Media | Lawsuits involving the world’s largest Christian broadcasting network may hang by a flash drive | Warren Cole Smith
“It just didn’t make sense.”
That’s what Jonathan Rovetto thought when he heard his employer, Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), fired Brittany Koper last fall, alleging embezzlement and fraud. After all, Koper is the granddaughter of TBN founders Paul and Jan Crouch. Brittany and her husband Michael, also a TBN employee, made more than $200,000 a year and did not live extravagantly. Brittany was a rising star on track, some people thought, to take over the network one day. Why would she embezzle?
Rovetto had done work for the Trinity Broadcasting Network for nine years, seven as a freelancer and two years full-time as an assistant engineer, so he knew Koper. She had helped orient him when he came on full-time. Soon she became director of finance and saw for the first time, she says, “the unlawful distribution of the TBN Companies’ charitable assets to Trinity Broadcasting’s directors,” including Paul and Jan Crouch and other Crouch family members.
This language comes from a lawsuit Koper filed in February that describes—in sensational detail—claims of financial mismanagement, fraud, physical intimidation, and sexual harassment. Koper’s lawsuit says the “unlawful financial transactions” exceed $50 million. Trinity has since filed at least five lawsuits of its own. Even though TBN spokesman Colby May says Koper is attempting to create a “media circus” to distract from the real issues, May has also taken an aggressive stand in the media.
That’s why Rovetto was confused: “My employer was telling me one thing, and I wanted to believe them.” But he says he trusted Brittany and had seen newspaper accounts of spending by the Crouches on mansions, private jets, and luxury hotels. He knew that lawsuits against TBN or its employees and affiliates seemed to crop up regularly. Then, on June 18, Brittany’s sister Carra Crouch, now 19 years old, filed a suit saying a 30-year-old TBN employee had raped her when she was 13. Carra’s lawsuit says TBN “deliberately covered up the incident to protect Trinity Broadcasting from negative publicity.”
For Rovetto, this was the last straw. So he began to support Koper on his Facebook profile: “All I wanted to do was to help my friend.” On June 28, TBN fired him. Rovetto told me that when he was a kid he stood up to a bully who was harassing a smaller girl on a playground. The bully backed off and the little girl gave him a kiss on the cheek. “It was my first kiss,” Rovetto said.
Koper faces a phalanx of lawyers, including TBN’s in-house counsel and at least two outside law firms. In addition, TBN’s Colby May is affiliated with the American Center for Law and Justice, which has a major presence on TBN’s airwaves. In contrast, Koper has been without an attorney ever since the one who filed her lawsuits quit. Koper recently hired Tulsa-based attorney Gary Richardson, a former U.S. Attorney best known in religious circles for representing clients in lawsuits against televangelist Robert Tilton in the 1990s.
Complicating the matter: Koper does not deny she and her husband Michael took money from TBN, but they say it was a loan, fully documented and approved by the board of TBN. They allege that other family members just took money from the ministry, often by charging personal items to ministry credit cards or by having the ministry pay for homes, cars, and other big-ticket items.
The technical term for using ministry money for private purposes is “private inurement.” A copy of a 2011 letter that Koper gave to WORLD, if authentic, supports at least a part of Koper’s allegations. The letter, an “IRS compliance review” by Dallas-based accounting firm Guinn, Smith & Co. and signed by Donald Guinn, warned TBN that its record-keeping and procedures were at best sloppy and at worst could be construed by the IRS as “noncompliance” with tax law.
The letter identified “areas with the greatest exposure” for TBN as “unreasonable compensation, personal use of the organization’s assets, use of the church’s credit card for personal expenses, and excessive spending.” To make the case, the letter identified one three-month period in 2009 when “one of the American Express cardholders charged items for over $60,000 and no receipts for these 57 items were included in the documentation.” Guinn’s letter noted a $15,328 credit card purchase at Harley Davidson Orlando for which there was “no business purpose indicated.” The Harley Davidson purchase is on a list Guinn called a “small sample representative of expenditures that might be considered extravagant.”
Guinn concluded, “Obviously, TBN accepts as true that these items had … ministry purpose since the charges were not disputed, but the IRS would treat them as inurring [sic] to the benefit of the purchaser.” In other words, without proper documentation, tax law treats the $60,000 as income on which taxes should be paid. Koper says this list is just the tip of the iceberg. Her February lawsuit says that over many years the Crouch family and close associates siphoned as much as $50 million out of the ministry for personal purposes.
TBN spokesman May vigorously denies Koper’s allegations. May says Koper and her husband took money from TBN and International Christian Broadcasting (one of more than a dozen organizations related to TBN and its parent organization, Trinity Christian Center of Santa Ana, Inc.) to purchase a home and for other personal purposes.
But if Brittany Koper is guilty of embezzlement and fraud, why is she not facing criminal charges? May said TBN turned over documents supporting its claims of criminal wrong-doing to the Tustin (Calif.) Police Department. A spokesman for the department confirmed that, but told WORLD it was up to the Orange County District Attorney to bring charges. Farrah Emami, a spokeswoman for the district attorney, said so far there have been no charges. She would not say when the investigation would be complete, and she would not comment specifically on the Koper case except to add that “embezzlement investigations are complicated and often take months.”
