Features
Brittany Koper
Michal Czerwonka/The New York Times/Redux
Brittany Koper

Sex, lies & television

Media | Lawsuits involving the world's largest Christian broadcasting network may hang by a flash drive

Issue: "Syria's pain," Sept. 8, 2012

"It just didn't make sense."

That's what Jonathan Rovetto thought when he heard his employer, Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), fired Brittany Koper last fall, alleging embezzlement and fraud. After all, Koper is the granddaughter of TBN founders Paul and Jan Crouch. Brittany and her husband Michael, also a TBN employee, made more than $200,000 a year and did not live extravagantly. Brittany was a rising star on track, some people thought, to take over the network one day. Why would she embezzle?

Rovetto had done work for the Trinity Broadcasting Network for nine years, seven as a freelancer and two years full-time as an assistant engineer, so he knew Koper. She had helped orient him when he came on full-time. Soon she became director of finance and saw for the first time, she says, "the unlawful distribution of the TBN Companies' charitable assets to Trinity Broadcasting's directors," including Paul and Jan Crouch and other Crouch family members.

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This language comes from a lawsuit Koper filed in February that describes—in sensational detail—claims of financial mismanagement, fraud, physical intimidation, and sexual harassment. Koper's lawsuit says the "unlawful financial transactions" exceed $50 million. Trinity has since filed at least five lawsuits of its own. Even though TBN spokesman Colby May says Koper is attempting to create a "media circus" to distract from the real issues, May has also taken an aggressive stand in the media.

That's why Rovetto was confused: "My employer was telling me one thing, and I wanted to believe them." But he says he trusted Brittany and had seen newspaper accounts of spending by the Crouches on mansions, private jets, and luxury hotels. He knew that lawsuits against TBN or its employees and affiliates seemed to crop up regularly. Then, on June 18, Brittany's sister Carra Crouch, now 19 years old, filed a suit saying a 30-year-old TBN employee had raped her when she was 13. Carra's lawsuit says TBN "deliberately covered up the incident to protect Trinity Broadcasting from negative publicity."

For Rovetto, this was the last straw. So he began to support Koper on his Facebook profile: "All I wanted to do was to help my friend." On June 28, TBN fired him. Rovetto told me that when he was a kid he stood up to a bully who was harassing a smaller girl on a playground. The bully backed off and the little girl gave him a kiss on the cheek. "It was my first kiss," Rovetto said.

Koper faces a phalanx of lawyers, including TBN's in-house counsel and at least two outside law firms. In addition, TBN's Colby May is affiliated with the American Center for Law and Justice, which has a major presence on TBN's airwaves. In contrast, Koper has been without an attorney ever since the one who filed her lawsuits quit. Koper recently hired Tulsa-based attorney Gary Richardson, a former U.S. Attorney best known in religious circles for representing clients in lawsuits against televangelist Robert Tilton in the 1990s.

Complicating the matter: Koper does not deny she and her husband Michael took money from TBN, but they say it was a loan, fully documented and approved by the board of TBN. They allege that other family members just took money from the ministry, often by charging personal items to ministry credit cards or by having the ministry pay for homes, cars, and other big-ticket items.

The technical term for using ministry money for private purposes is "private inurement." A copy of a 2011 letter that Koper gave to WORLD, if authentic, supports at least a part of Koper's allegations. The letter, an "IRS compliance review" by Dallas-based accounting firm Guinn, Smith & Co. and signed by Donald Guinn, warned TBN that its record-keeping and procedures were at best sloppy and at worst could be construed by the IRS as "noncompliance" with tax law.

The letter identified "areas with the greatest exposure" for TBN as "unreasonable compensation, personal use of the organization's assets, use of the church's credit card for personal expenses, and excessive spending." To make the case, the letter identified one three-month period in 2009 when "one of the American Express cardholders charged items for over $60,000 and no receipts for these 57 items were included in the documentation." Guinn's letter noted a $15,328 credit card purchase at Harley Davidson Orlando for which there was "no business purpose indicated." The Harley Davidson purchase is on a list Guinn called a "small sample representative of expenditures that might be considered extravagant."

Guinn concluded, "Obviously, TBN accepts as true that these items had ... ministry purpose since the charges were not disputed, but the IRS would treat them as inurring [sic] to the benefit of the purchaser." In other words, without proper documentation, tax law treats the $60,000 as income on which taxes should be paid. Koper says this list is just the tip of the iceberg. Her February lawsuit says that over many years the Crouch family and close associates siphoned as much as $50 million out of the ministry for personal purposes.

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