Scourge of rich televangelists, Grassley has gadfly bona fides

Who is this guy with the temerity to try to pull back the curtain on the financial wizards that run some of the most lucrative TV ministries in the nation?

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) is a no-nonsense Midwesterner who has used frank questions and his position as top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee to embarrass and reform some of the nation’s best-known nonprofits and charities.

Now, TV preachers have drawn his interest.

Two of the ministers are in metro Atlanta: Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia and the Rev. Creflo Dollar of World Changers Church International in College Park. The others are the Rev. Benny Hinn, and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Texas, David and Joyce Meyer of Missouri and Randy and Paula White of Florida.

Tales of $23,000 commodes, Rolls-Royce cars, private jets, foreign bank accounts and gifts of jewelry to organizations that get millions of dollars in tax breaks got the senator’s attention.

“Jesus came into [Jerusalem] on a simple donkey. What are his disciples doing, flying around in jets?” he quipped to reporters last week.

Among agencies who found themselves in his cross hairs are the American Red Cross, the United Way, The Nature Conservancy and the Smithsonian Institution. Grassley and the committee combed through records documenting excessive salaries and perks, uncovered dysfunctional boards and business practices, exposed sweetheart deals and demanded more transparency.

Afterward, the nonprofits reformed boards of directors, business practices and governance. The Red Cross, for example, is reducing a bloated board of 50 to 20.

“Whether there are a few crooks or a lot of crooks out there, somebody has to do something to make sure they don’t exist at all,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

And Grassley is that man, she said.

He was elected a representative in 1974 and a senator in 1980. He has worked for openness in government, sponsoring a whistleblower protection act.

This week, he sent letters asking for detailed financial records from the TV ministers by Dec. 6.

Grassley does not have power to subpoena the documents, but the finance committee does.

The committee hasn’t taken that step, but Grassley said he has a close working relationship with the chairman, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

“When the secretary of [Health and Human Services] was in front of us and I complained that I wasn’t getting answers to my letters, Baucus said, ‘If you get a letter from Grassley, you can figure it’s a letter from me,’ ” he said.

Grassley said his interest is not in interfering in religion. He wants to ensure that the tax breaks are not being taken advantage of to enrich TV ministers.

Broadcast religion is a billion-dollar industry that receives little or no oversight by the Internal Revenue Service, he said in a written statement.

“In addition, some ministries refuse to provide donors and other interested parties a detailed accounting of how they spend donations, thereby making it nearly impossible to determine if they are adhering to the tax laws,” Grassley said.

Many nonprofits have to file IRS 990 forms, which are open to the public and give donors a peek into how much money a charity brings in and spends, including top salaries.

Churches do not have to make public reports about finances.

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