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?
The book is filled with fascinating insights which can explain why fraud is rampant in Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and even religious organizations.
An Institute of Internal Auditors “survey revealed that 49 percent of auditors were told ‘not to perform audit work in high-risk areas,’ while another 32 percent were ‘directed to work in low-risk areas so an executive could investigate or retaliate against another individual.’” In other words, auditors are told to look the other way in many cases and to help employers look for (miniscule?) dirt on disliked employees.
Is it possible ministry auditors such as Stanfield and O’Dell or Chitwood & Chitwood also fail to properly audit “high risk areas”? They represent some of the people we investigate for lavish lifestyles. We have our eyes on you.
One amazing fact in the book is that “tipsters” uncover more fraud than professional auditors and law enforcement combined.
A 2007 “PricewaterhouseCoopers study credited ‘tipsters’ or whistleblowers with uncovering 43 percent of frauds.”
At Trinity Foundation, we have observed multiple cases where courts refused to take a case because evidence was improperly obtained. The New Whistleblower’s Handbook gives practical warnings on how to avoid this pitfall.
“If the whistleblower knows about the existence of supporting evidence, but cannot lawfully obtain that information, the IRS suggests that the whistleblower ‘should describe these documents and identify their location to the best of his or her ability.’” By doing so, “the IRS can lawfully obtain it through a subpoena or other legal means.”
Know the Law
Federal whistleblower laws were mostly written to address fraud committed by government employees, government contractors and publicly traded companies along with environmental issues and occupational safety concerns.
While churches and ministries are generally not covered by these federal laws, there are states laws that protect private employees. Author Stephen Kohn notes, “Some states are better than their federal counterparts, while others can best be described as pathetic.”
Whistleblowers that procrastinate in filing a complaint, may sabotage their attempt to address their concerns or obtain justice.
Kohn writes, “Complying with the statute of limitations is particularly relevant in whistleblower cases. First, some of the limitations periods are very short. The periods are measured in days, not years.”
When Senator Grassley launched an inquiring into alleged tax abuses at six TV ministries, televangelists Kenneth Copeland and Paula White warned former employees to not speak to Senate investigators or they would be in violation of nondisclosure agreements.
The New Whistleblower’s Handbook addresses this issue. “But there is good news concerning restrictive employment agreements. Any employer who requires an employee to sign an agreement not to disclose potential crimes to the government is in violation of numerous laws, including the Securities Exchange Act and the federal obstruction of justice laws.
The New Whistleblower’s Handbook is a timely book for future whistleblowers. We highly recommend it.
Last but not Least, CONTACT US AS EARLY IN THE PROCESS AS POSSIBLE, PLEASE
We have plenty of experience in reporting our findings to the authorities and may be able to help you move your case forward. We have been maintaining people’s confidentiality and privacy for decades–214-827-2625.
Has Televangelist Benny Hinn repented from the prosperity gospel? We’ve seen this movie before.
At Trinity Foundation, we welcome Benny Hinn’s recent criticism of the prosperity gospel, but there’s much more to the story.
In the mid 90’s Hinn promised Ole Anthony and reporters that he would begin to verify healings and live a more modest lifestyle, starting with not driving luxury vehicles. Within a few short months he relayed a message indirectly to Ole that he had no intention of trying to verify healings or he would have nothing to air on television. That was the point, Benny!
Now, decades later, are we to believe Hinn’s questionable change of heart? In a podcast recorded with Stephen Strang of Charisma Magazine, Hinn says this change was prompted by reading the Bible rather than criticism from critics. We’re glad Hinn has started to read the Bible after all these years as a minister, but what about his false promises of physical and financial healing to millions of his followers? What about his false teaching—telling people to “plant” their “seed” money into his ministry in order to receive God’s abundant blessings? Instead of feeding the sheep, Benny has been chowing down on mutton all these years.
Talk is cheap. Transparency is expensive.
