The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These Mormon twins worked together on an IRS whistleblower complaint over the church’s billions — and it tore them apart

Lars Nielsen worked with his twin, David, on an IRS whistleblower complaint about finances of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Jenn Ackerman for The Washington Post)
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Growing up in a Mormon family of 10 children, David and Lars Nielsen had a special bond. They were Science Olympiad partners in high school in Modesto, Calif., and chemistry lab partners at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. They helped each other through prestigious MBA programs and, as fathers, took their kids to ride motorcycles in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

When David, a former investment manager for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, made the dramatic decision last fall to file a confidential whistleblower complaint, he turned to a trustworthy, familiar partner: his twin, Lars. The 41-year-olds began spending 10-hour days working on a project they called “the Mormon Giga-church,” Lars said.

As they pulled together the complaint, Lars said, “it was just like ‘Top Gun,’ and I was his wingman!”

The brothers decided to compile the complaint after each had come to question aspects of the religion their family had practiced since the earliest days of the church, according to interviews with Lars and correspondence from his brother that Lars provided to The Washington Post. But it was Lars, acting alone, who decided to go public with the complaint. And after a lifetime of shared aims, that decision has opened a rift between the twins so deep that they stopped speaking to each other.

The trove of documents the brothers submitted to the Internal Revenue Service in November alleges that the church has amassed about $100 billion in accounts intended for charitable purposes.

Their report accuses church leaders of misleading members — and possibly breaching federal tax rules — by stockpiling surplus donations instead of using them for charitable works. It also accuses church leaders of using the tax-exempt donations to prop up a pair of businesses.

The allegations, detailed in a Post story last month, have spurred criticism that the church hoarded money while demanding contributions from struggling families. Others have viewed the church’s fortune as the result of prudent financial management — including Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who said he was pleased that his church had “not only saved for a rainy day, but for a rainy decade.”

The church leadership, which has declined to answer detailed questions from The Post, has said the complaint is “based on a narrow perspective and limited information.”

Mormon Church has misled members on $100 billion tax-exempt investment fund, whistleblower alleges

In videos released several days after the Nielsens’ report became public, W. Christopher Waddell, a high-ranking church official, said the church sets aside a portion of its budget to brace for economic downturns and other unpredictable events. “We will have the resources necessary to continue doing this divine work,” he said.

Years before he helped his brother draft the complaint, Lars left the church after struggling to reconcile the religious tenets he learned as a youth with his increasingly science-based worldview. His break from the church was a central issue in a protracted divorce from his wife, who, along with the couple’s three children, remains a member, court filings show. Lars had married into the elite of the church: His ex-wife, whom he met at Harvard, is related to senior figures in the church and its businesses.

David, meanwhile, had been reporting concerns to his managers about the church’s investment practices for several years, emails show. He resigned from his job last year, after his wife and four children stopped attending the church and asked him to pare back as well, according to a copy of David’s resignation letter provided by Lars.

The brothers disagreed over whether to immediately make public the complaint to the IRS about Ensign Peak Advisors, the church investment arm for which David had worked for nine years until September, Lars said.

David said no.

Lars said yes, eventually sharing the filing and some supporting documents with The Post.

Lars said that since that disagreement, David has not returned his calls.

David declined to be interviewed for this story and in a statement said Lars is not authorized to speak for him.

“Any public disclosure of information that has been in my possession was unauthorized by me,” he wrote. “Repeated attempts to dissuade my brother, Lars Nielsen, from making public disclosures have been ignored.”

In a text to The Post, Lars said he hopes his brother can forgive him. “I believe that both our decisions were ethical and true according to our individual values and circumstances,” he said. “They say there is a good twin and a bad twin. I disagree. But if I’m wrong, then I’m not the good twin. I’m sorry, Dave. I hope I can tell you soon.”

Growing up Nielsen

For the Nielsen twins, Lars said, the family creed was clear: “Be reasonable but also very adherent.” They were taught that if Mormons seemed out of step, it was only because the rest of the world had not yet caught up, he said.

A great-great-great-grandfather, Edward Bunker, was held as a model adherent even as his orthodoxy was challenged, Lars said. In 1901, according to the Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, Bunker moved to Mexico to continue to practice and help perpetuate polygamy, which by then was banned in the United States.

“We children were told that our family line had this divine mission to propagate the kind of truths mainstream Mormons didn’t hold,” Lars said.

