Twenty years ago, televangelist Oral Roberts said he was reading a spy novel when God appeared to him and told him to raise $8 million for Roberts’ university, or else he would be “called home.”
Now, his son, Oral Roberts University President Richard Roberts, says God is speaking again, telling him to deny lurid allegations in a lawsuit that threatens to engulf this 44-year-old Bible Belt college in scandal.
Richard Roberts is accused of illegal involvement in a local political campaign and lavish spending at donors’ expense, including numerous home remodeling projects, use of the university jet for his daughter’s senior trip to the Bahamas and a red Mercedes convertible and a Lexus SUV for his wife, Lindsay.
She is accused of dropping tens of thousands of dollars on clothes, awarding nonacademic scholarships to friends of her children and sending scores of text messages on university-issued cell phones to people described in the lawsuit as “underage males.”
Roberts: Suit about blackmail
At a chapel service this week on the 5,300-student campus known for its 60-foot-tall bronze sculpture of praying hands, Roberts said God told him: “We live in a litigious society. Anyone can get mad and file a lawsuit against another person whether they have a legitimate case or not. This lawsuit ... is about intimidation, blackmail and extortion.”
San Antonio televangelist John Hagee, a member of the ORU board of regents, said the university’s executive board “is conducting a full and thorough investigation.”
Colleagues fear for the reputation of the university and the future of the Robertses’ ministry, which grew from Southern tent revivals to one of the most successful evangelical empires in the country, hauling in tens of millions of dollars in contributions a year. The university reported nearly $76 million in revenue in 2005, according to the IRS.
Oral Roberts is 89 and lives in California. He holds the title of chancellor, but the university describes him as semi-retired, and his son presides over day-to-day operations on the campus, which had a modern, space-age design when it was built in the early 1960s but now looks dated, like Disney’s Tomorrowland.
Students worry about school's reputation
Cornell Cross II, a senior from Burlington, Vt., said he is looking to transfer to another school because the scandal has “severely devalued and hurt the reputation of my degree.”
“We have asked and asked and asked to see the finances of our school and what they’re doing with our money, and we’ve been told no,” said, Cross who is majoring in government. “Now we know why. As a student, I’m not going to stand for it any longer.”
The allegations are contained in a lawsuit filed Tuesday by three former professors. They sued ORU and Roberts, alleging they were wrongfully dismissed after reporting the school’s involvement in a local political race.
Meddling in politics
Richard Roberts, according to the suit, asked a professor in 2005 to use his students and university resources to aid a county commissioner’s bid for Tulsa mayor. Such involvement would violate state and federal law because of the university’s nonprofit status. Up to 50 students are alleged to have worked on the campaign.
The professors also said their dismissals came after they turned over to the board of regents a copy of a report documenting moral and ethical lapses on the part of Roberts and his family. The internal document was prepared by Stephanie Cantese, Richard Roberts’ sister-in-law, according to the lawsuit.
An ORU student repairing Cantese’s laptop discovered the document and later provided a copy to one of the professors.
Details of lawsuit
It details dozens of alleged instances of misconduct. Among them:
- A longtime maintenance employee was fired so that an underage male friend of Lindsay Roberts could have his position.
- Lindsay Roberts — who is a member of the board of regents and is referred to as ORU’s “first lady” on the university’s Web site — frequently had cell-phone bills of more than $800 per month, with hundreds of text messages sent between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. to “underage males who had been provided phones at university expense.”
- The university jet was used to take one daughter and several friends on a senior trip to Orlando, Fla., and the Bahamas. The $29,411 trip was billed to the ministry as an “evangelistic function of the president.”
- Lindsay Roberts spent more than $39,000 at one Chico’s clothing store alone in less than a year and had other accounts in Texas and California. She also repeatedly said, “As long as I wear it once on TV, we can charge it off.” The document cites inconsistencies in clothing purchases and actual usage on TV.
- Lindsay Roberts was given a white Lexus SUV and a red Mercedes convertible by ministry donors.
- University and ministry employees are regularly summoned to the Robertses’ home to do the daughters’ homework.
- The university and ministry maintain a stable of horses for exclusive use by the Robertses’ children.
- The Robertses’ home has been remodeled 11 times in the past 14 years.
Tim Brooker, one of the professors who sued, said he fears for the university’s survival if certain changes aren’t made.
“All over that campus, there are signs up that say, ‘And God said, build me a university, build it on my authority, and build it on the Holy Spirit,”’ Brooker said. “Unfortunately, ownership has shifted.”