS.
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)
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 televangelistEdir 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.
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.
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?