Hinn might have one huge reason to pretend to do an about face. Almost two and half years ago the IRS and postal inspectors raided Hinn’s headquarters looking for evidence of tax evasion. Could Hinn be facing criminal charges soon? If so, the recent confession could be part of a public relations campaign in preparation for a possible indictment.
Questions for Hinn?
In order to prove he is serious about repenting of past abuses, Hinn could and should answer questions about his extravagant lifestyle—mansions, huge salaries, private jets, $10,000 to $25,000 hotel suites, almost monthly $10,000 outfits and suits (per sources), etc.
He could and should answer questions about various scandals such as drug overdose deaths in his ministry. Hinn could and should make a number of his personal tax returns public—and we’re not talking about the ones from the past couple of years during which he’s been fearing prison time.
For decades, Hinn has refused to provide financial transparency to his donors. He should start by filing an IRS Form 990 that would reveal his ministry’s total revenue, total expenses and Hinn’s total compensation, including from his for-profit companies such as Clarion Call Marketing, Eministries Consulting Inc., and Pink Golf Cart (La Cocina Kramerica).
More Questions for Hinn:
1) Following the April 2017 IRS raid on your Grapevine headquarters, did you enter a pre-trial diversion program to avoid prosecution? If so, what are the terms of the pre-trial diversion program?
2) Your employees are required to sign non-disclosure agreements. Have you used non-disclosure agreements to cover up fraud by silencing employees? Would you be willing to release your current and former employees from these agreements so they can discuss with the press their jobs at Benny Hinn Ministries?
3) During Senator Grassley’s inquiry into allegations of your ministry and five others abusing the tax code as non-profits, you hired former IRS Commissioners Fred T. Goldberg Jr. and Larry Gibbs. Did Goldberg and Gibbs lobby Senator Grassley on your behalf to gain the positive publicity you received from him?
4) Ella Peppard was injured at one of your crusades when a person was “slain in the spirit” and fell on top of her. After Peppard died from the injuries, her family sued. The lawsuit was settled out-of-court. How much money has your ministry spent settling this and other lawsuits over the years?
What about your many fake “prophetic” statements speaking on God’s behalf? What about this one in particular?
On December 31, 1989 at a New Year’s eve service in Orlando, you said, “The Lord also tells me to tell you, In the mid-90’s–about ’94 or ’95–no later than that, God will destroy the homosexual community of America. But He will not destroy it with what many minds have thought Him to be. He will destroy it with fire. And many will turn and be saved, and many will rebel and be destroyed.”
A “Holy Ghost Machine Gun”?!
During a TBN broadcast you told the viewing audience, “Somebody’s attacking me because of something I’m teaching. Let me tell you something, brother. You watch it… They call it the ministry, my foot. You know I’ve looked for one verse in the Bible, I just can’t seem to find it. One verse that said if you don’t like ’em, kill ’em. I really wish I could find it. But don’t mention peoples’ names on your radio program and TV program thinking you’re doing God a service. You’re not. You stink frankly. That’s the way I think about it. Sometimes I wish God would give me a Holy Ghost machine gun. I’d blow your head off.”
It certainly appears you wanted to murder someone in particular. Have you apologized? Asked for forgiveness? Have you read Jesus’ exhortation yet about loving your enemies? About turning the other cheek?
Lots of unanswered questions, and yet… somehow, we already know the answers.
Replacing authentic relationships with superficial media and calling it “church” is ludicrous.
In a recent robo-call, convicted tax-evading televangelist Todd Coontz asked one of us to join his “church by phone.”
Gene Ewing, the tent evangelist who invented “seed faith” fundraising for Oral Roberts and a host of other televangelists, pioneered the “media church.” In 1978, Ewing founded Church by Mail to solicit donations.
First the IRS and then the courts determined the “excessive” salaries paid by Church by Mail to its founders were in violation of the tax code. Church by Mail’s tax exempt status was rejected—all the way to the Supreme Court in 1990. Unfortunately, Ewing re-invented his money machine, it’s current incarnation is St. Matthews Churches, and he continues his massive charade to this day, preying on the most vulnerable in our society.
