In a move that surprised many observers, U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) last month announced that he is investigating six prominent evangelistic ministries to determine if they have abused their tax-exempt status.
Grassley, the ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Finance, announced Nov. 6 that he has requested financial information from Benny Hinn Ministries of Grapeland, Texas; Joyce Meyer Ministries of Fenton, Mo.; Creflo Dollar Ministries of College Park, Ga.; Paula White Ministries of Tampa, Fla.; Eddie Long Ministries of Lithonia, Ga.; and Kenneth Copeland Ministries of Newark, Texas.
In a press release, Grassley noted that the move is part of his long-standing interest in making certain that tax-exempt groups remain accountable to donors.
“I’m following up on complaints from the public and news coverage regarding certain practices at six ministries,” Grassley said. “The allegations involve governing boards that aren’t independent and allow generous salaries and housing allowances and amenities such as private jets and Rolls Royces.”
Continued Grassley, “I don’t want to conclude that there is a problem, but I have an obligation to donors and taxpayers to find out more. People who donated should have their money spent as intended and in adherence with the tax code.”
Some of the ministries have been the targets of news media reports, with their leaders accused of living opulent lifestyles on tax-free donations. In 2005, for example, NBC’s “Dateline” aired a report on Hinn documenting his high-flying ways and extravagant spending habits.
Hinn, who holds “miracle crusades” all over the globe during which he claims to heal people of various illnesses, lives in a ministry-owned eight-bedroom, seven-bath mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean valued at $10 million and claims it as a “parsonage.” He stays in top hotels when traveling and dines at five-star restaurants.
“Dateline” reported that Hinn’s ministry also owns a private jet, and he drives a Mercedes SUV and a Mercedes convertible, each costing about $80,000.
In 2005, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a story about finances at Long’s ministry. It noted that a charity Long founded paid him $3 million over three years, bought him a $1.4-million house and provided him with a Bentley that cost $35,000.
At the time, Long defended his compensation and lifestyle.
“We’re not just a church, we’re an international corporation,” Long said. “We’re not just a bumbling bunch of preachers who can’t talk and all we’re doing is baptizing babies. I deal with the White House. I deal with Tony Blair….You’ve got to put me on a different scale than the little black preacher sitting over there that’s supposed to be just getting by because the people are suffering.”
In brief remarks before his congregation Nov. 11, Long called the Grassley demand “an attack on our religious freedom and privacy rights.”
Grassley’s letter cites a laundry list of alleged abuses by Long and others. Some of its allegations are quite detailed. For example, Grassley asks Joyce Meyer Ministries to explain its purchase of a “commode with marble top” that cost $23,000 for the ministry headquarters.
Other ministries are accused of not being open about their finances. The Journal-Constitution quotes Rod Pitzer, who runs a group called Ministrywatch.com that rates religious charities. Pitzer said he has never been able to get information from Dollar’s ministry. Ministrywatch.com gives Dollar’s group an “F” rating.
Grassley has given the groups until Dec. 6 to provide the requested information, which includes figures for salaries and travel documents. The targeted ministries are considering how to deal with his request. They are not required to provide the information, but if they refuse, Grassley’s committee does have subpoena power.
Some of the ministries told The New York Times they will comply, but others are wary. A Hinn staffer told The Times that Hinn had referred the matter to his legal counsel and would not respond for now.
Dollar also told the Journal-Constitution that his lawyers are reviewing the request.
“Are we saying the First Amendment is null and void by allowing this to happen?” he asked.
Legal experts called the Grassley request unprecedented. In the wake of the TV preacher scandals of the early 1980s, there was talk about a crackdown in Congress, but nothing came of it.
Ironically, acts by Congress may stymie a meaningful investigation. These ministries are considered churches under federal tax law and are not legally required to file financial information like other non-profits. In addition, a 1984 law passed by Congress makes it difficult for the IRS to audit a house of worship.