Line between megachurch and Eddie Long's estate is blurry

WSBTV-2 News/February 8, 2012

Atlanta -- Bishop Eddie Long has been under fire for more than a year. He's been embroiled in at least eight lawsuits, was investigated by Congress and he lives a lavish lifestyle that has drawn admiration and criticism.

Still, in the past few months Long's financial empire has shown signs of weakness. Now with his megachurch showing financial strain and his wife filing for divorce, Long's finances are under the microscope.

Long became pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in DeKalb County in 1987. Since then, the church has grown into a mega-church with thousands of members and was once worth nearly $100 million. Channel 2's Jodie Fleischer started looking into Long's assets more than six months ago. She found very little paperwork because the church and its dozens of affiliated companies file very few public documents.

Long drives a Bentley, lives in a million-dollar home and has owned Gulfstream jets. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley led a congressional investigation into lavish lifestyles at six ministries, including Long's. He looked into congregation members giving cash "love offerings" to the bishop on top of their tithes.

"There's nothing wrong with anybody being wealthy," Grassley said. "It's how have you gotten there?"

In June, Long told his congregation that New Birth is audited every year, but he refused Channel 2's requests to provide copies. Fleischer also reached out to a half-dozen church members and staff, and none said they had ever seen an audit.

"Anytime anybody running the church doesn't want the information made available to everybody that's a member of the church, that ought to raise a red flag," said Grassley.

Records show Long's assets have been intertwined with the church assets for years. Fleischer couldn't track down who paid the mortgage on his mansion in DeKalb County, but did find records that show the church has paid roughly $200,000 in property taxes for him. That's on top of the $85,000 in taxes for his plane. Records also show that for 10 years, the church or a church owned company paid a lease and expense to Long that kept his planes flying, until he sold them.

Fleischer showed the records to former Internal Revenue Service investigator Jack Fishman who spent 25 years working for the government agency.

In court transcripts, Long has said under oath, "basically Bishop Eddie Long Ministries is Bishop Eddie Long." He also said his tax-exempt nonprofit bought him his large house on Hunt Valley Drive in DeKalb County.

"The assets for that charity have to go to a charitable purpose," Fishman said. "Or at the end of the life of that charity, have to go to another charity, not to an individual."

In 2002, Long told the IRS the charity had dissolved and that "all assets have been transferred to New Birth Missionary Baptist Church". Still, a year later he signed the deed on behalf of the ministry, putting the house in his own name.

Records show Long took out three more mortgages, including one for $1.6 million. In 2006, he gave the house to the church, but the last loan wasn't paid off until 2009.

The very next day after acquiring the loan in 2006, Long loaned former Atlanta Braves and Falcon player Brian Jordan $2 million for a failed luxury development called Le Jardin. The documents show Long lost an $880,000 lot in the development to foreclosure.

"I'd question how much money he is reporting as income and where he got the funds to do that with," Fishman said. " On the face, it appears to be some very questionable transactions."

Fishman said he wouldn't be able to tell without seeing Long's personal tax returns.

Records show a company called Bell Aire Aviation bought the first of Long's planes in 2001. It then leased it back to New Birth, even though Bell Aire has the same address as the church. Two years later, Long put the plane in his own name, signing as both buyer and seller. There is no price listed in records filed with the Federal Aviation Administration.

The documents reveal Long eventually sold that plane and bought another. He signed a $30,000 per month lease with a for-profit audio-visual company. That company also had the same address as the church. The lease states the company would pay the plane's property taxes, but tax records show the church paid the taxes at a total of nearly $85,000. Long sold that plane in November 2010.

Long's financial troubles appear to be mounting. Records show he has agreed to pay nearly $2 million to settle a defaulted bank loan, and he owes $200,000 to a developer. Last summer, he made a financial settlement to five young men who claim he seduced them. Then in October, church members sued Long for over $1 million in failed investments sold by a man he endorsed.

Fleischer requested an interview with Long, but a spokesperson told her the bishop was too busy. Long took a short leave from the church after his wife filed for divorce in December. The church also suddenly shut down its school in December because of financial trouble before reopening weeks later after partnering with another school.

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