By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
Some of the nation's biggest televangelists -- including faith healer Benny Hinn and best-selling Christian book author Joyce Meyer -- are targets of an investigation by Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.
After receiving reports of lavish spending at the ministries, Grassley said yesterday that he has requested detailed documents on the finances of the organizations, which bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in donations annually.
All of the ministries have been the target of complaints for years by watchdog organizations, which have alleged that the groups' charismatic leaders dip deeply into donations to fund extravagant lifestyles.
The Grassley investigation is "well-deserved and well-overdue," said Rusty Leonard, who runs MinistryWatch.com, which examines how nonprofit Christian organizations spend donations.
Under Internal Revenue Service regulations, religious organizations "whose principal purpose is the study or advancement of religion" are exempt from financial reporting requirements demanded of other groups.
The ministries are "organized as churches, and therefore they don't have to give you any financial information whatsoever," Leonard said.
Grassley, who in recent years has forced changes in such nonprofit organizations as the American Red Cross, the Nature Conservancy, American University and the Smithsonian Institution, said in a statement that the allegations involve such amenities as private jets and Rolls-Royces. He has also asked for credit card records, clothing and jewelry expenses and any cosmetic surgery expenses.
Hinn ministries spokesman Ronn Torossian said Hinn "complies with the laws that govern church and nonprofit organizations and will continue to do so."
Meyer, who is based in Fenton, Mo., has said that her accouterments, including multimillion-dollar homes and luxury cars, are blessings from God.
In a statement, Meyer attorney Thomas J. Winters said the IRS recently concluded after an investigation that the organization continues to qualify for tax-exempt status.
The other televangelists under investigation include Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church, based in Tampa; Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries, based in Newark, Tex.; and from Georgia, Bishop Eddie L. Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and Creflo and Taffi Dollar of World Changers Church International.