The PTL ministry yesterday charged that Kansas construction magnate Roe Messner, sometimes known as "America's largest church builder," has engaged in a wide-ranging conspiracy to skim millions of dollars from ministry donors for his personal benefit and to enrich his close friend, defrocked PTL founder Jim Bakker.

One PTL official yesterday called the stinging 20-page complaint -- filed in federal bankruptcy court in Columbia, S.C. -- a "declaration of war" against Messner, whose Wichita-based company, Messner Enterprises, was PTL's chief contractor.

The complaint accuses Messner of "systematically" submitting inflated and sometimes phony billings to PTL totaling more than $5.3 million and diverting as much as $1.5 million the ministry paid out for labor and material to a nearby "bed and breakfast" hotel in which the builder allegedly has a financial interest. It asks for $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

A lawyer for Messner yesterday dismissed the charges as "hogwash" and contended that the builder can substantiate every dime that he has billed to the ministry. "What they're doing here is ludicrous," said Donald Stubbs, Messner's lawyer, about the complaint.

The complaint represents the latest blow in an escalating legal brawl between the management of PTL, headed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and a group of hard-core Bakker loyalists that includes Messner. At stake in the battle -- which in recent weeks has taken on all the trappings of a Wall Street-style takeover fight -- is control of a crippled but still valuable $172 million organization that includes a nationwide satellite TV network and the sprawling Heritage USA religious retreat in Fort Mill, S.C., complete with luxury hotel and amusement park. The ministry filed for protection from its creditors June 12 under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code.

As PTL's largest creditor, with an outstanding claim of more than $14 million, Messner has become perhaps the pivotal player in the dispute. A laconic and secretive businessman, Messner has dominated the lucrative American market in church construction, a field where such standard industry practices as competitive bidding and written contracts are often eschewed. Since 1956, Messner has erected 1,071 churches and synagogues in 47 states.

PTL was by far his biggest client, but Messner protested in a rare interview last March with the Wichita Eagle-Beacon, "I don't want to be known as The PTL Builder. I want to be known as the nation's largest church builder, because that's what I am."

In recent months, Messner, who has praised Bakker as "a creative genius" and a "super guy," has wrangled with the new PTL management and worked behind the scenes with disgruntled PTL contributors to dethrone Falwell, who took over the ministry when Bakker stepped down last March in the midst of a sex scandal. He has also provided a first-class refuge for the Bakkers in exile, allowing them to stay at the Gatlinburg, Tenn., home he built for them last year.

Yesterday, PTL officials launched their counterattack.

Among the specific items cited in the complaint, PTL accused Messner of being an active accomplice in what it called an "illegal" 1985 scheme to launder $265,000 to buy the silence of Jessica Hahn, the former church secretary with whom Bakker had a sexual encounter in 1980. Last April, Falwell had publicly pardoned Messner as an "unwitting" participant in the Hahn payoff.

But yesterday, Falwell's lawyers, led by Norman Roy Grutman, cited internal PTL documents to paint a sharply different account. According to the complaint and documents obtained by The Washington Post, Messner wired $265,000 to a Los Angeles bank account set up on Hahn's behalf. According to the complaint, this was an "illegal payment of hush money to bribe a third party {Hahn} from making statements detrimental to James Bakker."

To get reimbursed, the complaint charges, Messner overbilled PTL by the same amount for work he claimed to have performed on an amphitheater used for nightly productions of "The Passion Play," a biblical drama about the crucifixion of Jesus.

"That was done in accordance with what PTL asked him to do," said Messner lawyer Stubbs yesterday. Stubbs identified Bakker's former right-hand man, defrocked minister Richard Dortch, as the one who instructed Messner to make the payment.

Among other charges in the complaint:

Messner helped Bakker raise money from viewers who contributed $1,000 as "lifetime partners" in exchange for one free weekend per year for life at a Heritage USA hotel. This was done at a time when Messner "knew or should have known" there would be insufficient rooms to fulfil such promises, the complaint charges. Such fund raising brought in donations that "could then be used to pay Messner's exorbitant and fraudulent billings," it states.

Messner billed the ministry for $500,000 worth of hotel linens worth only $40,000, claimed nearly $2.4 million in architectural fees for buildings that "were never built," and last November submitted a $585,000 claim for work that was never done.

Messner "systematically" misrepresented billings for overtime totaling $1.5 million and diverted another $1.5 million in labor and material with "false and fictitious" invoices for a nearby bed-and-breakfast hotel in which he had a financial interest.

The complaint also charges that Messner conspired with Bakker and others to raise more than $3 million to build "Kevin's House," a handicapped children's home that wound up housing only the two adopted children of one of Bakker's cousins. In the scheme, Messner violated building codes so that authorities would refuse permitting the house for other handicapped children, the complaint charges.

Stubbs yesterday said Messner has a valid response to each of the allegations, adding that the responses will be detailed in a counterclaim he will file with the bankruptcy court on Thursday.

As an example, Stubbs said the billings under the "linens" account were for more than just the bed linens cited in the complaint; they also include draperies and other items for the Heritage Grand Hotel that justify the $500,000 claim. "Each one of these things has been discussed with these people {the PTL management}," he said. "There's nothing there."

Stubbs yesterday called the complaint "typical Grutman," a reference to the "scorched earth" tactics that have typified the legal battle over PTL, which stands for Praise the Lord or People That Love. The chief courtroom gladiators are two of America's most flamboyant attorneys -- gravel-voiced octogenarian Melvin Belli, representing the Bakkers, and Grutman, who has been described as Falwell's Park Avenue "pit bull."

Late last month, Belli drew first blood when he filed a complaint in bankruptcy court charging that Falwell has used the PTL platform to promote his autobiography and farmed out hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of PTL mailings to Falwell's "Old Time Gospel Hour" television show.

The complaint also asked the court to disqualify Grutman, charging "conflict of interest." Grutman began his representation of PTL last March, while Bakker was still chairman, and helped persuade him to resign and turn over his ministry to Falwell, whom Grutman had once represented in a lawsuit against Hustler magazine, the complaint charged.

Firing back in a response filed with the court last Friday, Grutman denied all charges, claiming that he has always represented the ministry, not the man heading it. He charged that the Bakker complaint exemplified the "mindset and attitude of a man who paid for an extravagant, corrupt, and hedonistic life style obtained by fraud from his unsuspecting and dedicated followers."