Senator Punts Televangelist Inquiry for “Self-Reform Within the Community”

Late yesterday Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee who three years ago launched an investigation into the finances of six leading televangelists, released staff reports detailing the results of its probe into the ministries. While the probe was initially launched to examine whether the ministries had abused their tax-exempt status by using tax-exempt funds for personal enrichment, Grassley is not recommending any changes to the tax law to prevent such abuse, but rather a review by the Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability, which was formed in the 1970s.

According to a statement from Grassley’s spokesperson, the EFCA will be forming a Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations to review Grassley’s staff reports. (The reports, released late yesterday, are lengthy and I haven’t had a chance to read them in detail, but scanning them they appear to extensively document the business dealings of the six televangelists — Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, Paula White, and Creflo Dollar.)

Grassley, whose term as ranking member of the Finance Committee is coming to an end because of Republican term limits, had been under pressure from allies of the targeted televangelists not to encourage more government regulation of their activities. Copeland, for example, who submitted incomplete responses to Grassley’s inquiry, has enjoyed the support of Mike Huckabee, and has said he wouldn’t turn over information about his ministry to Grassley because “it belongs to God.”

Copeland helped raise money for Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign; Huckabee supported Copeland on Meet The Press in 2008, and raised the slippery slope argument about government investigations into non-profits:

It’s a little chilling when you start thinking about is Congress going to start going after nonprofit organizations? And if so, are they going to do all nonprofits? Are they going to start looking at Moveon.org? Are they going to start looking at some of these organizations, where every dime comes from? If, if we’re going to do it, let’s open it up and make sure everybody coughs up the information.

And Doug Wead, religious advisor to both Bush presidencies, also defended Copeland and attacked Grassley, a Baptist, as biased against Pentecostals, and as hypocritical because he belongs to the secretive group The Family.

But instead of urging any reform of the tax law to prevent use of tax-exempt funds to finance the lavish lifestyles of the country’s most notorious televangelists, Grassley is now, according to his office’s statement, hoping for self-regulation within the evangelical community and is making efforts to deflect charges that he is targeting certain religious groups:

Grassley expects that the issues raised as part of the staff review will generate discussion about increasing accountability among all types of churches and religious organizations, not just evangelical groups. “The staff review sets the stage for a comprehensive discussion among churches and religious organizations.  I look forward to helping facilitate this dialogue and fostering an environment for self-reform within the community,” Grassley said.

The ECFA is holding a press conference this morning to discuss its efforts; I’ll have more later in the day after that and after I’ve had a chance to review the staff reports. Whether any of this will result in any meaningful change in the tax law — requiring greater transparency from non-profits or greater scrutiny by tax regulators, or both — remains to be seen. But don’t expect anything earth-shattering during 2012 presidential campaign season, givenhow the televangelists and their supporters politicized the dispute in 2008. One can hope, though, that Grassley’s staff reports will shed more light on the televangelists’ activities, and the millions of tax-exempt dollars flowing through these organizations to the great personal enrichment of the televangelists and their families.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email