Senator Probes Megachurches' Finances

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) i i

hide captionAs part of his inquiry into megachurches, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) recently learned that "an individual always had to stay in a presidential suite when he traveled," which sometimes cost $5,000.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA)

As part of his inquiry into megachurches, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) recently learned that "an individual always had to stay in a presidential suite when he traveled," which sometimes cost $5,000.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

From 'Love Offerings' to Luxury Jets

In each of the letters to the six churches, Grassley asks questions tailored to each ministry. Grassley wants the church executives to give him answers on their lavish lifestyles. Read some of the questions Grassley asks in his letters.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, expects responses this week from half a dozen of the country's largest churches to questions about their finances.

Grassley has taken on megachurches, where millions of dollars are raised with little oversight. In letters that Grassley sent to the churches last month, he wonders whether the lavish lifestyles of the ministers violate the churches' tax-exempt status.

The churches are huge, with congregations in the tens of thousands. The buildings are like magnificent stadiums, and the pastors are larger than life.

Rev. Creflo Dollar preaches the prosperity gospel, the belief that wealth is a blessing from God. He runs World Changers International Church just south of Atlanta. In a DVD called Does God Want You to be Poor?, Dollar says that Jesus was not poor and his disciples were not poor. He says faith can transform poverty into an abundant life.

"When we are prosperous people, we are responsible for going in, going back and impacting somebody else's life that's down. That's our job: to pick people up," Dollar says on the DVD. "But listen, how you gonna pick somebody up when you're down yourself?"

Rev. Dollar did not respond to requests for an interview. At a recent Bible study at his church, he encouraged members to open a savings account. But it's the extravagant pattern of spending at megachurches that led Grassley to send letters to the six ministries — including Dollar's — with inquiries about their financial records.

The others include Bishop Eddie Long Ministries in Georgia; Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn Ministries in Texas; Joyce Meyer Ministries in Missouri; and Paula White Ministries in Florida.

Grassley's Inquiry

Grassley said there have been complaints about the pastors' extravagant lifestyles and questions about whether the churches' tax-exempt status is being abused. That includes the personal use of Rolls Royce cars, private jets and multimillion-dollar homes. Grassley is also looking into exorbitant salaries, so called "love offerings" or cash payments to ministers; a justification for layovers in Hawaii and the Fiji Islands; and in one case, the purchase of a $23,000 commode with a marble top.

"There's enough questions being raised that we felt it should be further investigated," Grassley told NPR.

Since Grassley began seeking answers from the churches a few weeks ago, someone approached his staff with new information, that, "an individual always had to stay in a presidential suite when he traveled, and that the cost could be as high as $5,000," Grassley said. "Maybe that's not illegal, but it may raise questions about whether it's the right expenditure of money."

Some ministers have questioned the investigation. Bishop Eddie Long called it unjust and an attack on religious freedom and property rights. Long declined to talk further.

Ken Behr, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, says that most churches in the country do not file a financial statement and they don't have the level of transparency Grassley is looking for.

None of the churches belong to Behr's group. Behr said the Senate inquiry does not infringe on the separation of church and state because Grassley's questions have nothing to do with church doctrine.

Behr said it has to do with tax issues and the following types of questions:

"Were perks actually taxable benefits? Were gifts that were given to the ministry actually what's called a pass-through transaction, where the individual gives directly to another individual rather than using the church in between?" according to Behr.

Questions also focus on compensation for the pastors. "Was there some oversight?" Behr said.

Ministry Responses

While the majority of churches have responded to Grassley, it is unclear how many will answer his questions.

Joyce Meyer Ministries has posted financial reports on its Web site. In a news release, Meyer said that even though she is not required by law to answer Grassley's questions, she will do so by the Dec. 6 deadline.

Regarding the $23,000 commode, the statement calls it "a tall, elegant chest of drawers" and says it's one of more than five dozen pieces of furniture that the ministry paid $261,000 for in 2001 to furnish its headquarters.

Grassley said he wants to make sure that billions of dollars in donations are being used properly and not for personal gain.

"My business is the enforcement of the tax laws and the integrity of the tax code and making sure that trustees of charitable giving are true trustees," Grassley said.

If the churches fail to respond this week, they could face further scrutiny from the IRS and from congressional hearings.

Letters from Grassley to Six Megachurches

In each of the letters to the six churches, Senate Finance Committee ranking member Charles Grassley (R-IA) asks for audited financial statements, names of affiliated churches and integrated auxiliaries, board members' names and addresses, and the names and addresses of individuals who serve on compensation committees. He also asks about executive compensation, housing allowances, loans and personal use of assets such as jets, employees and vehicles.

Much of the initial information that led to Grassley's inquiry came from media coverage, according to his spokeswoman.

