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Congress | Senate launches investigation of six mega-ministries with tax-exempt status

Issue: "Reinventing Hillary," Nov. 17, 2007

Televangelist Creflo Dollar believes that a congressional request for his ministry's financial documents could threaten the privacy of churches in America. But Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said a Senate investigation into the financial practices of six high-profile Christian ministries is his obligation. Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said he is examining whether the organizations have abused their tax-exempt status as churches to finance lavish personal lifestyles.

Grassley sent letters to six organizations on Nov. 5 asking for full financial disclosure: Paula White Ministries, Benny Hinn Ministries, Joyce Meyer Ministries, Bishop Eddie Long Ministries, Creflo Dollar Ministries, and Kenneth Copeland Ministries.

The letters asked organization leaders to provide detailed financial information, including audited financial statements, executive compensation packages, ministry credit card statements, a list of property and assets, and a detailed explanation of personal use of organization assets, such as jets and homes.

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Grassley said the investigation was aimed at examining complaints from the public and news outlets about the tax-exempt ministries' financial practices. "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," said the senator. "I don't want to conclude that there's a problem, but I have an obligation to donors and the taxpayers to find out more."

The senator also asked organization leaders to respond to specific inquiries about their individual ministries. For example, he asked David and Joyce Meyer of Joyce Meyer Ministries to explain the tax-exempt purpose of a $23,000 "commode with a marble top" and an $11,000 "French clock" purchased for the ministry's headquarters.

He asked Kenneth and Gloria Copeland to explain the tax-exempt purpose of layovers the couple reportedly took in Maui, the Fiji Islands, and Honolulu using a ministry jet. He asked Benny Hinn for similar information regarding layovers at his ministry's expense.

Grassley spokeswoman Jill Kozeny told WORLD that the senator has long investigated the financial practices of tax-exempt organizations, but added that this was the first time he had investigated Christian ministries "in at least the last few years." Grassley asked the ministries to respond to his request for information by Dec. 6.

Christian watchdog groups like the Trinity Foundation and Wall Watchers have investigated Christian organizations for years, calling on ministries to disclose their use of donor funds. Wall Watchers research director Rod Pitzer says most ministries comply, but a handful refuse financial transparency (see "Lone sentry on the wall," July 28).

Pitzer told WORLD there's often a tug-of-war between financially responsible ministries and "those who don't have the best practices-the ones who are really wolves in sheep's clothing."

Spokesmen from Joyce Meyer Ministries, Kenneth Copeland Ministries, Benny Hinn Ministries, and Creflo Dollar Ministries all released statements saying that they comply with the law. They also said they had received the senator's letter and would process it.

While Dollar said the inquiry could threaten church privacy, Wall Watchers' Pitzer rebuffed that claim, saying all tax-exempt organizations must be held accountable: "You have to show that you really are doing what you say you're doing."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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