Following the Money Trail of Extravagant Televangelist Salaries…

We discovered recently that Frank Wright, then-president of the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), sent a letter in 2007(here) to Senator Grassley telling him they were “saddened” by his thorough investigation into financial impropriety of six different televangelists.  One of Mr. Wright’s complaints—he was distressed that the Senate Committee would want to know the names of the people who had recommended salary compensation values for these televangelists.

Our evidence presented to the Senate showed that many of the persons on these “independent” compensation committees recommending multi-million dollar salaries were anything but.

When the IRS sees a multi-million dollar salary, they look to see if there is a compensation study conducted by unrelated and non-disqualified (independent) individuals with nothing to gain or lose when they make their salary recommendation.  However, the Trinity Foundation uncovered a trail of suspicious studies and committees in the early 2000’s.  In one case, we discovered that Robert Tilton’s compensation of $1.5 million was voted on by Tilton’s own lawyer’s employees, hardly an “independent” committee.

In one compensation study cited by the Senate Finance Committee’s staff, a televangelist’s compensation was compared with CEOs of for-profit corporations and media personalities like Oprah Winfrey, Britney Spears, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, and David Letterman.

Televangelists are obtaining massive wealth through extravagant salaries base on compensation committee reports using compensation data from for-profit corporation CEOs. David Cerullo of the Inspiration Network (INSP) total was compensated almost $5.7 million in 2013.

According to an interview in the Herald Online (here) “David Cerullo’s compensation is and always has been established by a fully independent executive compensation committee,” the statement said. “This committee compares Mr. Cerullo’s compensation with other executive compensation of similar organizations … including cable television network CEOs, senior media company executives, CEOs of faith-based national ministries, and pastors of churches.”

“Many philanthropy experts say it’s unfair to compare salaries in nonprofit organizations with those in the for-profit world. That’s because nonprofits get substantial tax breaks – a form of public subsidy. In exchange, they’re expected to keep salaries at reasonable levels.”

The consulting company used data obtained by a 2004 Southern Baptist Convention compensation study of ministers’ salaries as a baseline to justify high salaries for their client minister (televangelist) by counting the estimated television audience of millions as “persons reached” (i.e. church members of a sort).

This particular study, first picked a highly paid Baptist pastor of a congregation of 1,000+ paid over $200,000 per year and then used that figure as part of a justification to recommend paying the TV preacher roughly ten times what the pastor was earning—a total of $2 million.

One such consulting company—the law firm of Winters and King, claims they have conducted hundreds of compensation studies. The initial question on its website compensation page (view here) is, “Are you being paid enough?”—a question to be exploited by pastors with an appetite for largess.

Winters and King brags on its website that its compensation evaluations “have proven a valuable tool (i.e., of protection) for clients undergoing IRS audits and inquiries by the Senate Finance Committee”.  The day after Senator Grassley announced in November 2007 that the Senate was investigating six televangelists, Winters and King founder Thomas Winters wrote a press release for “Grassley Six” televangelist Joyce Meyer—that her “ministry fully funds and operates more than 50 orphanages around the world” —a claim we still find impossible to believe.

In light of Winters’ representation of televangelists during the Senate investigations into religious non-profit fraud (2007-2010) we should note his inclusion on Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability’s task force,  the very task force charged by the Senate Finance Committee to help solve the misuse of religious non-profit donor money. It’s a textbook case in conflict of interest—it’s a case of the fox helping design the henhouse.

Thomas J. Winters’ personal website, the Winters’ Publishing Group, claims to have represented more than 30 New York Times best sellers, and to have licensed the movie rights to several works under representation. These authors include a “Who’s Who” of the folks we’ve investigated over the years, including Gloria Copeland, Joyce Meyer, Ed Young, Steve Furtick, and others.

In 2011 the Senate Finance Committee released a report on their investigation’s findings, quoting testimony from a congressional hearing following the infamous Jim Bakker scandal—23 years earlier.  Fundamentally, nothing has changed legislatively.  Government officials then AND now realized one of the main reasons that abuses at some TV ministries go undetected is the total lack of transparency of religious non-profits claiming to be churches.

They quoted now-deceased Dr. D. James Kennedy, “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.”  They also quoted Congressman Dorgan’s response, paraphrased:  BUT HOW CAN THEY if no churches, televangelists, or religious non-profits claiming to be churches are required to submit an IRS form 990? (our emphasis)  No public financial information is available.