Former insiders question what happened to some of the church money

Benny Hinn has millions of believers and millions in donations

NBC News - Dateline/December 27, 2002

Part 1 of this Story

Benny Hinn (at his crusade): "Only those who have been giving to God's work will be spared."

The money starts pouring in at Benny Hinn's crusades, thousands of people filling hundreds of pastor Benny's collection buckets at every service we attended.

Chris Hinn: "One side cash, one side checks."

A 1994 security tape shows Hinn staffers and volunteers counting the collection money at a crusade.

For three years in the mid-1990s, Mike Estrella says he was one of those responsible for counting crusade collections in his capacity as Benny Hinn's head usher.

At the time, Estrella says, he was a devoted follower, and still credits pastor Benny with curing his heart condition.

Bob McKeown: "In cash, what was the biggest night you counted?"

Mike Estrella: "In cash? Well, one night I counted $420,000."

Steve Brock: "A dollar a day. Everybody say it with me - a dollar a day."

It may sound like they start out small, but the numbers soon get very big. According to documents provided by the Trinity Foundation, and published reports - Benny Hinn has more than 100,000 people who promise to give him a dollar-a-day. If they keep that pledge, that would add up to at least $3 million a month - $36 million a year.

The people on this list seemed to be even more generous than that - it appears some of them pledged or gave more than $100,000 apiece last year.

Benny Hinn: "The greatest thing you can do for your finances is to give to the work of God."

On TV, and at his crusades, Hinn promises that not only will God improve your health, but your financial life as well - perhaps by getting you out of debt with an unexpected financial windfall. But first, you have to give money to his ministry. Hinn calls it "sowing the seed."

Benny Hinn: "Amen. So expect a financial harvest but you have to sow a seed to see it happen... you may want to call your seed in today. Our 800 number is on the screen."

Hinn follower Carlotta Moore told us she sows a seed of $12,000 a year with pastor Benny, and that she expects to be financially rewarded.

Carlotta Moore: "Because the Bible say [sic] what you sow, you gonna reap. Now if you sow good things, you gonna reap good."

Bob McKeown: "But might that mean that if you give money, you get money back?"

Carlotta Moore: "Oh yes, you will get money back. You will get money back. Out of the clear blue sky, checks will come from somewhere. You go to put on a dress or something, or take out a pocketbook up there in the closet. There is $50 or $60 laying up in there. You'll be like, 'Woah, woah, woah. Thank you, Lord.' You understand?"

And the money Benny Hinn's ministry gets is not only in the form of donations.

"He sells his books, he sells his tapes, he sells everything, and is just a money machine, and money pours in," says Ole Anothony. "He's one of the most successful money raisers in history."

In recent years, the Hinn ministry's total annual income has increased dramatically from $50 million in 1997 to the latest estimates - that the ministry says are inaccurate - of more than $100 million a year. And because the ministry is registered as a church, all that money is tax-free and Benny Hinn is under no legal obligation to make his finances public.

Bob McKeown: "Is there any way to know how much Benny Hinn makes? Whether he's personally benefiting or not, and where the money goes?"

Paul Nelson: "There really isn't, and that's why an organization like ECFA has been formed."

Paul Nelson is president of ECFA, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, and the Salvation Army are among its 1,000-plus members who voluntarily disclose to potential donors more financial information than the law requires.

"We believe that most people would like to know that the charities that they give to are governed responsibly, that they practice disclosure of their finances and other activities, they willingly answer questions, and that they raise funds with integrity," says Nelson.

Members release audited financial statements, including the salaries of their ministers.

Benny Hinn is not an ECFA member. He wouldn't tell us his annual salary, but five years ago he acknowledged it was then between $500,000 and $1 million a year.

And Hinn won't specify how his ministry's money is spent, except to say he doesn't personally benefit from any of it.

Benny Hinn: "Every dollar you give this morning is going to the work of the Lord."

What Benny Hinn does tell his followers is that all their donations are spent on God's work - for example, the expenses of his TV show and crusades, the salaries of his staff, supporting churches and orphanages around the world and more importantly.

Benny Hinn: "So everything you give this morning is going for souls. Is going for what?"

The crowd repeats: "Souls."

And many of his faithful, like Carlotta Moore, say they have no doubt that's true.

"We're not giving it to Pastor Benny, we're giving it to the ministry to do the work the Pastor Benny has been entrusted to do," says Moore.

But this former Hinn ministry staff member says he has reason to question pastor Benny's sincerity.

