Taking Care Of Business

TV Preacher Pat Robertson's Wheeling And Dealing Spark Protests From Here To Scotland

As much as Pat Robertson enjoys quoting Scripture, he may want to pass over Matthew 19:24. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle," says that verse, "than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Since the sale of his Family Channel to Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch for $1.9 billion last summer, the TV preacher's business deals have been occurring at a dizzying rate. In fact, his commercial acumen has led to a controversial appointment to the board of Virginia's business development agency.

On March 4, Virginia Gov. James Gilmore (R) named the religious broadcaster to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. Gilmore's decision was controversial in light of his own administration's ongoing investigation into the televangelist's allegedly unethical business practices.

In August 1998, the Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs issued a report to the Virginia attorney general that examined allegations that Robertson improperly used airplanes belonging to his tax-exempt charity, Operation Blessing, to aid his for-profit diamond-mining operation in Africa's Congo. (See "Taken For A Ride," June 1997 Church & State.) Upon receipt of that report, Attorney General Mark Earley's office began its own inquiry.

The Robertson appointment drew fire from Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, who wrote to Gilmore to share his concerns.

"To appoint Robertson now, while he is under investigation, sends a terrible message to the public that your office lacks a commitment to taking the inquiry seriously," observed Lynn, who asked Gilmore to either rescind the appointment or suspend it until the end of the investigation.

Lynn also noted the inevitable pressure placed on the governor's administration in light of Robertson's generous campaign contributions to Gilmore and Earley (totaling over $150,000) in recent elections.

The governor was seemingly unconcerned about the AU protest. Gilmore press secretary Mark A. Milner told The Washington Post, "Nothing has been proven. Mr. Robertson is a respected global business leader."

Robertson's Virginia appointment came just two days after the TV preacher finished a deal with the Bank of Scotland to create a new financial institution that will provide banking services to customers in the United States via telephone and mail.

While Robertson appears enthusiastic about his new bank, which has not yet been named, the same cannot be said of his detractors in the United Kingdom. Anger spread quickly among the bank's customers, some of whom cancelled their accounts. University faculty, union leaders and church officials also criticized the deal.

The Rev. George Newlands, convener of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland's panel on doctrine, told the Edinburgh Scotsman, "Modern Scotland had been remarkably free from the institutionalized bigotry of the Christian Right in America. There is no place here for the quite disgraceful homophobia, subordination of the rights of women and other lunacies to which Mr. Robertson's supporters have traditionally subscribed."

The British press expressed similar disappointment. In London's Daily Mail, columnist Colette Douglas Home wrote, "Robertson's religious kingdom is not about the poor and needy. It is about power and profit....[The Bank of Scotland] is a class act. It is above all a bastion of honesty and integrity. To see it throw in its lot with the fast-talking, buck-raking, evangelical American is as shocking as seeing a maiden aunt take up with a snake oil salesman."

Publicity about the deal even led 200 protesters to gather at the bank's headquarters in Edinburgh March 12, carrying signs reading "Dump the Deal." Six demonstrators entered the bank, handcuffed themselves together and lay on the floor in protest.

Adding to Robertson's interests in the United Kingdom, Laura Ashley Holdings, England's clothing and home-furnishing chain, named Robertson a "non-executive director" in January.

The company has faced serious financial difficulties in recent years, losing over $8 million in 1998. Laura Ashley Secretary Stephen Cox said Robertson, who owns 2 million shares of company stock, was appointed to the position because of his knowledge of the North American market.

Closer to home, Robertson entered the oil business with the purchase of the Powerine refinery in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., last August. He did so through a company called CENCO Refining, which is controlled by Robertson's charitable trust.

The oil refinery was on the brink of being dismantled after being shut down in 1995 amid financial difficulties and environmental complaints from local residents, who said the plant's fumes caused eye problems and painful skin rashes.

With J. Nelson Happy, a former oil executive who also heads Robertson's Regent University Law School, running the plant, Robertson hopes to turn Powerine around. However, the reopening of the refinery has drawn an angry response from local residents, who have aggressively protested Robertson's effort.

If Robertson needs legal help with any of his foreign or domestic business operations, Regent's law school should be able to assist. An ad in the Feb. 6 Economist said the Virginia Beach graduate school now offers on-line coursework and degrees. Topics include "international taxation, global or offshore tax planning."

Getting a camel through the eye of a needle wasn't mentioned as part of the curriculum.