Investigation is underway for possible financial misconduct involving six popular televangelists who preach what critics call the prosperity gospel.
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Finance, requested on Monday that the six ministry leaders provide financial statements and records by Dec. 6 and respond to a wide range of questions regarding their personal and organizational finances.
Letters requesting for full cooperation were sent to: Paula White, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long, Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn.
Grassley is trying to determine whether the ministries are improperly using their tax-exempt status as churches to shield lavish lifestyles, according to CBS News. Religious organizations are generally exempt from federal taxes, but are required to pay taxes if they engage in for-profit businesses. The Iowa Republican said his investigation was prompted by complaints from watchdog groups and news coverage about practices at the six ministries.
Allegations involve governing boards that aren't independent and allow generous salaries and housing allowances and amenities such as private jets and Rolls-Royces, according to a statement by Grassley.
"I don't want to conclude that there's a problem, but I have an obligation to donors and taxpayers to find out more," said Grassley. "People who donated should have their money spent as intended and in adherence with the tax code."
Ole Anthony, founder of Dallas-based televangelist watchdog Trinity Foundation, said he has been working with media organizations for 20 years to expose televangelists. After seeing little reform, he took a "drastic step" and went straight to Grassley with complaints. Trinity Foundation has provided information to the U.S. Finance Committee for more than two years.
"It's about time some sanity is brought to these religious nonprofits," said Anthony, according to The Tampa Tribune. "Some are committing outright fraud, and it's getting worse, not better, as time goes on."
Paula and Randy White found it unusual that a U.S. senator, and not the IRS, is leading the investigation.
"We find it odd that the IRS did not initiate this investigation. It also seems odd that they have asked about areas that have no relationship to the operation of the church," the Whites, who recently announced an amicable divorce, told The Tampa Tribune.
The local newspaper had recently detailed finance problems at Without Walls International, the megachurch that the Whites founded. After inquiries from the Tribune, the church published an audit of its 2005 and 2006 finances on its Web site. The audit revealed that the church took in $39.9 million in 2006 but it did not break down how much was spent on specific ministries or on salaries for staff.
Rusty Leonard's MinistryWatch.org grades ministries on financial transparency in an effort to alert donors of organizations that keep their finances in the dark and to help individuals make better informed decisions when giving. MinistryWatch.org gave an "F" grade to ministries run by Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn. Joyce Meyer Ministries was graded a "C" while Paula White and Eddie Long ministries were not listed. Most organizations listed in Ministry Watch, however, are identified as excellent ministries to donate to.
A spokesperson for Joyce Meyer Ministries provided CBS News with an IRS letter dated October 10, 2007 that stated, "We determined that you continue to qualify as an organization exempt from Federal income tax."
Benny Hinn's spokesperson, Ronn Torossian, said in a statement that "World Healing Center Church complies with the laws that govern church and non-profit organizations and will continue to do so."
And Creflo Dollar told CBS News that his ministry is an "open book" and said he would comply with any "valid request" from Grassley.
Leadership in televangelist organizations is often concentrated in one person or family. Rod Pitzer, who directs research at MinistryWatch, says "churches like these are ruled as a dictatorship."
Moreover, the ministers under investigation preach the "health-and-wealth" or prosperity gospel, a highly criticized theology that teaches wealth is a sign of God's favor and encourages donations.
"It is important that the Congress and the public have confidence that public charities, which benefit from very significant tax breaks, are operated in a manner that promotes continued trust and that these charities adhere" to IRS rules, Grassley said in his letters.