CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- With unusual secrecy, a 23-member federal grand jury was sworn in yesterday to begin an investigation of the PTL ministry and its operations under disgraced founder Jim Bakker -- a probe that authorities evidently expect will take a year.
The jury met only for a couple of hours before recessing -- apparently until next month.
No one in the federal courthouse would say even that the grand jury, empaneled at the request of the Justice Department, would have anything to do with the PTL scandal. But it was widely reported that the grand jury was set up to investigate PTL, and -- in an unusual move -- photographers and television crews were ordered to stay out of the courthouse to keep them from photographing grand jury members.
"Whether or not it's true, this has been labeled the PTL investigation," said Clerk of Court Thomas J. McGraw, "and we're worried about the people" on the grand jury.
The grand jury will be focusing especially on the question of mail or wire fraud -- charges that money was raised for one purpose and then spent for another by PTL, which stands for Praise the Lord or People That Love. The ministry filed for protection from its creditors June 12 under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code.
Chief Judge Robert Potter charged the 14-man, nine-woman grand jury without any mention of the ministry.
"The grand jury will expect to sit for approximately one year, meeting approximately one week per month," Potter told jurors. "I'll tell you now this court is not going to allow a waste of your time. When you come in, the government is going to be ready to present witnesses.
"I caution you again, the halls are filled with lots of people who want information from you. You talk to no one, ever, unless the court determines the proceedings will be revealed."
After the initial ceremonies the doors were closed to the press and public and hearings began with Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Miller and Justice Department investigator Charles Alexander in the chambers.
The grand jury meeting broke up about 12:30 p.m. No one would say definitely when the panel would reconvene, but most sources said it would apparently not be until the third week in September. Potter set the third week of each month for it to meet.
Thousands of documents dating from 1980 to the present were subpoenaed for the investigation, including records of any transactions connected with the $265,000 involved in the ministry's settlement with Jessica Hahn, the former church secretary whose one-time sexual encounter with Bakker led to his downfall. Prosecutors have subpoenaed records of PTL's executive payroll account, from which the Bakkers drew salaries and bonuses totaling $2.2 million in the 16 months prior to leaving PTL. In the month before Bakker's resignation, the couple took bonuses of $620,000.
Bakker resigned March 19 and handed over the ministry to Baptist fundamentalist Jerry Falwell. In May, Bakker was defrocked by the Assemblies of God church for the Hahn affair and for "alleged bisexual activities." He has steadfastly denied that he is homosexual. He and his wife Tammy are staying at a mountain chalet in Gatlinburg, Tenn., and could not be reached for comment.
No subpoenas have been served on Bakker or his wife, said Jim Toms, a Hendersonville, N.C., attorney working with celebrated lawyer Melvin Belli to represent the Bakkers.
Belli said he would wait until the criminal investigation is completed before commenting.
"I have to see if they are going after PTL, or Falwell or Jimmy and Tammy," Belli said in a telephone interview from his San Francisco law office.
Falwell, who appointed current ministry officials, had not been asked to testify as of Sunday, Falwell aide Mark DeMoss said.
"Jerry has not been saying anything other than to continue to say, 'We don't think anybody will benefit from indictments,' " said DeMoss. "We certainly hope there are not any."
Potter said the investigation will be limited in scope by the jurisdiction of the 31-county western district, and the grand jury can act "only if the offense occurred in this district."
But he told jurors, "You have the right to subpoena witnesses from anywhere in the country."
PTL is headquartered at its sprawling Christian resort and theme park, Heritage USA, at Fort Mill, S.C. -- a few miles south of Charlotte and out of the western district. But PTL maintains a post office box in Charlotte where many of its donations are sent and has offices in the city, which legal sources said would establish it firmly within the grand jury's jurisdiction.