Televangelists respond to Grassley

Des Moines Register/April 1, 2008

Washington, D.C. - Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley's latest inquiries into televangelists' spending has apparently prompted new cooperation from several of them, whose ministries responded by Monday's deadline.

"It's pretty extensive material in some cases," said Jill Kozeny, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Republican.

Grassley, the top Republican on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, in mid-March sent a new round of letters to televangelists. He was asking for details on how money raised from supporters is spent in their tax-exempt churches, including on jet planes, mansions and expensive vehicles. The letters also were signed by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.

One of the TV ministers, Kenneth Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries in Newark, Texas, has been sharply critical of Grassley's probe. He has said it is not appropriate for a congressional committee to look into church finances and has accused Grassley of trying to tear down the wall of separation between church and state. "You can go get a subpoena!" Copeland has said of the Grassley letters.

Grassley first sent letters of inquiry to the ministries in November and has said he is interested in federal tax policy affecting nonprofits, not religious issues. Grassley says it is the committee's responsibility to provide oversight for tax law, separate from Internal Revenue Service enforcement actions or investigations.

Because churches don't pay taxes, the government forgoes collecting billions of dollars from them annually. The ministries targeted by Grassley preach what's known as the "prosperity gospel" that says followers will gain financial wealth.

Aides to Grassley said that Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., has told congressional staff members that he will provide material to them by April 15. Long earlier had called Grassley's questions "unjust," "intrusive" and "an attack on our religious freedom and privacy rights."

In addition, a lawyer for Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church in Tampa, Fla., has submitted material to Grassley, as has Benny Hinn Ministries /World Healing Center Church of Grapevine, Texas, aides said.

A statement from a lawyer for Benny Hinn Ministries said some 618 pages of documentation for church spending were provided. "At the direction of the church's board of directors and our senior pastor, Benny Hinn, this submission is the second in a series of in-depth answers that are in furtherance of the church's commitment to provide comprehensive responses to the senator's questions," said Don Price, a spokesman for the church.

No response had been received by Monday afternoon from Copeland or from Creflo and Taffi Dollar of World Changers Church International/Creflo Dollar Ministries in College Park, Ga., aides said.

Kozeny said the inquiry is a "step-by-step process," and no decisions have been made yet as to whether congressional hearings will follow the submission of material, or whether subpoenas might be issued to those ministers who do not cooperate.

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