A new commission has been formed to address issues raised in an investigation into the financial operations of six media-based mega-ministries, including two in Georgia.
At the request of U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the Virginia-based Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability, a 1,487-member national accreditation organization for churches and faith-based nonprofits, has created a panel to examine some of the tax and policy issues raised in a report that caps a three-year investigation of the ministries.
The Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations will be led by Michael Batts, an expert in board governance, financial reporting and tax compliance for nonprofits.
In an interview Friday, Batts said he hopes solutions can be identified that don’’t involve “burdensome legislation.” I would not say categorically that legislation would be bad, but certainly harsh, adverse or burdensome legislation would not be welcome.” He said solutions could include self-regulation for churches and faith-based nonprofits or improved enforcement.
Grassley’s Senate investigation included Georgia-based Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and the Rev. Creflo Dollar and Taffi Dollar of World Changers Church International/Creflo Dollar Ministries.
Long said in a statement that he was “elieved that after more than three years of intense investigation and countless untrue allegations that Sen. Charles Grassley’s review has found no evidence of wrongdoing."
Of the six ministries, only two, Joyce Meyer Ministries and Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church, provided answers to all the questions. The staff said those two ministries also explained that they have made significant internal governance reforms.
Three ministries provided incomplete information. They were Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church; Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church/Eddie L. Long Ministries; and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries.
World Changers was called the “least cooperative.” To date, the review said, the committee staff has been unable to determine the names of the ministry’s board members or any information regarding compensation. A spokeswoman for Dollar could not be reached for comment.
As a result, information about those churches was gleaned from public sources and current or former officers, directors, key employees, watchdog groups and current and former members. The staff, for a variety of reasons, decided against issuing supoenas. In some cases, informants said they were warned by churches that they would be sued if they violated confidentiality agreements. Some informants would only speak anonymously and some were too frightened to do even that, according to a staff memo to Grassley.
The investigation report issued this week details the ministries’ luxury homes and cars, trips on private jets and expensive gifts, including two Rolls Royces that a third party reported was given to the Dollars as a gift from the church.
- The ministries have multiple for-profit and nonprofit entities, (including music publishing and recording companies) that reside on church-owned property. The investigation generally did not find Internal Revenue Service Form 990s for the nonprofits and assumed they were "integrated auxiliaries" of the church and therefore exempt from filing the form, which other nonprofits are required to do. Additionally, according to the report, as of August 2008, a search of the Georgia Secretary of State records indicates there is no legal entity by the name of Creflo Dollar Ministries. However, the church's website links to a Web site titled Creflo Dollar Ministries.
- Citing Federal Aviation Administration records, the report says Dollar's "primary means of travel" is a 1984 GulfStream jet. The jet is owned by the for-profit corporation World Heir Inc., of which Creflo Dollar is listed as the chief executive officer and Taffi Dollar is chief financial officer and secretary, according to the report. The report also said Dollar used a 1973 Lear jet. According to FAA records, that jet is owned by World Changers Ministries. It also mentioned other jets.
- The Senate committee also examined records of flights on private jets that showed several one-day flights or trips to "known vacation spots" such as St. Kitts–Nevis. and Nassau.
- The investigation also looked at some of the ministry's residential dealings. According to Fulton County property records, the review said, Creflo and Taffi Dollar bought a residence at 4695 Hamden Forest in August 1996. In April 1998, the Dollars executed a quitclaim deed to convey the property to World Changers Church International Inc. for zero dollars. "A quitclaim deed means any debt associated with the property would now become the responsibility of WCCI," the review stated. The loan associated with the property was paid off later that year. The committee staff couldn't determine if the Dollars paid off the loan to the bank or if WCCI paid the loan.
- In 2003 and 2004, the committee said, the Dollars took out loans totaling more than $1.6 million using the house as collateral. The property is now listed for sale at $1.39 million.
- New Birth provided the committee a list of board members in 2008. It did not provide the names of board of directors f0r 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007, as requested. The church submitted its corporation certificate from 1984 with bylaws attached, according to the investigation. Based on the bylaws, Long is listed as president and, as such, can "veto" any resolution approved by the board and cast the majority vote if the board is deadlocked. The president also has to approve any resolution by the board to remove a director.
- The ministry did not provide salary information for Long, as requested by the committee. But the report said that according to 2004 testimony in a lawsuit, Long said New Birth at one time paid him via Bell Inc. On the 2000 Form 990 for Bell Inc. one contributor gave the nonprofit $1.62 million. "This may be a contribution from NBMBC to Bell to pay Long"s compensation per the 2004 testimony," the report said.
The fact that some of the targeted ministries failed to provide complete or any information to the committee was particularly troublesome, said Riggins Earl, a professor of ethics at Interdenominational Theological Center.
“Something in the culture has obviously gone out of control in terms of a church’s corporate accountability and transparency,” he said.
“I’m all gung ho for church and state separation but I don’t think the church should have the power that Mr. Dollar and Mr. Long want to give themselves.”
But some watchdog groups think more should be done.
Ole Anthony, president of the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, which has worked closely with Grassley’s committee, is concerned ministries won’t feel the pressure to change – at least not yet. He said the ECFA doesn’t have any “teeth. Those guys wouldn’t even consider joining ECFA, especially ministers like Eddie Long, who essentially have a sole proprietorship.” At the time the investigation began, none of the six ministries were ECFA members. Joyce Meyer Ministries joined in March 2009
He hopes the report will usher in a “sea change” in monitoring and transparency. “This is the first step,” he said. “This isn’t over.”
To read the summaries and release go to http://tinyurl.com/2ccvnye.