Tampa televangelists draw Senate scrutiny

MSNBC/March 12, 2008

Two U.S. Senators sent out a new round of letters today to some of the nation's most high-profile televangelists, urging them to turn over key financial records. The Senators told the ministries that they want to know how their "non-profit organizations are structured and operate," amid allegations that some of the televangelists have misused church funds to enrich themselves.

One of the letters was mailed today to televangelists Randy and Paula White, who founded the Without Walls International Church in Tampa 16 years ago, calling it "the perfect church for people who are not."

A half dozen former church employees and insiders told NBC News that they have questions about how millions of dollars in church offerings have been spent. They said that the Whites sometimes urged the flock to make checks out to them personally.

A church spreadsheet obtained by NBC News lists $43,129 in so-called "personal offerings" to Paula White in May 2006. NBC News also saw cancelled checks made out to Randy White.

One longtime former church insider, who asked to remain anonymous, said the checks were part of a troubling pattern. "It says to me that they were shearing the sheep," the former insider said, a charge that the church denies.

The insider and five other former staffers say the Whites sometimes took cash from uncounted donations, misused church funds for personal expenses and even pressured the faithful to take equity out of their homes to boost church donations. "They came up with every kind of idea possible to get money, to make money," the church insider said.

Senators Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Max Baucus (D-Montana) of the Senate Finance Committee said they sent the new letters to the Whites and three other televangelists to remind them that "the committee's jurisdiction includes the federal tax policy governing the billions of dollars donated to and controlled by the nation's tax-exempt groups."

Grassley first wrote to the Whites last November. He also sent letters to: 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, Ga., and Creflo and Taffi Dollar of World Changers Church International and Creflo Dollar Ministries of College Park, Ga.

Without Walls:

The Whites' church, Without Walls, has grown over the years into a multi-media empire, devoted to preaching the "gospel of prosperity." That's the belief that God wants parishioners to be wealthy but that, for that to happen, churchgoers must first give money to God.

"God is going to speak to you to sow a one-week's salary. He's going to speak to you to sow one month's salary," Paula White has told her followers. "I want you to get up and go to the phone and to obey God!"

Cindy Fleenor was one such follower. "We're taught if we don't pay our tithes and give offering and alms that we're robbing God and we're under a curse," Fleenor told NBC News.

One church board member told NBC News that he was surprised when a 2006 audit reported the church had $25 million in debt, even though it had brought in $35 million that same year.

During the same period, the Whites appear to have prospered with a $2.1 million waterfront home in Tampa, a $3.5 million condo on Park Avenue in New York City and salaries reported to exceed $1 million each. There's also a costly Bentley convertible, driven by Randy White.

Many of the allegations regarding the Whites were first raised through a series of front-page investigative articles published by the Tampa Tribune newspaper last year.

The Whites divorced last year, and Paula White is now pursuing an increasingly separate career through Paula White Ministries, the Without Walls church's media ministry, as a life coach and host of a syndicated religious program. But both Whites remain active in Without Walls and their organizations' finances remain entwined.

The Whites' church is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) church organization. According to IRS rules, it is not only tax-exempt but also not required to publicly release IRS filings. The church website does not include specific information about its governance - it does not even include a list of church officers or members of its board of directors.

The Whites have claimed their wealth comes from appropriate and legal compensation, comparable to what other non-profit CEOs earn. They also have claimed additional wealth from for-profit business ventures - including a real estate company, a travel agency and sales of a nutritional supplement they themselves promote in an infomercial. But Senate investigators want to know more. "Questions need to be asked and questions need to be answered," said Sen. Grassley.

So far, the Whites have not provided any answers to the Senate. When Cindy Fleenor heard that, and learned more about the Whites' lifestyle, she stopped giving money. "I felt like I was deceived and been taken advantage of," she said.

The Whites declined to be interviewed by NBC or to answer questions. They have denied wrongdoing, stating: "We take our financial responsibilities to our partners very seriously and to the best of our knowledge we comply with all tax laws."

Grassley said that the Whites have now agreed to cooperate with the Senate investigation. The Senate has given them until the end of the month to provide documents, and answers.

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