The courts avoided rendering a decision of whether Church by Mail was a real church; however, one criterion of the IRS’s broad 14-point criterion defining what a church is or is not stands out above all the others—the presence (or absence) of a real congregation (read “Defining Church…” here).
And now SWAGGART… Jimmy Swaggart is embracing Ewing’s ideas. Swaggart’s church website says, “As a Member of FAMILY WORSHIP CENTER (FWC) MEDIA CHURCH, we will expect you to look at FWC as your Church.”
Ironically, the same Swaggart web page promoting “media church” also says, “We believe that the Church should be a mirror of the Book of Acts.” And we have overwhelming evidence that most media do quite the opposite—they produce selfish individualism rather than loving community—just watch almost any family at almost any restaurant staring down at their phones instead of interacting with each other.
The early church turned the world upside down as a small group movement which usually met in people’s homes. Ultimately, Jesus set an example by spending most of his time mentoring not the masses, but rather a small group of disciples.
Decades after being a pioneer in financial transparency—Billy Graham helped found the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) in 1979—Graham’s son Franklin and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) have apparently embraced financial secrecy.
In 2014, Franklin Graham received $888,498 in compensation from Samaritan’s Purse and the BGEA combined. After 2014, the BGEA stopped filing the Form 990. It no longer discloses what its top officials are paid. So how could a donor know if the BGEA is paying excessive compensation to key employees?
Not included on ECFA’s public information site but provided in a form 990 are a statement of expenses page, a list of the highest paid officers, disclosure of possible conflicts of interest, whether or not the non-profit organization has unrelated business income, and notes foreign countries where the non-profit maintains a bank account (among many other details).
Many churches and ministries refuse to file criminal charges or sue when a trusted employee is caught embezzling funds. The refusal to sue is sometimes based on Bible verses where the Apostle Paul criticized Christians for suing each other in I Corinthians 6:1-8.
However, another option exists for reporting criminal religious leaders that operate non-profit organizations.
By filling out IRS Form 13909, a church can report pastors or priests, financial secretaries and board members “using income/assets for personal gain.”
Ironically enough, if thieves fail to report and pay taxes on the embezzled funds, they have also committed tax evasion.
According to IRS Publication 17, “Income from illegal activities, such as money from dealing illegal drugs, must be included in your income on Schedule 1 (Form 1040), line 21, or on Schedule C (Form 1040) or Schedule C-EZ (Form 1040) if from your self-employment activity.”
Coontz’s four-year plus prison sentence is on hold while it’s being appealed. He remains a free man and continues to solicit donations. Despite committing tax-evasion, his ministry is still recognized as legitimate by the IRS. The Trinity Foundationfiled a briefrequesting Coontz’s tax-exempt status be revoked.
A Trinity Foundation investigator spoke with former televangelist mega-donor Larry Fardette last week and Larry insisted we quote him. He calls the televangelists he used to donate to, “Prosperity Pirates”. We couldn’t agree more, Larry.
Edir Macedo is a new kind of Pope in control of an enormous neo-Pentecostal denomination he created from scratch. Macedo travels in luxurious private jets using a diplomatic passport–protecting him from prosecution. He owns a bank and a large television network. This New Republic article, “How a Demon-Slaying Pentecostal Billionaire is Ushering in a Post-Catholic Brazil”, by two English-speaking authors–Alexander Zaitchik and Christopher Lord–examines connections between prosperity preacher Edir Macedo and recently elected president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro as well as Macedo’s alleged connections with the Colombian Cali drug cartel. The authors show how impoverishment provides fertile ground for the prosperity gospel, particularly in poverty-stricken areas of Brazil.
