The international fund-raising effort of the Rev. Billy Graham's ministry, virtually untouched by scandals that have rocked other evangelical organizations, has been tainted in the pretrial settlement in Canada of a claim alleging that an official of the organization improperly influenced an elderly donor.
The claim was filed by heirs seeking a larger share of the $3 million estate of their great-aunt.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) was in position to acquire more than one-third of Jessie Geneva Latta's money through a foundation named for Latta and established by Carl W. Green, 63, who left his post as a senior Canadian fund-raiser for the association last March.
Four of Latta's six heirs, three great-nieces and a great-nephew, contested her will, saying in a claim settled in Brockville, Ontario, Monday that Green began to gain Latta's confidence more than a decade ago after her husband died and while she was in her 80s.
The heirs' claim charged that Green improperly influenced Latta to rewrite wills in which she had left more money to the heirs than was specified in the contested will. A spokesman for the association denied their allegations of undue influence, and Green could not be reached for comment.
The case was settled after the heirs produced reports from Green to his supervisors in which he detailed repeated visits with Latta. He noted her increasing dependence on him, his certainty that she would funnel her money to BGEA and that it would be a significant amount, known in the parlance of the development office as "a major happening." The reports were part of the settlement proceeding.
The settlement awarded half of the estate to the heirs and half to the foundation, stipulating that Green be replaced as one of its three directors by Dianne Hickling, an heir. In the settlement, no money was awarded to the BGEA, and the heirs were allowed to seek retrieval of about $750,000 in gifts by Latta to the BGEA before she died in 1988 at age 93. A $100,000 bequest to the BGEA remains in dispute.
"I'm very pleased," said Hickling, who operates a small retail business in the family's home town of Brockville across the St. Lawrence River from New York state. "We accomplished what we set out to do."
Green's typewritten notes were sent regularly to his supervisors who, BGEA officials said, commented in the margins. The notes provide a rare glimpse into the calculated development technique that is known as planned giving and is being used more frequently by large evangelical ministries such as BGEA.
Referring to a visit in October 1977 soon after the death of Latta's nephew, the heirs' father, Green wrote to his supervisors, "BGEA is in for $200,000, this is strictly a cultivating job right now. We have to spend a lot of time with her." In the margin is scribbled, "You're doing well."
In March 1979, as Latta was considering selling the business that she and her husband had run since 1925, Green told his office that Latta appreciated personal letters sent to her from BGEA headquarters in Minneapolis.
"She just treasures these letters, and I believe we are in there for a major portion of bequest that will be given in her Will," he wrote. In January 1983, he reported that Latta was depositing $1 million in a bank account to cover establishment of an irrevocable trust, 55 percent of which would go to BGEA. In the margin is written: "Excellent, Praise the Lord."
Green's notes also show that, from his house north of Toronto, he made more than 20 weekly visits to potential donors as one of 13 BGEA "field representatives" in the United States and Canada. Although he did not work on commission, he was given "production credits" for the amount of money he raised for BGEA, and those credits figured into his job evaluation.
Larry Ross, director of media relations for the BGEA, said association policy states that representatives such as Green "shall exercise extreme caution to avoid pressure, persuasion or undue influence when dealing with prospective donors."
Reading from a policy manual, Ross said, "No program, agreement, trust, contract or commitment shall be knowingly urged on a prospective donor which would benefit BGEA at the expense of the donor's welfare."
Ross denied the heirs' allegations of undue influence, adding, "Mrs. Latta was a strong-willed woman who knew what she wanted."
Ross said that Green's retirement from BGEA was unrelated to the Latta dispute and that no one involved in the matter has been disciplined. Income from estates, wills and deferred giving comprised 8.6 percent of the association's $71.6 million in revenue last year, Ross said.
The Graham ministry, best known for its crusades and a Christian leadership training program, apparently is the first major evangelical organization to come under public scrutiny for such fund-raising since 1984 when Jimmy Swaggart World Ministries settled a two-year legal battle over a multimillion-dollar estate in La Jolla, Calif. In that agreement, the ministry received most of the money.
Few regulations, other than traditional court protections, govern solicitation of wills and bequests, according to a spokesman for the Council on Foundations.
However, a spokesman for the Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability, an industry group that monitors evangelical ministries, said soliciting organizations should advise a potential donor to obtain a lawyer and consider family members when discussing estate planning.
Helen Daley of Toronto, attorney for the heirs, said Green took Latta to one of several lawyers recommended by the BGEA. She said neither Green nor Latta mentioned changes in the will to the heirs, which was not required by Canadian law.
Quentin Schultze, a college professor who has written about television ministries' fund-raising, said that, while parties to changing a will are not required to consult with heirs, it is ethical to do so.
Green first made Latta's acquaintance in the mid-1970s when Arthur Earle, Latta's nephew, was running McNeil Transport, the Latta trucking business, according to Barbara Wagner, Earle's daughter and one of the heirs.
Latta had taken in Earle when he was 13, and he built the company for years, according to Wagner. Earle died in 1977, and the memory of his hard work, Wagner said in an interview, has sustained her during the last two years of legal wrangling over the will.
"He didn't work his guts out to have all the money given to Billy Graham," Wagner said.
As Latta, originally a member of an Anglican church, grew more physically infirm, she started watching religious services on television, including Graham's crusades, according to Wagner.
In 1982, Latta sold McNeil Transport, and Green's visits, always private, grew more frequent, Wagner said. According to Green's notes, he eventually took charge of most of her financial transactions.
"Aunt Jessie was like our grandmother," Wagner said, and Green's presence seemed to the heirs to be "an unwanted intrusion."
Wagner said that, during one conversation with Latta about Green, Latta responded, "Don't you worry, I've never given him large amounts of money."
In the last few months of Latta's life, Wagner said, her ailing aunt once dressed in her Sunday best for three consecutive days and sat in the sun room of her house, waiting in vain for Green to visit. In August 1988, Latta was hospitalized in a coma and died a month later. "Green never visited her there," Wagner said.
Special correspondent Alexis Mantell in Brockville contributed to this report.