January 10th, 2011
12:58 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has asked the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a Christian financial accreditation group, to pick up where his office's review of televangelists and taxes left off.
On Thursday the ECFA established the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations, appointing CPA Michael Batts as the chair of the group.
Their task is to take a look at the recommendations from the Grassley review, such as evaluating whether churches and houses of worship should file the yearly detailed financial reports that other nonprofits file, called the IRS Form 990. They will also examine whether housing allowance exclusions for clergy should be curbed, whether a ban against religious groups endorsing or actively support political activities should be repealed, and whether clarity is needed in the tax code when "love offerings" are given to clergy.
Batts told CNN many of the details and logistics are yet to be mapped out. "Fundamentally it's about obtaining feedback from the religious and non-profit sectors to get that report back directly to the senator's office," he said.
Whether the ministries targeted by Grassley's review will cooperate is yet to be seen.
The review said four of the six ministries asked to respond to Grassley's request provided incomplete information or none at all to Grassley's staff.
"I think (Grassley) would say that's its very unusual," said Jill Kozeny, a Grassley spokeswoman. "He's written dozens if not hundreds of letters of inquiry on tax issues over the years and he would say it's very rare for folks not to cooperate. I think he would find that disappointing."
Grassley has said he views legislation as a last resort in this instance, and that he prefers "self-correction."
The senator lauded Benny Hinn and Joyce Meyer, two of the six televangelists who were part of the review, for the steps they took to self-correct.
Benny Hinn Ministries said in a statement it had voluntarily provided the senator's office with 3,790 pages of documentation. Meyer's ministry now posts an exhaustive yearly financial review on its website and said in a statement Thursday that in 2010, 83% of operating expenses went to spreading the gospel and providing humanitarian assistance.
The response from the other targeted televangelists was mixed.
Marcus Owens, an attorney for Creflo Dollar, said his client was not given any indication the report was coming out and had not had an opportunity to examine the review. Dollar was pointed out in the review as being one of the least cooperative pastors in the survey.
Another who was part of the survey, Bishop Eddie Long, issued a statement saying, "I am relieved that after more than three years of intense investigation and countless untrue allegations, that Senator Chuck Grassley's review has found no evidence of wrongdoing."
A representative for Paula White said she experienced unfair ridicule and criticism during the review. White is scheduled to speak with CNN Monday about the investigation.
Kenneth Copeland Ministries spokesman Stephen Swisher told CNN he disagreed with the review calling their ministry uncooperative. "It wasn't about not cooperating, it was about the confidentiality of our donors," he said. Swisher said they were asked to provide the senator's office with a list of donors and their addresses.
The documentation released by Grassley's office showed Copeland's attorneys fought the government's request with government procedures. They declined to provided answers to Grassley's inquiry, saying the IRS could request the information from the church and the Senate Finance Committee could get that information from the IRS.
"Proceeding within these well-established statutory frameworks would allow Senator Grassley to obtain the information requested without compromising the legitimate constitutionality and statutorily based privacy and confidentiality concerns of the church," Copeland's attorneys wrote to the Senate Finance Committee, according to documentation released by Grassley's office.
Swisher said since the ministry began in 1967, they have always promised their donors confidentiality and that was why would not participate with that portion of the senator's request.
"I think it was extremely unfair and unusual to give this information. The information could be compromised in that any one could see this information. It struck us as patently unfair," Swisher said.
"We sent boxes and boxes of information to Senator Grassley and the Senate Finance Committee. I think it would be unfair to say we did not cooperate. When it came to divulging our partners [or donors] information, that crossed the line," Swisher said.
"Sen. Grassley doesn't want to impose on anyone's religious liberty. He wants to keep the discussion to tax issues as much as possible," Grassley's spokeswoman, Kozeny, responded.
"That's one of his many reasons for involving and relying on the leadership of the ECFA to spearhead a discussion among stakeholders. It's important to hear from the community how they would be affected by these changes and to hear all the concerns and comments," Kozeny said.
As for whether Grassley's office expects the commission to hear more from the ministries that had not responded so far, Kozeny said, "The ministries that didn't respond made it clear they had no interest in responding. If they changed their tune and want to join the discussion that would be welcome. But we've turned to the commission now."
Batts said the ECFA and the newly formed commission are dependent on volunteers and donations to complete their task. He also said there is no timetable on reporting back to Grassley's office.
"We want to make sure this is done right and well, not necessarily fast," he said.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.