"And Benny was laughing and joking and saying, 'Hey guys watch how much money I make tonight,'" says Michael Cohen.

For years, Michael Cohen and his wife were church members. He also belonged to Hinn's security detail, traveling the world with him. Cohen recalls an incident after a service at the church where he says pastor Benny bragged about his financial conquests.

"Like one little grandmother one time came up and cried, I think she said, this is my last $5. And we got back in the Green Room and he said, 'Ha, I got her last $5, guys,'" says Cohen.

The ministry says the incident never happened.

As for his lifestyle, pastor Hinn has explained that some of the perks he has enjoyed like custom-made suits and expensive cars have been paid for by his personal income, including the royalties from his many books.

While that may be true and legal, it's only part of the story. According to the Trinity Foundation, the biggest customer for pastor Benny's books is pastor Benny's own ministry. Trinity says the Hinn ministry buys thousands of the books for which Hinn apparently collects the royalties.

The ministry then offers them for sale at crusades and on its Web site, and gives them away to donors.

According to Paul Nelson of ECFA, that kind of business deal is too close for comfort, and wouldn't be allowed if Hinn belonged to his organization.

"Our standards prohibit the royalty in that case going to the individual," says Nelson. "The royalty must go for the benefit of the ministry."

The Hinn ministry also spends a great deal on pastor Benny's lifestyle when he's on the road. These records show hotel suites for well over a thousand dollars a night and transatlantic flights on the Concorde - at more than $8,000 round trip. That is, before pastor Benny began flying in a multi-million-dollar private jet.

But Hinn contributor Carlotta Moore says that use of money given to Hinn's church for God's work is just fine with her.

"I'm pretty sure NBC's man that owns NBC probably got his own jet and multimillion dollars," says Carlotta Moore. "Probably got houses here, houses there, and this that and the other. And I believe that the preachers of the gospel, I believe they should live better than even NBC's president."

But Benny Hinn's followers may not know about how all of their donations are spent. For example there's Hinn's palatial new home, now being built for $3.5 million in an exclusive gated community overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

The plans call for more than 6,000 square feet - 7 bedrooms, 8 bathrooms and a basement garage with enough space for ten cars. Who's paying for that? Not pastor Benny. That mansion on the Pacific is considered the Hinn ministry's church residence or "parsonage," and the ministry is picking up all the expenses for land, construction, even property taxes.

The ministry says the house is a good investment, but Paul Nelson of ECFA says Benny Hinn should be concerned about the perception of that house deal. He says the expenditure of millions of dollars of church money on a house for it's leader, is almost unprecedented.

Bob McKeown: "Are you aware among your membership of any church residence, parsonage, that is worth $3 million?"

Paul Nelson: "I am not aware of that."

Bob McKeown: "Not Billy Graham's..."

Paul Nelson: "I don't believe so. No."

Bob McKeown: "...residence? Pat Robertson's?"

Paul Nelson: "I don't believe so."

However it managed to pay for his house. Benny Ninn's ministry has apparently had problems finishing other special projects.

Since February of 2001, the Hinn Web site has been soliciting donations for a new orphanage to be built in this little town outside Mexico City saying it would be finished "soon."

But when we checked in Mexico, more than a year-and-a-half later, we could find no sign of any construction. But the Hinn web site kept promising that construction would be finished in, "a few short months."

That was news to the local official in charge of construction in the town, who told us the Hinn ministry hadn't even been issued a building permit yet.

What we did find, however, was this sign - curiously not in Spanish, but English - attached to a house the ministry called it's 'temporary orphanage,' which appeared to be empty. The Hinn Web site continued to solicit donations.

And then there was pastor Benny's most ambitious project - his $25 million healing center to be built in Texas.

Benny Hinn: "And the Lord said to me to build a healing center that people can come to 24-hours a day, any day of the week to be prayed for and get healed."

That was Benny Hinn raising funds for the project in 1999, but this was Benny Hinn on a Christian telethon a year later: "Many of our wonderful friends have called and said, 'What's with the healing center?' and basically what the Lord has said to me is to wait for his voice."

Hinn announced that God had told him to postpone construction, so he said he was going to spend that money on other things.

Benny Hinn: "I am putting all the money we have in the ministry to get out there and preach."

According to ECFA's Paul Nelson, that kind of unilateral diversion of funds would simply be unacceptable.

"They're creating a backlog of funds and they're not really released to spend those funds on anything else," says Nelson.

But now apparently, pastor Benny has changed his mind again and says the money raised for the healing center is being held in special ministry accounts until the time is right.

