Preachers in the eye of a storm

They say they are doing God's work, but a lawsuit alleges that the charismatic founders of a Christian TV network have frittered millions on jets, cars and a motor home for their dogs

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 a 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. The grounds contain Technicolor rose gardens, gurgling fountains and acre after acre of neatly clipped lawns. Behind the entrance gates, visitors meet a potent symbol of the crusading ethos TBN brings to the business of spreading God's word to armchair Christians: a life-size statue of a knight in armour, on horseback, triumphantly brandishing a lance.

This venue in California, overlooking one of America's busiest freeways, 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" 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, Florida, 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 "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.

Later, Ms Koper, 26, was called into several meetings with an attorney, David Loe, who has represented TBN and whose firm is the defendant in her lawsuit. She alleges that he "slapped her buttocks", "solicited sexual relations" and "made repeated remarks" about her "breast enhancement surgery." At one point, while supposedly discussing the alleged financial impropriety at TBN, she says that Mr Loe grabbed her breasts "to see if they were real".

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

A typical TBN "Praise-a-Thon" in March saw a preacher exhort viewers to bellow "Fear not!" three times, count down from 10 and then rush to the phone with donations. In exchange, he promised they would receive a miracle from God "about this time tomorrow". Within seconds, all 200 phone lines were busy, reported the Associated Press.

High-energy fundraising helped TBN raise $95m in 2010, the most recent year for which records are available. But it is not without critics. Charles Kimball, a professor of religious studies at Oklahoma University who closely follows televangelists, says that its "prosperity gospel" preachers prey on 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. "There's no shortage of people desperately looking for that message."

The website, which acts as a watchdog for Christians looking to donate to worthwhile ministries, says it has issued more "donor alerts" for TBN than for any other religious organisation and, on a scalefrom A to F, rates it F for financial transparency. "The network is a charity, which uses that status to get tax exemptions," says Ministrywatch's founder, Rusty Leonard.

"If you set up such an organisation, you are not allowed to use its resources to benefit yourself. That's called private inurement. It's illegal and it's wrong. I have no idea why the tax authorities do not take this seriously, but they never seem to."

Mr Leonard cites TBN as one of the world's 30 worst ministries, and argues that its style of fundraising is antithetical to Christian beliefs. "Prosperity theology turns the gospel upside down," he says. "Jesus didn't live a wealthy lifestyle. He was the exact opposite. To see God as some kind of Santa Claus is just completely bogus."

Like many televangelist organisations before it, TBN has survived its share of legal difficulties. In the 1990s, Paul Crouch secretly paid an accuser $425,000 to keep quiet about an alleged homosexual encounter. When the payment was revealed, he denied the sexual allegations, saying he settled to avoid a costly trial. This time, its lawyers are also playing hardball. In a statement to The Independent, the network's representative, Colby May, said that 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, he admitted that the network does own two private jets. However, he argued that these are 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.

The network did spend $100,000 on a motor home. But the vehicle was used first as office space, and later as a mobile production facility, rather than to house Mrs Crouch's lapdogs, he added. And the various properties it owns across the US are for business rather than personal use. Matthew Crouch is licensed to carry a concealed firearm for personal protection, but he does not brandish it in business meetings, and, Mr May insisted, like every other TBN employee, Paul Crouch is "modestly compensated" for his role.

Mr Crouch's salary, according to TBN's financial records, is $400,000. America's median wage is roughly 1/16th of that figure. 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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