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The tall Grass(ley)

Charity | Taking cover from a Senate investigation could mean subpoenas for ministries

On May 2, a group of 20 conservative and Christian activists sent a letter to the Senate Finance Committee expressing concern over Sen. Charles Grassley's investigation of six televangelists. The letter says Grassley ignored normal processes and targeted organizations that "share the same branch of evangelicalism and . . . promote socially conservative public policy positions."

The letter-signed by Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel and Dean of Liberty University's School of Law, conservative icon Paul Weyrich, and the American Family Association's Donald Wildmon, among others-is the latest in a saga that began last November. On Nov. 6, Grassley, the committee's ranking Republican, asked for detailed financial information from Paula and Randy White's Without Walls International Church, Benny Hinn Ministries, Joyce Meyer Ministries, Kenneth Copeland Ministries, Eddie Long's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, and Creflo Dollar's World Changers Church International.

Only Joyce Meyer met the original 30-day deadline. On the rest, Grassley turned up the heat. His latest request, sent in early March, included the signature of Sen. Max Baucus, the chairman of the committee. That's significant: When the chair and the ranking minority member agree, the committee can issue subpoenas.

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That threat seemed to have an effect. When the March 31 deadline on the Grassley-Baucus letter passed, only Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar remained defiant. Copeland's organization has since mounted a spirited counter-offensive, issuing a statement on April 11 asking for an IRS audit-but in accordance with the Church Audit Procedures Act of 1984 (CAPA). If Grassley wants information, they say, he can then ask the IRS for it. Ministry watchdogs say it's a clever strategy because IRS audits are confidential, take a long time to complete, and immunize an organization from additional scrutiny for at least five years.

Staver, a signer of the May 2 letter, favors working through CAPA and calls the investigation a "symptom of a greater problem, the problem of the legislative branch putting together a committee to investigate anything that ends up in the popular media. This investigation sets a dangerous precedent. . . . How these ministries use money may be unsettling, but the precedent Grassley is setting is even more unsettling."

But donor advocates say ministries are defending their own rights at the expense of donors. Further, they say, ministry self-policing-rather than self-defense-might convince Grassley and the committee that more regulations are not needed.

In any case, Grassley's office said that CAPA, which Grassley co-sponsored, simply doesn't apply. Such investigations are in the purview of the committee, which-according to Grassley spokesperson Jill Kozeny-is responsible for passing laws and "evaluating the adequacy of those laws." In a written statement, she added: "The investigation isn't concerned with church doctrine. It is considering the adequacy of tax-exempt laws, which haven't been updated in any substantial way since 1968."

Such investigations are not new. Since 2001 Grassley or the Finance Committee has investigated the Smithsonian Institution, college endowment funds, nonprofit hospitals, and nonprofit foundations. The criminal convictions against Jack Abramoff were the result, at least in part, of investigations into tax-exempt organizations Abramoff had created. Kozeny added that while "subpoenas are certainly a tool of the committee," Grassley hopes the organizations will voluntarily comply with requests for financial information.

There's no doubt that if the subpoenas start flying, the stakes go up: The last time the committee issued subpoenas, during the Jack Abramoff investigation, people ended up in jail.

Rusty Leonard and Warren Cole Smith
Rusty Leonard and Warren Cole Smith

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