Benny Hinn: "The day will come, I am in no hurry, neither is God. The day will come I will fulfill that vision."

Remember Mike Estrella, who was the head usher at Hinn crusades? He says one night, the ministry's chief executive officer offered him a wad of cash taken from the collection.

How much money? Mike Estrella says thousands.

According to Estrella, the man who took that money from the collection buckets was pastor Benny's righthand man, CEO Gene Polino.

"I just push it back," says Estrella. "One day he told me these words, he says 'Mike, if you follow me and listen to me, I guarantee one thing, you never have to work again.'"

After that Mike Estrella says, he began to watch Gene Polino more closely.

Estrella: "One time, Polino says give me all the hundreds and all the fifties. And I did that. And many of them went to his pockets."

Now how does he know that? "Because I saw him doing it," says Estrella.

In a telephone interview, Gene Polino, now retired as Hinn's CEO, denied those claims.

Gene Polino told "Dateline" he has "no problem" with Mike Estrella, but that the former head usher sometimes got "confused." But two years ago, in a deposition given under oath, Benny Hinn's 's brother Christopher, who worked in a crusade counting room, testified he too saw Gene Polino regularly stuff $50 and $100 bills into a bag. Christopher Hinn also testified that the ministry CEO told him "...don't worry about it." Hinn and Estrella both say they don't know if Polino kept the money they described seeing him take.

But Gene Polino told us none of it happened, insisting he never took any money from the collections.

Bob McKeown: "You categorically deny that?"

Gene Polino: "Surely."

Polino was never charged with any crime and the ministry says he did not engage in any wrongdoing while employed by the church.

Christopher Hinn and Mike Estrella both say they told Benny Hinn what they saw, and we wanted to ask him about it. Through his lawyers and spokesmen, Hinn repeatedly turned down our request for an interview. We finally approached him outside his hotel after a crusade in Buffalo last year.

Bob McKeown: "Pastor Hinn, I'm Bob McKeown from 'Dateline, NBC.' Could we have a word with you? We would like to arrange an interview. As you know, we've been trying to contact you."

Benny Hinn: "I'm so tired right now. I'm worn out."

Bob McKeown: "Well, we would be pleased to do it at any time you'd be available."

Benny Hinn: "Alright."

Bob McKeown: "In the near future. But as you know, we've been trying to do this for several months now."

Benny Hinn: "I know, I've been so busy."

Bob McKeown: "And we haven't had much luck with you."

Benny Hinn: "No, no, no, no, hey, hey, hey, gentlemen, please."

Bob McKeown: "We seem to be having a bit of a problem with your security detail here."

Benny Hinn: "I know, I'm sorry about that."

We did eventually get a final answer from Benny Hinn to our interview request - it was still "no."

Benny Hinn's brother Christopher has left the ministry after a dispute with his brother, and the church says it has had no further dealings with him.

As for those other former Hinn insiders, head usher Mike Estrella and security man Michael Cohen, they say that when they tried to complain to pastor Benny about abuses in his organization, they were fired.

In another letter from its lawyer, the ministry says Mike Estrella's allegations are "unfounded and unsubstantiated," and that he was "... Acting irresponsibly, maliciously or suffered from some impairment when making the charges."

As for Michael Cohen, the ministry says, "he is motivated by a misguided personal vendetta against pastor Hinn and the church..." and called him an "...unstable and unreliable source."

Bob McKeown: "What would he say about you now, and the things you're saying about him?"

Michael Cohen: "He may tell people that haven't been around for years, that I'm a disgruntled employee. The fact is, when I first started working for him, for two years, I wouldn't even take a paycheck."

Bob McKeown: "Do you believe that he has healed people? "

Michael Cohen: "No."

Bob McKeown: "Or that people are healed because of him?"

Michael Cohen: "No. I don't. I believe that people have been healed. It's God's power, it's not Benny's. Benny, in the last couple of years, wields this power around likes it's his power."

Cohen and Estrella maintain they were true believers, who put their faith in a man they thought could bring hope and healing to millions.

"What I saw was a big business rolling millions of dollars every year, many people getting rich," says Mike Estrella. "And the rich getting richer, and the poor getting worse."

But then, there's Carlotta Moore, a pastor herself, who like millions of others says she still believes in Benny Hinn.

She says, "Pastor Benny's job is the work that God has called him to do, to be that mediator, that channel for that anointing that God has placed on his life, the work that God has called him to do, to carry that work out here on Earth."

Part 1 of this Story

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