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Independent commission to continue work on government's televangelist review
January 10th, 2011
12:58 PM ET

Independent commission to continue work on government's televangelist review

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should be curbed, whether a ban against religious groups endorsing or actively support political activities should be repealed, and whether clarity is needed in the tax code when "love offerings" are given to clergy.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.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Politics • TV • United States

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soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Gary

    Koresh,hinn,bakker,swaggert,haggerd,jakes,tillman,Roberston, evangelists.....are a joke

    January 11, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      All religions and their charlatans are a joke!

      January 12, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • jason

      it's a disgrace to the billions of people worldwide who've found comfort in their faith. what amazes me are the folk who follow these rich clowns.

      January 18, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  2. Chris

    There are many lessons to be learned from the current state of affairs. Just as our current system of taxation based on income can create situations that lead to individuals committing fraud, it also provides ample incentive for waste by allowing write-offs against income.
    If taxes were based on consumption there would be no need to disguise taxable income as expense. There would also be more likelihood of creating a sustainable economy where people once again focused on cooperation and future well-being.
    When churches become tax-havens and power brokers(which they have), it becomes all too obvious that significant systemic changes must be made.
    Metaphorically, at present, we're just blowing bubbles.

    January 11, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
  3. David Johnson

    I think I have a solution to the problem: Tax baby tax!

    January 11, 2011 at 8:45 am |
    • Bob

      It's simple, anyone making over 200,000 due to religious donations should be taxed. Period.

      Religious organizations funds should be regulated by a government body and only be allowed to be spent on specific items.

      Ie, no luxury jets for leaders, etc.

      January 11, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • Steve the real one

      @Bob Religious organizations funds should be regulated by a government body and only be allowed to be spent on specific items.
      ------------
      Really? Regulated by a government body? Really? Whatever happened to the "separation of church and state"? You guys toss that out when it fits your needs! As for luxury jets and private airports! I agree that is disgusting! Delta or American flies where they need to go!

      January 11, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Bob

      You obviously don't know what the seperation of church and state is. Perhaps general education in the matter will clear things up. I'm happy to provide.

      The government itself may take no actions to put forth a national church or to set aside one church as "better" then the others. By tendering all of their religions equally and without bias, there is no conflict.

      Why is it that a Canadian knows more about your const-itution then you do?

      January 12, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • Steve the real one

      bOB,

      I know full well "Congress shall make No laws..... It appears you have no clue. Thomas Jefferson wrote about Separation of church and state in a private letter to PASTORS in New England to ease their concerns that we would have a "church of England" here ! It was written in a letter, NOT the U.S. Const-ition!

      You asked : Why is it that a Canadian knows more about your const-itution then you do?

      My Answer: If you do, no problem! I appreciate the fact that you bother to know!

      January 12, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  4. PsiCop

    Re: "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."

    Wow. Letting a religious group decide whether other religious groups broke the rules. This is a seriously horrible idea. It's like letting the fox guard the henhouse. It's almost worse than letting a militant Religious Rightist conduct the investigation in the first place. Oh wait ... they already did that. Woops.

    Nice try, Washington. Try thinking up another way to waste everyone's time and money, and grant religious groups carte blanche to break the rules at will. Congratulations to religionists for living down to all my expectations of them.

    January 10, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
  5. Reality

    From the topic:

    "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. "

    Congress should not give "religious" groups the choice. All non-profits should be required to submit annually a Form 990. Currently most religious groups are exempt. One example:

    In 1997, the Imam Rauf founded the American Society for Muslim Advancement (originally named the American Sufi Muslim Association[9]), supposedly a civil society organization aimed at promoting positive engagement between American society and American Muslims. The organization is now headed by his wife, Daisy Khan, an interior designer by profession.[2]

    In 2003, Imam Rauf founded the Cordoba Initiative, a registered nonprofit organization with offices in both New York and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As CEO of Cordoba Initiative, Rauf coordinates projects that emphasize the bonds that connect the Muslim world and the West.

    Typically, CEO's and founders of "non-profits" pay themselves ~$200,000/yr. So that would mean that the topic imam and his wife make about $400,000/yr so why do the US taxpayers pay for this guy's expenses when he is out trying to "improve" Muslim relations by building offensive mosques and collecting contributions to do so? Is that not a function of his group and therefore charged to them? And how is this topic imam able to declare his "non-profit" a church thereby freeing him from filing a Form 990 so we can see exactly where he is getting his support and who he supports with said funds?

    January 10, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  6. HotAirAce

    I went to the ECFA website, hoping to find a list of accredited members – couldn't find one. ECFA claims 1400 members and that 78% have had a field review. But! ECFA only does about 200 reviews per year, so it would appear that a successful review is not a condition of membership and it could be many years between reviews. This does not assure me that ECFA accreditation is worth much.

    If you understand self-regulation in other industries, such as the airline industry, you will love the results of this new investigation. Good thing these charlatans (the religous leaders of the various cults) can't actually make anything leave the ground, at least not far enough to cause too much damage, and event then, only to their own sheep.

    January 10, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
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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.