FORT MILL, S.C., JUNE 4 -- Former PTL board members received tens of thousands of dollars in fees, bonuses and gift contributions at the time they were authorizing bonuses and salaries for Jim and Tammy Bakker that totaled $4.9 million over the last four years, according to ministry officials.
Among the payments was a $100,000 contribution for landscaping to one incoming board member's church and a $50,000 gift in July 1985 to the Bronx storefront church of the Rev. Aimee Cortese, who is currently under investigation for allegedly funneling payoffs from Wedtech Corp., a Bronx defense contractor. In November 1984, Cortese helped persuade former church secretary Jessica Hahn to sign a sworn "confession" denying she had ever had sex with Bakker, according to a 1985 transcribed interview with Hahn by her adviser, Paul Roper.
After confessing adultery with Hahn and the payment of hush money to silence her, Bakker stepped down this March from PTL, whose initials stand for Praise the Lord and People That Love.
The check to Cortese's Cross Road Tabernacle, along with thousands of dollars in other payments to board members, was described Thursday by one senior federal law enforcement official as potentially "significant" evidence in weighing whether to proceed with a criminal investigation into charges of financial misconduct against Bakker and top aides.
Since Jim Bakker had never set fixed fees for directors of the $129 million ministry he founded, such payments could be construed as an attempt to improperly influence the board, the law enforcement official said.
After each meeting, while Bakker thanked his directors, their checks were "passed out across the table" by his $160,000-a-year private secretary Shirley Fulbright, according to Charlotte businessman A.T. Lawing, a former board member.
Lawing said Thursday that he received a total of $16,000 last year -- in amounts that varied from meeting to meeting, including a $6,000 "bonus" paid in early 1986.
"You'd never know until after the board meeting how much it was going to be," said Lawing, a board member for 14 years. Like other board members who said they were unaware of the magnitude of the bonuses received by the Bakkers and top aides, Lawing said he never viewed the payments as an attempt by Bakker to influence him.
"That's pure poppycock," said another former board member who asked to remain anonymous. "If you look at the size of the checks, they were really not large."
But the checks were only one form of contribution made by PTL to its board members or their churches. About the time the Rev. J. Don George came on the board in November 1985, PTL wired $100,000 to his Irving, Tex., church after Bakker promised him a contribution for landscaping.
"He's an impulsive person and over the years people have seen him do things like that," George said. But now he said he wonders whether such generosity was perhaps a subtle way to buy his loyalty. "Looking back over everything that has happened, that thought has crossed my mind," he said.
Cortese's lawyer, Michael Quiat of Paramus, N.J., confirmed today that her church had received the $50,000 from PTL, but said "it was seed money" for Cortese's newly acquired church, not a reward for interceding on behalf of Bakker with Jessica Hahn. "There was nothing improper in the payment," said Quiat. He said it was then "PTL policy to assist churches that were interested in building community organizations."
But PTL officials can find nothing in the files suggesting the purpose of such a payment. "As far as our records show, we can find no documents or correspondence that would indicate why the money was paid to Cortese," said Jerry Nims, chief executive officer of PTL.
Cortese, a Pentecostal minister and sister of U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.), surfaced yesterday as a key figure in a widening federal probe into Wedtech Corp., a Bronx defense contractor. According to federal law enforcement officials, Cortese received two Wedtech payments totaling $80,000 -- at least $20,000 of which officials believe was funneled to Garcia's wife at a time Wedtech was courting Garcia to help win no-bid defense contracts.
Last week, federal officials asked the FBI's Charlotte, N.C., office to check whether some Wedtech payments to Cortese may have been funneled to Hahn, sources said. The New York Daily News reported today that the FBI last week attempted to question Hahn regarding any possible relationship to the Wedtech probe.
But law enforcement sources said today they have found no evidence linking the two scandals. PTL officials today said all of the $265,000 in known hush money paid to Hahn came not from any alleged Wedtech payoffs, but from its donors' charitable contributions laundered through phony billings by Roe Messner, America's largest church builder.
Messner has said he did not know the purposes for which the money was used. Two months ago the Rev. Jerry Falwell, PTL's new board chairman, described Messner as an "unwitting" accomplice.
Confidential minutes of PTL board meetings under Bakker show that board members gave virtually automatic approval to Bakker and his top deputy, Richard Dortch, and unanimously voted regular bonuses and gifts for the Bakkers and Dortch, although the amounts are not specified in the records.
Past directors say they don't recall authorizing a $50,000 payment to Cortese, but one former board member says "Bakker had the discretion to do that" without board approval. "I've seen him do things like that on the spur of the moment," said Don George. "He gave $100,000 or more to a church in Flint, Michigan, that had had a fire . . . It really was not an uncommon thing."
In her transcribed interview with Roper, Hahn described a series of meetings in which Dortch and Cortese repeatedly pressured her to sign a retraction. "They accused me of extortion and defamation," said Hahn of one meeting on Nov. 1, 1984, at Cortese's church. "It made me feel like I was accused of raping them and then stealing their money." At one point, she said, Cortese demanded: "Sign the papers or you will never have any peace."
According to ministry officials, Cortese has repeatedly refused to answer questions about the Hahn transcript.
Cortese today was praised for her community work. Rita DiMartino, who served on New York Mayor Edward Koch's Commission for Hispanic Concerns with Cortese, said "she worked in New York City jails as a prison chaplain. I have nothing but good things to say about Reverend Cortese . . . There should be more Aimee Corteses in the world."
Special correspondent Marianne Yen in New York contributed to this report.