The New York Times reports:
Senator Charles E. Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, is investigating six prominent evangelistic ministries to determine whether they have illegally used donations to finance opulent lifestyles.
Mr. Grassley said yesterday that he sent letters to the six Christian ministries on Monday requesting documents to answer a long list of questions about their compensation, housing allowances, checking and savings accounts, cars, airplanes and overseas trips. They have until Dec. 6 to respond.
The inquiry focuses on some of the flashiest preachers now popular on television and the Internet, many of them proponents of the prosperity gospel — that God will reward believers who open their hearts and wallets.
Mr. Grassley, of Iowa, said in a telephone interview: “Jesus comes into the city on a simple mule, and you got people today expanding his gospel in corporate jets. Somebody ought to raise questions about is it right or wrong.”
These ministries are being investigated:
- Rev. Creflo A. Dollar Jr. and his wife, Taffi, of World Changers Church International, based in College Park, Ga., popular prosperity preachers with churches and homes in New York City and Georgia.
- Paula and Randy White, a dynamic young couple who started Without Walls International Church and Paula White Ministries in Tampa, Fla., but who are now divorcing. Mr. Grassley wants them to document clothing expenses and any cosmetic surgery from 2004 to the present.
- Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church, a showy faith healer based in Grapevine, Tex., who holds large crusades around the world. Mr. Hinn is being asked how he handles cash collected on his overseas crusades and how much he spent on hotels and food for himself and his staff members during layovers on his trips from 2001 to the present.
- Joyce Meyer, who with her husband, David, runs Joyce Meyer Ministries from Fenton, Mo., and who is popular especially with women for her no-nonsense brand of self-help. Mr. Grassley wants her to explain the “tax-exempt purpose” of purchases including a “commode with marble top” bought for $23,000 for her headquarters.
- Bishop Eddie L. Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., a megachurch in the Atlanta suburbs with an active media ministry.
- Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries of Newark, Tex.
The ministries, although far larger and more diversified than the average church, are classified by the Internal Revenue Service as churches and do not have to file the I.R.S. 990 forms required for other nonprofit organizations.
Mr. Grassley’s letter says that since these ministries are tax exempt, contributions to them must be used for the “tax-exempt purposes of the organizations.”
If donations were diverted for personal use, that could violate the tax code.
Asked for a comment, four released statements yesterday saying that they planned to respond to the requests for information.
Mr. Hinn’s ministry said that his legal counsel and board were trying to determine the “best course of action,” and would not respond until they got more information.
There was no reply to a message left for Paula and Randy White, or a spokesman.
Mr. Dollar said that he would comply, but that he planned to consult legal professors and scholars first. “The questions at hand are much bigger than World Changers,” he said, “as it could affect the privacy of every community church in America.”
Mr. Grassley said that he and Finance Committee staff members focused on these ministries because they were “intrigued” by investigative reports about many of them in local newspapers and on television. They also received tips from watchdog groups like the Trinity Foundation in Dallas and ministrywatch.com.
“It centered on these six ministries,” Mr. Grassley said, “but I wouldn’t want to say there’s something magic about these six. It could be seven or eight. Who knows, after we get these answers back, we might decide we have to look at others.”