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May 2008
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Finances of Six Evangelists Draw Senator's Scrutiny


From the Wall Street Journal

November 6, 2007; Page A6

The ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee is looking into six television evangelists, including Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar and other "prosperity theology" adherents who preach that wealth is a sign of God's favor.

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa wants to know whether the ministers have avoided taxes on for-profit activities or used their ministries for personal benefit. Religious organizations are generally exempt from federal taxes, but they must pay taxes if they engage in for-profit businesses. Employees can't use church property primarily for personal gain.

Mr. Grassley said his investigation was prompted by complaints from watchdog groups and others that the ministers live in multimillion-dollar homes, travel on private jets and engage in profit-making ventures from their ministries. He said the complaints raised suspicions, "but I would not make a final judgment until I get the story from the ministries."

In letters to the six evangelists, the senator's committee asks that they disclose their assets, spending practices, compensation plans and business arrangements. The letters aren't formal subpoenas, and the six aren't required to reply.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who is chairman of the Finance Committee, said he has been kept abreast of Mr. Grassley's inquiry. Committee investigations can be started by either the chairman or the ranking minority member.

Mass-media evangelists have received little scrutiny from the federal government since 1980s scandals involving the Rev. Jim Bakker and others. But on a local level, tax assessors have challenged some big churches and other nonprofits. In 2005, the Joyce Meyer Ministries began paying more than $2 million in back property taxes on its headquarters after the Jefferson County, Mo., assessor's office alleged it wasn't exclusively used for religious purposes. The ministry is one of those sent a letter by Mr. Grassley's committee.

The others who were sent letters are Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Newark, Texas; Mr. Dollar and his wife, Taffi, of College Park, Ga.; Mr. Hinn, of Grapevine, Texas; Randy and Paula White, of Tampa, Fla.; and Eddie Long of Lithonia, Ga. Most of the ministers appear on television and lead large churches that attract several thousand people each weekend.

Ministers who espouse prosperity theology promote themselves as conduits for God's blessings, saying that believers will reap benefits as long as they give generously to the ministries. Most evangelical ministers urge believers to donate, but don't link donations to earthly wealth.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Meyer confirmed receiving the letter and said the ministry doesn't "anticipate any reservations in providing the information."

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch two years ago reported that the nonprofit purchased homes used by family members. A spokeswoman says Ms. Meyer no longer lives in a parsonage and the ministry doesn't own homes for other members of her family.

The committee has asked her ministry to detail payments to any relatives and list property purchased by the ministry. A lawyer for the ministry, in a statement, said it has recently been the subject of an Internal Revenue Service inquiry and "has continued to qualify for tax exemption."

Ronn Torossian, a spokesman for Benny Hinn Ministries, said, Mr. Hinn's church "complies with the laws that govern church and nonprofit organizations and will continue to do so." None of the other ministries returned calls.

Mr. Copeland heads the nonprofit Kenneth Copeland Ministries. The church he founded, Eagle Mountain International Church, pays taxes on mineral rights valued at $20 million on 27 parcels of land that produce natural gas, according to assessors in Tarrant County, Texas.

John Copeland, the minister's son, is president of Security Petrol Inc., a gas business whose address is the same as the ministry's. The Finance Committee has asked Kenneth Copeland to describe who relinquished church property to a for-profit company and to detail the amount of money paid to the church for the mineral deed.

Mr. Dollar, president of World Changers Church International, draws more than 20,000 people each weekend and regularly preaches at a theater in Madison Square Garden in New York City. He and his wife operate Arrow Records, a closely held gospel-record company, from the church. The committee has asked them to detail their compensation and who owns the rights to their recordings and sermons.

Write to Suzanne Sataline at suzanne.sataline@wsj.com

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