Illustration by Adhemas Batista (shortened here)
How a Demon-Slaying Pentecostal Billionaire Is
Ushering in a Post-Catholic Brazil
Edir Macedo has a church, a bank, a TV channel, and a Moses complex. And with the election of Jair Bolsonaro, he has emerged as the country’s most controversial kingmaker.
The headquarters of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God does not resemble your typical megachurch. Its eighteen stories dwarf the big-boxes of the Texas and Missouri exurbs. Behind pillared walls of imported granite and marble, a 10,000-seat sanctuary features neither crosses nor organs, but a menorah motif running from entrance to pulpit. Men in shawls and skullcaps that look a lot like Jewish tallits and yalmukahs conduct ceremonies next to Hebrew-inscribed Tablets of Stone and a gilded Ark of the Covenant. The building is meant to be a supersized reproduction of the biblical Temple of Solomon, but by way of Caesar’s Palace.
This is São Paulo, not Vegas or Jerusalem, and the men onstage are Pentecostal pastors, not rabbis. To be more precise, they are Neo-Pentecostal pastors, practicing a syncretic stew of the prosperity gospel, millenarianism, miracle healing, demon invocation, and exorcism, while boasting a level of Judeophilia weird even by the generous standards of Christian Zionism. Once a spiritual outlier, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) stands at the forefront of Brazil’s rapid transformation into a Catholic-minority country. Its seven million members constitute Brazil’s second-largest Protestant denomination, after the Assemblies of God coalition.
Bradley’s March 2013 story piqued the interest of IRS investigators and following several years of thorough investigation Coontz was indicted for income tax evasion and falsifying tax returns in June of 2017. A federal jury convicted Coontz on April 5th, 2018 and he has awaited sentencing for almost ten months until today—January 29th, 2019. In announcing the sentence, Judge Conrad chastised Coontz for his “incredible” and “long term disrespect for the law.” Judge Conrad noted Coontz was “relentless,” in the “ways in which Mr. Coontz tried to cheat.”
Trinity Foundation recently submitted a report to the Exempt Organization Division of the IRS recommending that Coontz’s tax exempt status for Rockwealth International Church be revoked (read our entire report here) and also submitted the report to Judge Conrad prior to today’s sentencing.
Won’t Coontz get out much sooner than five years on parole? Due to the Sentencing Reform Act, part of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, parole was abolished for federal crimes. Mr. Coontz will have to serve out at least 85% of his sentence—that’s at least four years and three months, but only if he gets time off for good behavior.
Pastor Luna and Casa de Dios have filed separate lawsuits against Univision and Trinity Foundation for defamation alleging that certain statements in the Univision article referenced below are false. Pastor Luna and Casa de Dios assert that Casa de Dios has been built entirely from legitimate funding sources and they specifically deny that they have ever requested or received any money from any drug traffickers, including Marllory Chacón aka the “Queen of the South,” and further deny that they have ever laundered any money for anyone, including Chacón.
Univision, America’s largest Spanish-speaking network, presented a three-part series called “Magnates of God” last month. After reviewing compelling evidence presented by Univision reporters, we’ve carefully translated Part I about “Cash Luna’s” alleged connections to convicted drug trafficker Marllory Chacón into English (read translation here or below).
Though much of their evidence came from an admitted Colombian-cocaine-smuggling pilot, Univision reporters were able to prove that Chacón and Luna’s mansions were located side-by-side with a single entry gate.
Trinity Foundation Investigations of Luna
Soon after expanding our investigations of religious fraud outside US borders in 2015, our investigator travelled to Guatemala in January 2016 taking a closer look into “Cash” Luna’s mega-church, one of Luna´s satellite churches, and his opulent lifestyle. Luna´s version of the prosperity gospel is a carbon copy of the “name it, claim it” preachers we’ve investigated here in the US.
Trinity Foundation investigator’s photo taken outside the church, January 2016
In previous posts we revealed Carlos (Cash’s real name) lavish lifestyle and travels on his private jet.
