Only two faith-based ministries have met a Thursday deadline to turn over financial documents for a Senate investigation on alleged opulent spending. Six were asked to cooperate.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) received the requested papers from Kenneth Copeland Ministries on Thursday and Joyce Meyer Ministries earlier this week.
"It's good that some of the ministries are cooperating. I hope all of them will cooperate in the end," said Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Finance, in a statement. "For the focus of this inquiry, ministries are the same as any other non-profit organization. It's a question of abiding by tax laws just like any tax-exempt group."
A month ago, Grassley sent letters to six high-profile ministries – led by Paula and Randy White, Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long, Benny Hinn, Meyer and Copeland – requesting financial statements and responses to pointed questions about salaries, perks and other organizational and personal finances. The Senate probe was launched to determine whether the ministries are abusing their tax-exempt status as churches for extravagant lifestyles.
Churches, unlike secular nonprofits, are not required by law to make their finances public. And while some of the ministries under investigation stated they comply with tax laws, churches report very little information to the IRS and very little transparency is legally required of them, according to Richard Hammar, editor of Church Treasurer Alert! and Church Law and Tax Report.
One of the requirements to be tax-exempt, however, is that the organization does not pay unreasonable compensation. And that is a main concern of the Senate investigation.
Recent media coverage and reports by watchdog groups have alleged the six ministry leaders of generous salaries and amenities such as private jets and Rolls-Royces. Grassley told reporters in a conference call Wednesday that he "can't be impressed" by the argument from some of the preachers that the Internal Revenue Service already monitors them, because his past inquiries have unearthed information that the IRS never knew, according to The Associated Press.
Creflo Dollar, one of the preachers under investigation, sent Grassley a letter asking that the investigation either be referred to the IRS, which would give greater privacy, or that the Senate committee get a subpoena.
Dollar's lawyer, Marcus Owens of Washington, explained that turning over information through a subpoena would keep the church's information from being released to the public and "guarantees you privacy," as reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Early in the investigation, Dollar had released some information about the finances for his church – World Changers Church International in College Park, Ga. – showing that the 30,000-member church took in $69 million in 2006.
"I generally don't make this public," he said at the time.
Dollar along with several other pastors have raised concerns about invasions of privacy and violations of religious freedom regarding the Senate probe.
Dismissing the religious liberty argument, Grassley said, "Forget it. They don't have a leg to stand on."
Representatives of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., said publicly that the ministry will cooperate with the Senate request but Grassley has not yet received any material or contact from the ministry. Bishop Eddie Long, who leads the Baptist church, has called Grassley's request unjust.
Texas-based faith "healer" Benny Hinn has asked for more time to respond. A meeting with Hinn's attorneys is set for Friday, Grassley's office said.
Lawyers for Paula and Randy White of Tampa gave initial contact to Grassley's office Thursday but no further response has been given.
Grassley said he's willing to give the ministries more time to respond "as long as they're cooperating and in contact with my office."
"It'd be very unusual if they don't cooperate," he added. "I've looked at a lot of non-profit groups over the last five years, and they've all cooperated. The only possible exception is when I was chairman, and then-Ranking Member Baucus asked for my help in getting a subpoena for charities connected to Jack Abramoff. That was an extreme case."
"I expect that in the end we won't have to work hard to get all these folks to cooperate, and I'd be very disappointed if I did," the Iowa senator said.