The gospel message that links God with dollars has been called to judgment before a powerful U.S. senator.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) sent letters requesting detailed financial documents to two metro Atlanta preachers and four other ministries nationwide whose leaders are known for opulent, or as the ministers would say, blessed, lifestyles.
Grassley is the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee and has developed a reputation for demanding financial transparency from non-profits.
He wants to know how much Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia and the Rev. Creflo and Taffi Dollar of World Changers Church International in College Park make, how their church-issued credit cards are managed and how many cars, planes and foreign bank accounts they own. He has asked for information on the ministries' boards, business relationships and associated organizations.
"I'm following up on complaints from the public and news coverage regarding certain practices at six ministries," Grassley said in a press release.
The other ministers are the Rev. Benny Hinn, based in Grapevine, Texas; David and Joyce Meyer, Fenton, Mo.; Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Newark, Texas, and Randy and Paula White, Tampa, Fla. All are well known in the evangelical religious broadcasting world. They are also known for preaching that financial blessings are part of Christian life.
"The allegations involve governing boards that aren't independent and allow generous salaries and housing allowance and amenities such as private jets and Rolls Royces," Grassley said.
"I don't want to conclude that there's a problem, but I have an obligation to donors and the taxpayers to find out more. People who donated should have their money spent as intended and in adherence with the tax code."
A spokesman for Long said that he intends to comply fully with Grassley's request.
Dollar said in a written response that Grassley is setting a precedent that would allow the Senate to pry into donations from any church or church school.
"Because of this fact, we feel it is prudent to consult well-respected legal professors and scholars to see what their thoughts are," the statement said in part.
"The questions are much bigger than World Changers as it could affect the privacy of every community church in America."
Dollar said his life and ministry have always been an open book.
Not so, said Rod Pitzer, who helps run Ministrywatch.com.
The 7-year-old group finds and asks for information on ministries and grades them on openness so that donors can decide where to give their money.
Many nonprofits have to file Form 990s with the Internal Revenue Service that detail salaries and expenses. Those forms are public documents, but religious ministries are exempt from filing them.
Pitzer said because of that, he depends on churches to voluntarily provide information. He has requested documentation from Dollar's church, such as audited statements or yearly reports. He has never received anything from them, he said.
Because of its lack of transparency, Ministrywatch.com grades World Changers an F.
"He's one of the few organizations that have an F, among about 500 that we are currently grading," Pitzer said.
Pitzer has not dealt with Long's ministry.
None of the six organizations that got Grassley's letters belong to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
It is a voluntary organization of more than 2,000 members that sets professional standards for ministries.
Ken Behr, its president, was an executive with Ford for 24 years. He called the letter from Grassley unprecedented.
"If they were [ECFA members], this probably wouldn't have happened," Behr said.
The agency requires its members to have independent boards that do not include family members, but do adhere to high accounting standards and justify expenses.
"When a person using a credit card turns in a receipt, they have to justify that charges were ministry purposes, not for a family vacation to Hawaii," he said.
Jill Kozeny, a Grassley spokeswoman, said the senators chose the six ministries because of reports from third parties, whistle-blowers and the press.
In 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a story that looked into Long's founding of a charity that paid the minister more than $3 million over a 3-year period, bought him a $1.4 million house and paid for the use of a $350,000 Bentley car.
Grassley's letter to the Dollars mentions information that Dollar tried to raise $1 million from other minister to give to Kenneth and Gloria Copeland for a celebration of their 40th year of ministry and that Dollar's ministries gave more than $500,000 to them.
Kozeny said, "Some of the accounts were of particular concern about lack of transparency, about how [the ministries] spend millions while you have it all exempted from federal taxes."
WHO'S BEING INVESTIGATED
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, is investigating the finances of six well-known televangelists.
The organizations and their leaders are:
* Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church and Paula White Ministries of Tampa, Fla.
* Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church Inc. and Benny Hinn Ministries of Grapevine, Texas
* David and Joyce Meyer of Joyce Meyer Ministries of Fenton, Mo.
* Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries of Newark, Texas
* Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and Bishop Eddie Long Ministries of Lithonia
* Creflo and Taffi Dollar of World Changers Church International and Creflo Dollar Ministries of College Park.
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