Evangelical TV station in unholy row over money

The founders of a Christian TV network are accused of misusing millions. By Guy Adams

Whoever built the headquarters of the Bible-thumping Trinity Broadcasting Network in southern California appears to have overlooked that famous passage in the Good Book about rich men, large camels and the eyes of needles.

The Christian ministry, which provides a platform to some of America's most popular television evangelists, occupies a compound so stupendously ostentatious that, to the casual observer, it might be mistaken for a Las Vegas casino resort.

Its buildings, from where a mixture of documentaries, sermons, talk shows and films are beamed 24 hours a day, boast gold-plated windows, faux Grecian pillars and marble floors.

It is also surrounded by a very large fence. And, right now, that's one design feature TBN needs. For an extraordinary legal battle, which became public at the end of last month, has left this God-fearing, all-American institution mired in scandal. In lawsuits, two disgruntled former TBN employees have accused the supposed "non-profit" operation of frittering more than $50m (£30m) on houses, planes, cars and luxury goods to support the gilded lifestyle of its charismatic founders, Paul and Jan Crouch.

They reveal that the network, funded by small donations from well-meaning viewers, spent $50m on a Global Express private jet, $8m on a Hawker jet and another $100,000 on a motor home which – according to the lawsuits – was used to provide a kennel for Mrs Crouch's collection of lapdogs.

TBN has also acquired 13 luxurious properties – in venues as far flung as Newport Beach and Nashville – and provides its senior staff with Bentleys and SUVs for travel purposes, and hundred-thousand-dollar expense accounts for their meals, the lawsuits claim.

The allegations, which a spokesman for TBN called a mixture of misleading tittle-tattle and downright "fabrication", are all the more remarkable because they are being aired by Brittany Koper, the now-estranged granddaughter of Paul and Jan Crouch. Ms Koper was appointed finance director of TBN in July but claims to have been forced to leave the organisation after attempting to "blow the whistle" on allegedly "illegal financial schemes" she stumbled upon during her employment.

She offers an eye-opening take on the corporate culture within the network, which produces programmes watched by millions worldwide and is also the proprietor of a Christian theme park in Orlando, Florida.

At one point, Ms Koper alleges, her uncle Matthew Crouch, who is one of TBN's board members, turned up at a meeting carrying a pistol. He then tapped the weapon while asking her "what she thought would happen if she wrote a memo to the board critical of [his] financial improprieties".

During her response, he "continued tapping the gun to ensure that [she] recognised the lethal threat being made", the lawsuit alleges.

The juicy nature of the allegations have prompted an inevitable flurry of interest in TBN, which was founded by Paul and Jan Crouch in 1973, now broadcasts to every continent except Antarctica and, thanks to the generosity of viewers, boasts assets of more than $300m.

TBN grew rich on the proceeds of the so-called "prosperity gospel", a style of televangelism in which charismatic preachers tell viewers to send cash donations because God will so approve of their generosity that He will grant them good financial fortune in the future.

Charles Kimball, a professor of religious studies at Oklahoma University who closely follows televangelists, says "prosperity gospel" preachers prey on people's desperation.

"This idea that faith can be a quick fix, a magic answer, the keys to a kingdom, it's particularly attractive to viewers who are uneducated and may not have very much money in the first place," he said.

Like many televangelist organisations before it, TBN has survived its share of legal difficulties. This time, its lawyers are also playing hardball. In a statement to i, the network's representative, Colby May, said Ms Koper's claims were part of a "tabloid and dishonest attempt" to cover up her own "embezzlement" from the organisation.

Regarding the substance of her allegations, made in a legal action in which TBN is not a defendant, Mr May admitted that the network did own two private jets. However, he argued that these were essential for its day-to-day activities. "Because Dr and Mrs Crouch are public figures and receive regular death threats, public aviation and travel is impossible for them," he argued.

He said the network did spend $100,000 on a motor home, but it was used as office space,and later as a mobile production facility, rather than to house Mrs Crouch's dogs. And the various properties it owned across the US were for business use.

Mr May said Matthew Crouch was licensed to carry a concealed firearm for personal protection but he did not brandish it in business meetings. Paul Crouch, like other employees, was "modestly compensated" for his role.

Mr Crouch's salary, according to TBN's financial records, is $400,000. That is roughly 16 times America's median wage. A cynic might argue that makes it about as modest as the design of TBN's eye-catching headquarters. But the world of televangelism is no place for cynics.

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