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Churches Weigh Release Of Data

TAMPA - Some leaders of churches targeted in an investigation by U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley are wrestling with how to comply with his request for detailed financial information on their ministries. Some say they have nothing to hide.
/ Source: wfla.com

TAMPA - Some leaders of churches targeted in an investigation by U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley are wrestling with how to comply with his request for detailed financial information on their ministries. Some say they have nothing to hide.

One isn't ready to commit.

"I can't say yet," said Randy White, co-founder of Without Walls International Church in Tampa. "I'm waiting on a conference call with all the six ministries."

Creflo Dollar, senior pastor of World Changers Church International in College Park, Ga., said he would provide only the information to which Grassley is legally entitled.

"The letter we received would, for example, allow the U.S. Senate to ask for the names of high donors from the Catholic Church, names of donors that support Episcopal Church schools, and also ask for the salary of any pastor in America," Dollar said in a statement. "Because of this fact, we feel it is prudent to consult well-respected legal professors and scholars to see what their thoughts are."

A copy of the letter sent to Dollar did not ask for any church donors' names.

As reported in The Tampa Tribune on Tuesday, Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Finance, sent letters Monday to six ministries he said could be violating their tax-exempt status, including Paula White Ministries, which began in Without Walls. He wants the information by Dec. 6.

If they comply, it could give the public an unprecedented look inside the finances of independent multimillion-dollar ministries.

Churches have a special place in federal tax law; they aren't required to file 990 forms like other nonprofit organizations. Critics say the system has allowed some church leaders to secretly use their ministries to bankroll their lavish lifestyles.

Grassley, a Republican representing Iowa, has launched investigations, and prompted reforms, of other nonprofit groups, including the American Red Cross and the Nature Conservancy.

"I think for a person like me, it's this simple," Grassley told News Channel 8 on Tuesday. "Jesus came into the city on a simple donkey. To what extent do you need a Rolls-Royce to expand the ministry of Jesus Christ?"

The Whites may have trouble convincing Grassley that their church board is an independent guardian of congregants' donations. He wants to know who determines how money is spent at Without Walls and Paula White Ministries, and asked for copies of all board minutes.

"There's no formal meetings to speak of," said Alick Clark, a longtime Without Walls board member from Acton, Calif. He said nearly all board meetings are conducted by telephone.

Clark wasn't happy about news of Grassley's investigation.

"I'm sorry to see all of this happening," he said. "How many of these guys would be in ministry if there was no money in it? Not many, I can tell you."

Besides Dollar and Without Walls, Grassley is seeking information from Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church of Grapevine, Texas; David and Joyce Meyer of Joyce Meyer Ministries of Fenton, Mo.; Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries of Newark, Texas; and Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church of Lithonia, Ga.

Joyce Meyer's attorney, Thomas J. Winters, issued a statement saying the ministry tries to be open about its finances and has released audited financial reports since 2003.

The ministry retained its tax-exempt status after the Internal Revenue Service reviewed the organization's records dating back to 2004, Winters said.

Meyer's organization "is committed to conducting itself with excellence and integrity, choosing to go above and beyond the level of accountability required by law and or that is expected by most donors," the statement read.

Winters noted that it has provided more than 11 million meals in 2006, built nearly 200 freshwater wells and churches in underdeveloped countries, and operates more than 50 orphanages worldwide.

Benny Hinn spokesman Ronn Torossian said the ministry is trying to figure out the best way to respond to Grassley's request.

The televangelist has routinely been criticized for his lavish lifestyle, including a $10 million parsonage in California.

"We regard this as an important matter and will not respond until further information becomes available," Torossian said in a statement. "World Healing Center Church complies with the laws that govern church and nonprofit organizations and will continue to do so."

Dan Rene, a spokesman for Eddie Long of New Birth, said the ministry plans to comply with Grassley's requests.

"New Birth has several safeguards put in place to ensure all transactions are in compliance with laws applicable to churches," he said in a statement, declining to elaborate.

Kenneth Copeland could not be reached for comment.

Reporter Baird Helgeson can be reached at (813) 259-7668 or bhelgeson@tampatrib.com. Reporter Michelle Bearden can be reached at (813) 259-7613 or mbearden@tampatrib.com. Keyword, Church, to comment on the story or read previous coverage of Without Walls.