The case could well hang on the authenticity of documents Brittany Koper says she has in her possession. Koper has stopped talking to the press and has named as spokesman Ole Anthony, founder of the Trinity Foundation. (Despite the confusing similarity of their names, the Trinity Foundation and Trinity Broadcasting Network are completely unrelated, and the Trinity Foundation has for years been an outspoken critic of TBN and many of the televangelists on the network.) Anthony said Brittany Koper had scanned hundreds of pages of documents and put them on a flash drive.
Colby May rejected Anthony’s assertions: “If they have documents, they’re altered documents or fakes.”
Anthony fired back: “If Brittany’s documents are fakes, let them prove that in court.”
Trinity Christian Center of Santa Ana, TBN’s parent, has not only filed five lawsuits against Brittany or Michael Koper since October 2011, but has specifically asked the court to prevent Brittany Koper from using the documents on her flash drive that May claims are “fakes.”
One judge didn’t buy TBN’s arguments. David O. Carter, a judge in the U.S. District Court in the Central District of California, on July 25 issued several rulings—some related to the documents—that mostly favored the Kopers. Judge Carter concluded: “Trinity’s several lawsuits, incessant demands for injunctive relief, and insistence on expedited rulings suggest that Plaintiff Trinity’s strategy is to overwhelm the courts as well as Michael and Brittany so as to avoid a rational decision on the merits. Thus, Plaintiff Trinity’s litigation strategy only lends credence to Michael and Brittany’s contention that these lawsuits are retaliation for whistleblowing about Plaintiff Trinity’s extensive fraud.”
Judge Carter then gave TBN’s lawyers until July 30 to explain why “Plaintiff Trinity” should not be “designated a vexatious litigant” and be “enjoined from filing future lawsuits against Michael and Brittany.” Lawyers for “Plaintiff Trinity” met this deadline, saying it is “not a vexatious litigant and has violated no laws in accessing the Courts.” They further claim that the “Kopers have feigned their whistle blowing claims … to divert attention from their substantial criminal and civil wrongs.” At press time, Judge Carter has not made a final determination in this matter.
So will this case ever get to court? Will we ever know the truth? As to the first question, both Ole Anthony, speaking for the Kopers, and Colby May, speaking for TBN, say it will and they both welcome that opportunity, though both agree that the case could go on for months if not years. It will likely consume hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Jonathan Rovetto, who lost his job for sticking up for Brittany Koper on Facebook, has made up his mind: He said Koper “had nothing to gain and everything to lose.” Others are waiting to see what the courts decide, mindful of what both the Bible and Charles Dickens teach: Most parties tend to lose money, reputation, or both during protracted legal battles.
Jeffrey Phelps/Genesis Photos
TBN took in more than $78 million in donations in 2010 and made $60 million more by selling airtime to other ministries. Ministries on TBN at least weekly include those of Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, Kirk Cameron/Ray Comfort, Pat Robertson/The 700 Club, David Jeremiah, Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, Kenneth Copeland, Ron Luce/Acquire The Fire, Charles Stanley/In Touch Ministries, Adrian Rogers/Love Worth Finding, Jack Graham, and Michael Youssef.
The Trinity Foundation’s Ole Anthony argues, “The majority of TBN’s programming is from ‘prosperity theology’ preachers,” and advocates of that view “use reputable ministries such as Billy Graham and Charles Stanley to give the ‘seal of approval’ to their theology and practices.” He says theologically sound ministries have no business on TBN: “They claim that TBN is just a delivery mechanism for them, and that they don’t alter their message for them. But they’re being used.” — Warren Cole Smith
A history of growth and controversy
1973 TBN founded in Santa Ana, Calif.
1974 Purchases first television station: KLXA, now KTBN, in Santa Ana.
1991 TBN leaves the National Religious Broadcasters following a year-long ethics investigation.
1994-1996 TBN spends $13.7 million to acquire Nashville’s Twitty City, changing its name to Trinity Music City USA, a Christian entertainment park with TV studios, a church, a concert hall, and a movie theater.
1998 Former TBN employee Enoch Lonnie Ford receives $425,000 to keep quiet about his claims of a homosexual tryst with televangelist Paul Crouch.
2000 Sylvia Fleener sues TBN for $40 million, claiming TBN plagiarized her book for its movie The Omega Code. The movie earned $13 million at the box office and sold more than 1 million DVDs and videos. TBN settles for an undisclosed sum.
2006 A multimillion-dollar hospital construction project in Haiti halts when Archbishop Joel Jeune of Haiti’s Charismatic Church accuses a TBN missionary of making homosexual advances toward Haitian boys hired at the construction site.
2007 TBN buys Orlando-based Holy Land Experience, a religion-based theme park.
2009 Nashville-based TBN minister Stephen Eugene Galiher, on a business trip to TBN’s California headquarters, strikes a vehicle carrying David Rhodes and his wife. Rhodes dies Nov. 3 of pneumonia as a result of his injuries. Galiher pleads guilty to felony charges of driving under the influence and causing injury. Sentenced in April 2010 to five years probation, 120 days jail time, fines, and restitution. Rhodes’ family files a civil lawsuit saying TBN “turned a blind eye” to Galiher’s drinking problem and continued to employ him and provide him with a car.
2011 TBN fires Director of Finance Brittany Koper, the granddaughter of Paul and Jan Crouch. TBN claims she embezzled money from the organization.
2012 In February Brittany Koper files lawsuit claiming TBN has diverted at least $50 million in ministry funds to personal purposes. In June, Carra Crouch, Koper’s sister, files lawsuit against TBN alleging she was raped by a TBN employee and TBN covered up the incident to avoid negative publicity.
Sources: Court records, Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register — The Editors