Only two of six Christian ministries under scrutiny for allegations of opulent spending turned over documents to a Senate panel by a Thursday deadline, with others either fighting the request or asking for more time.
A month ago, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley sent pointed questions to a half-dozen high-profile ministries asking about salaries, perks and private jets in a quest to determine whether rules governing tax-exempt groups had been broken.
Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said in an interview he remains confident he will get the ministries’ “full cooperation,” despite opposition from some.
Grassley’s office said it received a package of material Thursday from representatives of Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, who head a ministry in Texas. Joyce Meyer Ministries of Fenton, Mo., run by the inspirational speaker and author, provided documents earlier this week.
Two other ministers – Georgia megachurch pastors Creflo Dollar and Bishop Eddie Long – have issued statements balking at the request, raising questions about constitutional protections given to churches.
Texas-based faith healer Benny Hinn asked for more time to respond, and Grassley’s office said a meeting with Hinn’s attorneys is set for Friday. Grassley’s office said lawyers for preachers Paula and Randy White of Tampa made initial contact with the senator’s office Thursday and gave no indication of a further response.
“We’ve had more concern from people meeting the deadline, so I’ve made very clear that if they’re cooperating, we’ll be flexible, because we want information,” Grassley said. “I want and expect full cooperation.”
In his previous investigations of nonprofits, Grassley sought and received financial records from groups including the Nature Conservancy, the United Way and the Smithsonian Institution. During his tenure on the committee, Grassley said subpoenas were necessary only twice – in the Enron scandal and Jack Abramoff influence-peddling investigations.
But, unlike secular nonprofits, the IRS does not require churches to make their finances public.
“We’ve never had any problems, and I expect that in the end we won’t have to work hard to get all these folks to cooperate, and I’d be very disappointed if I did,” Grassley said.
Attorneys for some of the ministries have said that probing the groups’ inner workings amounts to unconstitutional governmental meddling in religion. Grassley has emphasized that he is not investigating doctrine but making sure organizations enjoying the benefits of tax-exempt status are playing by the rules. Grassley dismissed the religious liberty argument.
“Forget it,” he said. “They don’t have a leg to stand on.”
Grassley said that if he had to seek subpoenas, he expects Democrats on the panel to cooperate with him. But Grassley emphasized he didn’t think that was necessary at this point.
“I’ve never had to get a subpoena from a nonprofit organization in the past and I don’t expect I’ll have to this time,” he said. “… All I can say is, I’ve got a job to do and I’ve got to do my job.”
A spokesman for Long, of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., said in a statement Thursday that the senator’s request “clearly disregards the privacy protections of the Church under law and appears to cross the line of Constitutional guarantees for churches.”
“The Church will fully comply with all laws applicable to churches but will insist upon the preservation of its Constitutional freedoms of religion and Equal Protection under law,” the statement said. Grassley’s office said it had not received a formal response or material from Long’s lawyers before the deadline.
Dollar, an Atlanta-area megachurch preacher, also has refused to answer Grassley’s questions. In a letter last week in response to Grassley’s demands, Dollar’s lawyer asked that the investigation either be referred to the IRS, which would give greater privacy to the churches, or that the Senate committee get a subpoena for the documents.
On referring the whole matter to the IRS, Grassley said Thursday, “I can’t tell (the IRS) what to do. I can’t refer anything to them unless I know something is wrong. And I won’t know if anything’s wrong until we get the information.”
Hinn also missed the Thursday deadline but has been in touch with Grassley’s office and plans to “facilitate a response” by the end of January, a spokesman said in a statement.
The spokesman, Ronn Torossian, declined to say whether Hinn was leaning toward cooperating or fighting the request.
But in a long post about his finances on his Web site, Hinn says that his board of directors is independent and includes no relatives, that he uses the church airplane exclusively for ministry-related travel, and that his U.S. office is audited annually.
Hinn has also posted general financial statements for his work, along with letters from auditors confirming their reviews. But he said his ministry does not make public “itemized annual financials” because “both corporate and ministry financial reports can be manipulated by unscrupulous people with unsavory agendas.”
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