Attempts by The Post to reach the twins’ eight siblings were not successful. Seven did not return messages; a brother, Timothy, declined to comment. Several of the twins’ siblings left the church as adults, Lars said.

In their early years, he and David worked together to reach ambitious academic goals. David said in an affidavit filed during Lars’s divorce years that his twin “helped me try and become the best version of myself.”

“I will forever be grateful to Lars for the special bond we share and the investment he has made in me,” he wrote.

In high school, they played water polo: David a goalkeeper and Lars a field player. Lars described their dynamic as complementary: David the leader and Lars the promoter, David the realist and Lars the idealist.

Their Mormon journeys diverged on their missions, a church rite of passage for young adults that involves as much as two years of community service, teaching and proselytizing.

David was sent to Sao Paulo, Brazil, at the end of 1997, a classic urban posting where outreach often is striking up conversations on bustling street corners. Lars went to rural Mexico, where he was a branch president for the church in two towns, a position usually reserved for someone older.

“That was the most powerful thing that could have happened to me,” he said of being responsible for 600 members. That experience “laid the foundation for all the future skepticism I had.”

When he learned from his brother about the church’s untapped funds, Lars said, he thought of the people he had pressed for donations. He recalled in particular a woman who went without food so she could contribute as much as possible to her tithe — which is 10 percent of one’s earnings — to try to help her ailing son.

“I’m crushed that I extracted the most regressive tax from people who were suffering and they never got it back and they don’t even know the money doesn’t go to anything good,” he said. “I can see the face of the old woman on my mission who starved herself so she could donate tithing that week because her son was dying and she thought it would help.”

Separate paths

After the brothers graduated from Brigham Young University, their paths began to move subtly apart.

Lars headed to Harvard, where he earned a PhD in organic chemistry in 2007 and an MBA two years later. He began to apply an increasingly scientific worldview and more rigor to his thinking about his religious beliefs.

He became active in Boston’s Mormon community, an intellectual hub of the faith where he felt safe debating and posing questions. He began reading the works of famous evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins.

Scott Holley, a close friend of Lars’s from their years in business school, when both were active in the church, called Lars “painfully shy” and said that he kept to himself in school. “To say he wasn’t an attention seeker is an understatement. . . . He didn’t really do regular conversations. Didn’t talk about sports or the weather or the Harvard-Yale game,” said Holley, who runs a manufacturing business near Seattle and who has also left the church.

In 2005, Lars married Rebecca Edwards, the daughter of Robert W. Edwards, an attorney who served as general counsel for Deseret Management, a holding company for the church’s for-profit businesses.

Lars’s ex-wife is also a cousin of Henry B. Eyring, one of the church’s most senior officials and, at its founding, a trustee of Ensign Peak Advisors.

Rebecca and Robert Edwards declined to comment. A church spokesman confirmed Rebecca’s family connection to Eyring.

A few years later, the couple settled in a Minneapolis suburb, where Lars had a job in health care. As Lars’s doubts continued to grow, they skirmished about their religious views, their divorce records show.

The marriage was further strained, Lars said, by the tragedy of losing a child. The couple’s fourth child, a son, was stillborn in 2011, he said. He and his wife split after a year of therapy, he said, and soon he resigned from the church.

Lars filed for divorce in 2012, complaining in court filings that Rebecca remained dedicated to a church that he felt espoused problematic doctrines and taught their daughters he was an apostate, a person who has turned away from the truth.

In court filings that run to hundreds of pages, Rebecca accused Lars of maligning the church and undermining their children’s faith.

As Lars was breaking from the church, David was heading into its epicenter.

Soon after college, David moved to New York, where for five years he had a job on Wall Street. He also became a temple worker, officiating at some rituals, wearing all white for the sacred tasks.

He earned his business degree from UCLA and moved to Salt Lake City to join Ensign as a portfolio manager in 2010. Lars said David saw the job of helping guide church finances as both a professional opportunity and a spiritual service.

“He was excited to see how much the financial reserves of the church were growing,” Lars said, and to potentially “be a part of something global.”

For the twins, it was the culmination of a challenging period.

“This was so hard [between us] because David wanted to get into the church in a way he hadn’t before,” Lars said. “David couldn’t understand why I’d, quote, ‘thrown everything away.’ Once a month, we’d talk and it was strained.”

David at Ensign

Soon after joining Ensign, David became troubled by what he learned about its operations, the IRS whistleblower complaint says.

Within months, according to a narrative filed with the complaint, he confronted Ensign President Roger Clarke about why Ensign had never directly funded any religious or charitable initiative.

Clarke replied that “he didn’t know whether the Lord would ever reveal” what Ensign’s stockpile of funds should be used for, the narrative alleges. Later, he said that “this money would be used in the Second Coming,” it says.

Clarke did not respond to emailed questions from The Post.

As David rose to senior portfolio manager, he raised concerns about some of the company’s accounting practices and systems, according to emails provided by Lars, and he bristled at being asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement that would bind not only him but his heirs.

Last year, a clash of personal and professional concerns forced his departure.

On July 23, David went to his managers at Ensign with a dilemma, he recounted later in a resignation letter. His wife and children had stopped attending church in 2015, and he intended to scale back his attendance, too, according to the letter. But he did not want to abandon his career at the company.

Could they come to an accommodation?

The managers said they could not, according to David’s recounting. To continue working at Ensign, David would need to give a “positive confirmation” that he would remain committed enough to ensure the renewal of his “temple recommend,” a church credential that affirms a member’s adherence to church doctrine and practices.

David decided to leave his job, writing in the Aug. 29 resignation letter that among his reasons was that “my supervisor intimated” that if David was not fully committed to the church, his being in the office might “distract others from their work.”

He said his last day would be Oct. 4. But on Sept. 3, David received a reply from human resources informing him that managers had decided that, “in the best interest of all parties,” he should leave that day, according to the copy of the company letter. He would receive a month’s pay and two months’ health insurance.

Lars said David feared that his employment file stated he had been terminated and worried about the impact that could have on his professional reputation. David consulted employment and, eventually, whistleblower lawyers, according to Lars.

The Post could not determine whether David has retained an attorney.

The brothers' project

Lars said David only recently told him about his concerns regarding church money.

Lars said it took only a few days of going through the Mormon Church’s biggest investment account together for David to see the IRS complaint as perhaps a calling, a purpose, a service to the church.

The brothers titled their work “Letter to an IRS Director,” in homage to an earlier Mormon objector’s treatise.

“We were on fire! We were going to liberate the world!” said Lars.

The possibility of having an impact thrilled Lars. All the years of reformers blogging, pushing, getting excommunicated — none of it had had a lasting impact, he said.

“Nothing happens,” he said.

Mormons might be liberated, Lars thought, if the brothers’ document could be as resonant as the widely shared 2013 “Letter to a CES Director,” which demanded that the church’s educational system be more transparent about church history.

The brothers did not file the complaint “to be spiteful,” Lars said.

“I wanted to point out hypocrisies, yes,” he said, “but so Mormons will have the facts and can say: ‘Am I really free to evaluate facts on my own? Am I powerful enough to make up my own mind?’ ”

To get the complaint in order, Lars said, he put his health-care consulting business on hold.

For weeks, in lengthy email exchanges, the twins worked to sort out issues of theology and pick through complex spreadsheets. They were focused, Lars said, on what they allege were Ensign’s payouts to for-profit firms.

The twins’ plan throughout was to go public as soon as possible, Lars said.

But that changed, Lars said, after David started to get legal advice that included letting lawyers handle any release.

With some lawyers suggesting the church could go after David financially, he decided he needed to accept their rules, Lars said. “David didn’t want to lose his house. His big concern was his family.”

The issue came to a head Nov. 21, when the IRS received the packet the brothers had submitted days earlier.

Lars wanted to release the report, and he pushed that position in a video teleconference with his twin, he said. “I felt this was the right thing to do and tried to give him a speech: ‘You have your values, I have mine.’ He wasn’t having any of it.”

Lars said he told his brother in the call about his intention to go public. He said he suspects David didn’t believe he would do it.

That was the last time they spoke, Lars said.

Lars contacted The Post soon after.

Holley, his friend from Harvard, said the fracture weighs on Lars. “He said to me: ‘Do you think I did the right thing by my brother?’ ” Holley said. “I know it’s constantly on his mind.”

David remains a church member who attends services and pays tithes, his twin said. A church spokesman declined to comment on David’s status.

Since going public, Lars said, he has been deluged by emails and calls, some supportive and others hostile or even abusive.

Lars, who said he still considers himself culturally a Mormon, continues to believe he did the right thing by sharing their findings on the church.

“It’s the cloud of uncertainty that causes pain, and sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he said. Invoking his twin, he said that other past reformers were like flashlights. “David gets to be a sun.”

Douglas MacMillan, Alice Crites and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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