One particularly disturbing trend of the prosperity gospel is the tendency to re-make Christianity following US corporate franchise business expansion models. Almost every televangelist we’ve investigated has “planted” additional churches in America and around the world. Cash Luna is no different. He spreads satellite churches into other parts of Latin America.
Investigative reporter John Russell first exposed Luna’s church-franchise business after uncovering a strange and macabre murder of one of his related church’s pastors—details revealed in the article “Cash Luna and the Murder of Pastor Claudio Martínez Morales” (in English) (“‘Cash’ Luna y el Asesinato del Pastor Claudio Martínez Morales” — Original articleen español…).
Russell says that Luna’s franchise member church organization is called the CIEM (Centro Internacional de Estudios Ministeriales) and each member church has to pay 10% of their revenues to CIEM as a “franchise quota.” The CIEM supervises the churches closely in order to gain the full amounts levied by Luna.
Trinity Foundation will continue to follow this story and will publish updates as new information becomes available.
Millions of low-income Hispanics in the United States and Latin America donate 10% of their monthly income to evangelical churches. It is what is known as the tithes. The faithful or the sheep, as the shepherds often call their followers, also provide cash offerings in each service and work for free for fundraising events of the same churches.
A Univision investigation that followed some of these congregations reveals that their handling of the millions of dollars donated by parishioners is not transparent and little or nothing is known about how the money is invested.
What is apparent is the luxurious lifestyle of the pastors and their families. Private airplanes, mansions, luxury cars and expensive clothing are part of the life of these spiritual leaders, some of whom justify it by explaining that wealth is a blessing from God, a philosophy known as the prosperity gospel.
Guatemalan shepherd Carlos ‘Cash’ Luna summed it up like this:
“I was taught by an apostle, who told me, ‘Cash’ one always carries two things to church, Bible and checkbook, the Bible to learn what God will tell you, and the checkbook to worship him”.
Although they are exempt from taxes, the excessive informality with which the congregations manage their finances has led the authorities to open investigations.
GOD’S MAGNATES (1st of 3 parts)
“The dark side of Casa de Dios (House of God)”
Sources claim that Pastor ‘Cash’ Luna took advantage of his close friendship with Marllory Chacón, convicted in the U.S. for drug trafficking.
By GERARDO REYES
Cash Luna lets his voice break in front of the microphone, remembering the humble beginnings of his church, the House of God. The pastor recovers from this sadness slowly lifting his face in search of the spotlights of the stage to exclaim jubilantly, that thanks to his perseverance everything succeeded.
The 12.000 parishioners who listen celebrate the pastor’s words this first Sunday of October 2018 in the immense temple of Guatemala City, the largest of its kind in Latin America.
“Is it a coincidence that we now have bread and word (of God) of this size (noting the immense church building they now have) here (compared to) when we came to a single (small, humble) house?” asks Luna claiming all their achievements are a product of his tireless spirit of service to the church under the hand of God.
This version of Luna’s success is incomplete for some. Testimonies obtained by Univision point out that there was another worldlier hand that lifted the pastor and his church: that of a woman who presented herself as an investment manager in Guatemala but whose real fortune came from drug trafficking and money laundering.
Chacón, according to the sources, delivered significant amounts of money to the pastor. She was sentenced in 2015 in the United States to 12 years in prison on charges of drug trafficking, a business she handled that ran along the length and breadth of Central America. She was known as the Queen of the South. Although the case records are to a great degree under summary concealment until a future date, the released documents do not mention Luna’s name.
Meetings with Chacón
Chacón’s organization was infiltrated around 2010 by the (US) Drug Enforcement Agency—DEA. Colombian pilot Jorge Mauricio Herrera, who says he worked transporting cocaine for a powerful cartel in his country, told Univision that he infiltrated Chacón’s organization under instructions from the DEA.
According to Herrera, Luna was present at the first meeting he had with Chacón in mid-2010 in Guatemala. This and other encounters were recorded by him with a video camera given him by the DEA which he wore camouflaged on a button of his shirt, he explained.
