MIAMI – The Miami-based preacher who has basked in international attention since declaring himself the second coming of Jesus Christ has used charitable donations to his ministry for personal expenses – paying $144,000 a year in alimony to his first wife and buying property in his and his relatives’ names.
The revelations from the witness stand, which experts say suggest violations of federal law, prompted a Miami-Dade Circuit judge to send a transcript to federal prosecutors this month with a letter saying he was “ethically compelled” to bring it to their attention. The U.S. attorney in Miami has confirmed opening an investigation.
To add to his earthly tribulations, De Jesus received a letter from the IRS earlier this month informing him that his personal taxes for the past three years will be audited, said JoAnn De Jesus, the preacher’s daughter and the ministry’s finance manager.
“We’re not doing anything wrong,” said JoAnn, 36. “My father loves this ministry and would never do anything against it.”
De Jesus, 61, declined to be interviewed for this article. Instead, JoAnn and two of the ministry’s board members answered questions. All three said the ministry has done nothing wrong.
“We have been growing so fast. If we made mistakes in the past … they were honest mistakes,” said Alvaro Albarracin, 38, a board member.
Testimony and depositions in the divorce case show that De Jesus has routinely used donations to his ministry’s 300 churches worldwide – from small sums collected from followers in Latin America to $5.5 million from a Colombian benefactor – to bankroll his personal life.
“I really don’t know where the personal property starts and where the church property ends,” Judge Roberto A. Pineiro said from the bench, according to a transcript of a May 16 hearing.
The once-inconspicuous sect called Growing in Grace, which De Jesus founded 20 years ago, proclaims sin doesn’t exist and recently declared him the Antichrist. Church leaders say it’s gaining followers, and that 2007 donations have already exceeded the $2 million raised in 2006.
The details that disturbed Pineiro came to light during the May 16 hearing to set a temporary alimony for De Jesus’ second wife, Josefina De Jesus Torres. Among the “problems” cited by the judge and gleaned from testimony by De Jesus and JoAnn:
A Bogota bank account in De Jesus’ name is fed by tithes to the Colombia branch of the church but has paid $4,000 a month in personal living expenses for Torres and her four children from two previous relationships. De Jesus testified he also recently used the account to give Torres $4,800 to furnish an apartment in her native Baranquilla, to buy her a $17,000 Renault and to put up $60,000 for her 12-story condo project in Colombia.
An apartment in Bogota was purchased with $117,000 of the ministry’s cash but lists De Jesus as the owner.
A $365,000 house near Houston that De Jesus lives in is titled in his daughter’s name, but the $80,000 down payment came from church funds and a gift from a church employee. The church pays the $2,200 monthly mortgage.
The ministry put a $100,000 deposit on a preconstruction contract for a five-bedroom, $600,000 house in Miramar where De Jesus will live when he’s in South Florida. The deal is in JoAnn’s name.
“Well, the apostle takes the loss but the church takes the profit,” Pineiro said from the bench. He set temporary support for Torres at $15,000 per month, upping De Jesus’ monthly alimony obligations to $27,000.
Growing in Grace vaulted into the international media spotlight during the past two years after De Jesus declared himself the second coming of Jesus. Later, he added the title Antichrist to his portfolio.
De Jesus has said his teachings supercede the teachings of the historical Jesus. Several countries have banned De Jesus.
But the divorce case, which names the ministry as a co-respondent, could bring a different shade of limelight.
De Jesus has yet to turn over most of the tax returns and bank statements requested by Torres’ lawyer, Oscar E. Sanchez. But testimony and the few records filed show that the preacher is accustomed to such perks as a BMW, a Mercedes, gambling trips and Rolexes, all paid for or donated by his followers.
Until this year De Jesus never drew a salary from the church, according to JoAnn’s deposition. Instead he deposited donations made directly to him into a personal bank account. In 2005, money earmarked for De Jesus flowed in faster than ever before, JoAnn testified, bloating his income to $541,605.
JoAnn told the court the resulting income taxes were “obscene,” but De Jesus has not provided the court with an exact amount paid.
To limit his income the following year, De Jesus and JoAnn both said that De Jesus, acting in his role as church president, placed himself on a $120,000 annual salary. Around the same time, he told his flock to make donations directly to the church or payable to JoAnn. But the church was still paying De Jesus’ $144,000 annual alimony to his first wife, Nydia, an arrangement that began after their split in 2001.
JoAnn said in a deposition that investing in real estate has been the “modus operandi” for the ministry. “The profits have always been favorable.”
In an interview, she said there were agreements with the ministry that the assets in her name are “considered” church property. She declined to provide them to The Miami Herald and stopped short of saying they were formal contracts.
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