Grassley also asks questions specifically tailored to each ministry. From private planes to Bentleys, Grassley wants the church executives to give him answers on their lavish lifestyles.

Letter to Kenneth and Gloria Copeland

Newark, Texas

FOR PROFIT: Information about the formation of a for-profit entity. Grassley wants to know who authorized the use of church assets — cash and a mineral deed — to be given to the company and the value of assets used to form it. He also wants to know if the Copelands have any interest in the company.

JET: Information about a ministry jet — reportedly a $20 million Cessna — used for layovers in Maui, the Fiji Islands and Honolulu as well as for trips to Colorado, Louisiana and Texas. He was reportedly criticized for using a Cessna for personal vacations with friends.

PROJECTS: An explanation of what happened to donations to build "The Revival Capital of the World," which was to include a headquarters, resort hotel, media center and a retirement community.


Letter to Creflo and Taffi Dollar

College Park, Georgia

VEHICLES: Information on all vehicles purchased, leased or maintained by the Creflos' ministries. It has been reported that the ministry purchased two Rolls Royces for the Dollars.

COMPENSATION: Detailed list of compensation — including cash and non-cash gifts, housing allowances, loans, and personal use of other assets such as jets, employees and facilities — paid to the Dollars by the church, ministry and any other tax-exempt entities.

JET: Detailed information on aircraft owned or leased by the church or ministry, including amounts paid, maintenance expenses and flight records.

HOMES: Detailed list of total monthly expenses for residences of the Dollars, including residences in Georgia and New York.


Letter to Pastor Benedictus Hinn

Grapevine, Texas

HOMES: Explanation of expenses paid toward the purchase and furnishing of a residence in California and a detailed explanation of monthly expenses to maintain it.

CREDIT CARDS: Credit card statements for all credit cards used by Hinn and family members and an explanation of expenses paid by the church or ministry. Grassley wants a detailed explanation of all expense account items for Hinn including clothing, jewelry and personal grooming.

AIRCRAFT: Detailed information about aircraft owned by the ministry or church and copies of flight records. Grassley also wants a history of all of Hinn's layover trips.


Letter to Bishop Eddie L. Long

Lithonia, Georgia

COMPENSATION: In 2005, a church spokesman stated that Long no longer received a salary but instead gets a "love offering." Grassley wants to know the total amount of love offerings Long received as well as the amount of his last salary payment.

HOME: Grassley is seeking information about a home in Atlanta purchased on behalf of a nonprofit operated by Long, Bishop Eddie Long Ministries (BELM). In October 2002, the charity ceased operations, and in December 2003, Long signed papers relinquishing the charity's interest in the home. The charity reportedly compensated Long with a $1.4 million six-bedroom, nine-bath home on 20 acres as well as with the use of a Bentley automobile.

LAND: Information about how the proceeds of $1.4 million that BELM earned from the sale of 13.7 acres, donated to it from another of Long's ministries. Grassley also wants to know whether any of the funds were used for the personal benefit of Eddie Long and what happened to the funds when the charity dissolved.

DONATIONS: Grassley is seeking information on who donated to BELM more than $3.5 million over two years and whether any of the donations personally benefited Long.


Letter to David and Joyce Meyer

Fenton, Missouri

GIFTS AND JEWELRY: Explanation of how the Meyers handle personal monetary gifts and jewelry from donors. Grassley is seeking valuation procedures for the jewelry and whether the Meyers included the gifts in income.

FURNITURE: Verification of cost (and explanation of tax-exempt purposes) of several pieces of furniture that were purchased for the ministry headquarters. The pieces include a $30,000 table and a $30,000 conference table. Grassley also wanted to know about a $23,000 commode with marble top. (In her Nov. 29 response to Grassley, Meyer notes that the commode is a chest of drawers. Meyer writes that it was part of a large lot of items totaling $262,000 that were needed to furnish the ministry's 150,000 square foot headquarters purchased in 2001. She said the commode's price tag was an "errant value" assigned by the selling agent and apologized for "not paying close attention to specific 'assigned values' placed on the pieces.")


Letter to Randy and Paula White

Tampa, Florida

CREDIT CARDS: Detailed explanation of credit card expenses paid on behalf of the Whites, including but not limited to clothing expenses and cosmetic surgery

RESIDENCES: Detailed list of expenses paid toward the purchase or maintenance of residences used by the Whites in San Antonio, Texas, Malibu, Calif., and New York City.

GIFTS: Copy of the bill of sale and method of payment for a Bentley convertible purchased for televangelist T.D. Jakes.

LOAN: In 1995, the Whites borrowed $170,000 from a longtime church member. It was reported that as of May 2007, the member had only been repaid $2,000. Not long after the news report, the loan was repaid, and Grassley wanted to know who paid it.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: