Televangelist refuses to answer finances inquiry

The church has invasion of privacy concerns about the questioning.

;(AP) – One of six Christian ministries under investigation by a Senate committee is rebuffing inquiries into its spending, challenging the panel’s watchdog role over religious groups, The Associated Press has learned.

A lawyer for preacher Creflo Dollar of World Changers Church International in suburban Atlanta has asked Sen. Charles Grassley to either refer the matter to the IRS or get a subpoena, according to a letter from Dollar’s attorney obtained Wednesday by the AP.

Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, sent pointed questionnaires in early November to a half-dozen ministries, asking about salaries, perks, travel and oversight. The Iowa Republican set Thursday as the deadline for a response.

All six organizations preach a form of the “prosperity gospel,” the belief that God wants his faithful followers to reap material rewards.

Besides Dollar, several other televangelists have signaled concerns about invasions of privacy and violations of religious freedom. Only Joyce Meyer Ministries of Fenton, Mo., has provided the detailed financial and board oversight information sought by Grassley.

Dollar’s refusal could lead to a court fight, giving a judge the authority to decide whether the committee is entitled to all the information it requested.

Grassley emphasized the other five still have time. The senator also reiterated that his probe “has nothing to do with church doctrine” and is strictly concerned with making sure the tax-exempt groups are following the law.

Dollar has been the most vocal in his criticism of the probe. In the Nov. 27 letter obtained by the AP, Dollar attorney Marcus Owens wrote to Grassley and Sen. Max Baucus, the Finance Committee chairman, that the church is willing to comply with a “proper” request for information – but it should be handled by the IRS.

Owens, the former director of the IRS’s exempt organizations division, pointed to precedent: In the 1980s, a House subcommittee asked the IRS to review concerns about televangelists.

“A referral would permit Senator Grassley and the Senate Finance Committee to discharge their obligation to oversee federal tax administration without running the risk of government entanglement in the Church’s religious beliefs and practices,” the letter said.

An IRS review also would ensure privacy, Owens wrote. All IRS reviews are confidential, and Dollar has said he worries that a Senate probe might air sensitive information about salaries, among other things.

Failing a referral to the IRS, Owens requested that the committee seek subpoenas to “provide an appropriate legal context for the review.” With a subpoena, the church and its members could gain confidentiality protections.

Joyce Meyer Ministries expressed confidence last week that it would be found in “complete compliance” with financial regulations.

The organization also addressed one of the more salacious details in the letter from Grassley – its reported purchase of a $23,000 “commode with marble top.” The ministry said it was not a common toilet but a “a tall elegant chest of drawers,” and that the selling agent got the price wrong.

Aside from Dollar and Meyer, the other televangelists have been noncommittal in their public responses. But some have voiced strong objections that echo Dollar’s about privacy and religious freedom.

Bishop Eddie Long, who leads a megachurch and ministry in Lithonia, Ga., initially promised to “fully comply” with Grassley’s request. But a few days later, Long told his congregation the request was “unjust,” ”intrusive,” and “an attack on our religious freedom and privacy rights.”