“They were basically talking about money deliveries because Pastor ‘Cash’ Luna said they needed to start building and advancing because the work was on the foundations,” Herrera said.
According to the pilot, Luna was close to Chacón.
“The type [Luna], believe me he was Marllory’s right hand […] He was Marllory’s advisor. He is a man, for me, a manipulator,” explained Herrera.
The pilot clarified that Luna was not interfering in matters of drug trafficking but that the pastor was well acquainted with what business Chacón was in and that he received money from her.
“He knew that a drug pilot was coming to talk to them, he knew there was an organization, he knew that the other person with me was a partner, he knew Marllory was a drug dealer. He knew absolutely everything,” said Herrera.
At the time of the meetings that describes Herrera, Chacón was a thriving drug trafficker of Central America. During court testimony for the United States against two Guatemalan brothers accused of drug trafficking, she explained that she assumed her husband’s drug business after he was arrested in 2002.
“I had my own workers, I had my own cocaine suppliers in Colombia, and I had my own buyers who were the Mexican cartels,” Chacón said.
The prosecutor asked how much money she had laundered for the cartels. She said more than 200 million dollars.
A document of the case of Chacón in Miami, prepared by the district attorney’s office, gives an account of a Colombian informant, only identified as CS1, who attended a meeting at the residence of Chacón in Guatemala City at the end of 2010.
During that meeting, the informant asked her if she could make the (smuggling) infrastructure available in Honduras in order to land with a shipment of 800 kilos of cocaine, the prosecution said.
The document describes what was captured by the video.
Chacón is seen and heard on video using two cell phones to coordinate the receipt of the shipment,” says the document. “Chacón gave instructions on the phone for tracking specifications, and how much fuel was necessary to supply (the planes),” he adds.
Herrera claims he’s the informant who recorded that meeting. The DEA does not disclose any information about its confidential sources. In a memorandum addressed to a U.S. immigration judge, Herrera explained his infiltration in the organization and said that Miami lawyer Joaquin Perez put him in touch with DEA agent Paul Cohen. Perez told Univision that he facilitated Herrera’s contact with the DEA, but gave no details. A Miami DEA spokesperson said that this organization “is not going to comment on the case.”
In 2010, when the covert operation that culminated with the delivery of Chacón to the United States authorities was advancing, the building project of the Temple of the House of God continued.
The impressive coliseum in the form of a Holy-Spirit-dove with a capacity for 12.000 spectators cost 45 million dollars, according to Luna when he told the BBC. The temple performs two large services on Sunday with a massive display of light and sound technology. It was inaugurated in 2013 by (former) president Otto Pérez, who is serving a sentence on charges of corruption. Luna has said that the temple was built with contributions from its faithful.
At the end of the religious service on October 7th, Univision requested an interview with Luna through its spokesman Marly de Armas, letting him know about their interest in knowing the origin of church funds. She told us that the pastor would be very busy for the next two months, which would make it almost impossible for him to accept the interview. Based on the declarations of the sources interviewed, Univision sent Luna a questionnaire with 26 questions, including some asking for his version of the relationship with Chacón. More than three weeks later, Armas replied:
“We regret that you have been deceived in good faith by an unreliable source, since the information you claim to have received from that person is false.”
Sacks of Money
Another person close to the Chacón family, but who asked not to be identified, told Univision that he took cash to Luna’s house on the orders of Chacón.
“It was half a sack,” the source said, explaining that it was a bag of felt used for transporting valuables. The bags contained dollars and he delivered them in a place that was known as the “House of Horses,” he added.
According to the source, Luna constantly asked Chacón for money, which she disliked.
“That son of the great p… said, every day he wants more,” the source recalled what Chacón said.
Chacón and Luna shared the same entrance to their homes in Guatemala City, as Univision was able to verify through the images of a drone. It is a piece of land south of the city near the highway to El Salvador where there are only both residences, separated by less than fifty meters and surrounded by an imposing wall.
