WASHINGTON — The top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee has launched a wide-ranging investigation into the financial dealings of six TV evangelists, including Joyce Meyer, the popular preacher who has built a $124-million-a-year empire headquartered in Fenton.
On Monday, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, asked Meyer to provide his staff with documents detailing the finances of the Joyce Meyer Ministries, including the religious group’s compensation to Meyer, her husband and other family members, as well as an accounting of their housing allowances, gifts and credit card statements for the last several years.
Many of the requests track information about the ministry revealed by the Post-Dispatch in a 2003 series.
In his five-page letter, Grassley also asked Meyer for:
A “detailed accounting” of all her and her husband’s expense-account items, including clothing and cosmetic surgery.
Information about any overseas bank accounts and deposits made outside the U.S. after international evangelical crusades.
The tax-exempt purpose of items purchased for her ministry’s headquarters, such as a $23,000 marble-topped commode, a $30,000 conference table and an $11,219 French clock.
A detailed accounting of total monthly expenses for upkeep on the Meyers’ personal residence, and any vacation homes, from 2004 to the present.
An explanation of any personal use of the ministries’ tax-exempt assets, including “jets, employees, facilities,” from 2004 to the present.
An explanation for how personal gifts from donors, such as money or jewelry, are handled and reported to the IRS.
The letter was one of six the Republican senator sent Monday to media-oriented ministers around the country.
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV
“I’m following up on complaints from the public and news coverage regarding certain practices at six ministries,” Grassley said in a statement. “The allegations involve governing boards that aren’t independent and allow generous salaries and housing allowances and amenities such as private jets and Rolls-Royces.
“I don’t want to conclude that there’s a problem, but I have an obligation to donors and the taxpayers to find out more. People who donated should have their money spent as intended and in adherence with the tax code.”
In response to Grassley’s letter, Meyer’s attorney, Thomas Winters, said in a statement to the Post-Dispatch, “JMM is committed to conducting itself with excellence and integrity, choosing to go above and beyond the level of accountability required by law.”
He said JMM has undergone a voluntary independent financial audit each year. In 2006, he said, 82 percent of JMM’s expenses were used for outreach and program services “directed toward reaching people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Winters also said the IRS recently conducted an inquiry into JMM and determined that the ministry continues to qualify for tax-exempt status.
Federal law grants churches tax-exempt status and excludes them from reporting requirements, but prohibits leaders and founders of such ministries from dipping into the organizations’ accounts for their own personal use. Expenses of any tax-exempt organization are supposed to further the cause or goals of that entity.
Meyer, one of America’s wealthiest and most powerful TV preachers, was the focus of a 2003 Post-Dispatch series that detailed her lavish lifestyle and blunt fundraising pitches. The stories outlined Meyer’s transformation from an abused child to a one-time bookkeeper trapped in a failed marriage and then on to a religious powerhouse whose folksy preachings have worldwide reach.
Meyer and her second husband, David Meyer, started her nonprofit ministry in 1985; by 1999, they had moved into a $20 million headquarters in Fenton.
Now, her “Enjoying Everyday Life” TV show airs in 46 states and reaches two-thirds of the world, according to her website. Meyer has written more than 70 books, and sells videotapes and audiotapes. JMM employs more than 600 people at the Fenton office.
Meyer has never apologized for her financial success. In the 2003 series, Meyer said everything she has — the $10 million corporate jet, her $2 million home, her family’s fleet of fancy cars — were blessings straight from God.
Meyer preaches the “prosperity gospel” and uses blunt pitches to get her followers to open their wallets.
In its 2006 annual report, posted on JMM’s website, the group reports $124 million in revenue and other support. Among the services provided in 2006, according to the report: 11.5 million meals served, 41 orphanages “fully supported” and 174,538 gift bags delivered to prisoners.
In his statement, JMM attorney Winters said the ministry “is honored to be a small part of spreading God’s love and His Word to millions of people around the world. The ministry strives to conduct all activities with excellence and integrity, just as it has for more than 20 years.”
DEC. 6 DEADLINE
Grassley’s letters to Meyer and the other preachers makes it clear that he intends a thorough vetting of their ministries. The letters ask the ministers to provide the information by Dec. 6.
The ranking Republican on the finance panel, which oversees tax issues, Grassley is an independent-minded lawmaker who has led other high-profile investigations.
Although his letters don’t have the power of a committee subpoena, the panel’s staff said they expect Meyer and the others to cooperate. Grassley would need the backing of the committee chairman, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and the majority of the panel to authorize subpoenas or call for hearings.
Grassley’s staff and other ministry watchdogs said that media-oriented ministries, once known simply as televangelists, have changed dramatically over the last two decades. Now a billion-dollar industry, they get little to no oversight from an overburdened IRS.
“It is important that the Congress and the public have confidence that public charities, which benefit from very significant tax breaks, are operated in a manner that promotes continued trust and that these charities adhere” to IRS rules, Grassley said in his letters to Meyer and the others.