“They had the same gate but used different intercoms,” the source explained.
Herrera also remembers that, according to him, the first meeting with Chacón was in the the woman’s house. The pilot described the residence as an “extraordinary mansion” surrounded by a zoo “in the style of Pablo Escobar”. He was struck, he explained, that outside the house, in the open air, fragrance atomizers were intermittently activated to neutralize the smell of animal excrement.
“We arrived to the front entry, there was tremendous security. After we passed a first ring of safety, we were locked between two sets of bars,” said Herrera, “the first to give permission to enter was Mr. Cash Luna. He gave his authorization and we entered.”
The real name of ‘Cash’ Luna is Carlos. The charismatic pastor of 56 years has explained that the reason people ended up calling him ‘Cash’ was because he could not pronounce his name correctly as a child and instead of Carlos said ‘Cash’. His critics have said that it is a name that perfectly fits he and his family’s sophisticated lifestyle in one of the poorest countries in Central America.
His fortune has been a constant object of criticism and suspicion. Luna, 56 years old, travels in a Cessna Citation with American registration (N-200LH). It was acquired in September 2014 under Glory Wings 3, a company registered in Delaware, the paradise of corporate anonymity in the United States. Next, he transferred it to Casa de Dios and finally registered it under a trust of the Bank of Utah that does not reveal the owner’s names. In an interview with the BBC network, Luna said the plane is owned by the church. A person familiar with the transaction, who asked not to be identified, explained that the aircraft was purchased for $2 million. After the purchase, Luna made some improvements for about $250,000 dollars and painted a biblical passage reference “Mark XII” on one of the turbines.
In the last six months Luna has used the plane to travel to Colombia and Mexico. In these countries the pastor presented campaigns on stage platforms known as Nights of Glory attended by thousands of followers in which he imparts controversial healing blessings to the sick.
Many of Luna’s fans don’t seem to be worried about his lifestyle. Robin Martinez, who was a photographer for the congregation, told Univision that what is important is the message that God sends through the pastor.
“If he misuses the tithe (people’s donations) he will realize that, but I go to the word that transformed me and that he gave me,” said Martínez who now does reporting on a bicycle in Guatemala City. “I can’t just put my eyes on money management,” he added.
Herrera, the Colombian pilot, said he had decided to work with the DEA because he knew that the entity was keeping tabs on his boss, Daniel “The Madman” Barrera, and sooner or later would catch up with him. His (Herrera’s) work at that time consisted of smuggling cocaine shipments in executive planes to Central America and Africa from runways in Venezuela, where he said he had the protection of the Governments of Presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro.
“I believe that 90% of Colombia’s cartels moved to Venezuela, all of them. We met many there in restaurants working for different groups,” recalled Herrera.
According to Herrera, Cohen, the DEA’s supervisory agent, approved the infiltration operation after the pilot explained Chacón’s power and importance in Central America.
“Marllory (Chacón) was the new drug trafficker of a new era and was even above “Chapo” Guzman, says Herrera.
The infiltration operation into Chacón’s organization was so effective, Herrera said, that he did not have to spend a single day in federal prison. Public records consulted by Univision do not show any charges for drug trafficking against him. Other sources familiar with his passage through the drug cartels confirmed to Univision that Herrera was a discreet and daring pilot. According to them, he flew dangerous routes from airports on the Venezuelan coast to Guinea, West Africa, with planes that had to refuel in mid-air.
In an interview last July in front of Univision cameras, Herrera explained that his relationship with Cohen was complicated because the agent withdrew him from the operation in Guatemala without any explanation. Herrera questioned that the DEA had not at least interrogated Pastor Luna. After his relationship was broken with the DEA, the pilot was left in a migratory limbo.
Less than two weeks after the Univision interview, ICE agents broke into his Miami residence and transferred him to the Krome detention center. On October 31st he was deported to Colombia where he fears for his life.