Family Battle Offers Look Inside Lavish TV Ministry
Writer: Erik Eckholm | 5 May 2012 | www.nytimes.com
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — For 39 years, the Trinity Broadcasting Network has urged viewers to give generously and reap the Lord’s bounty in return.
The prosperity gospel preached by Paul and Janice Crouch, who built a single station into the world’s largest Christian television network, has worked out well for them.
Mr. and Mrs. Crouch have his-and-her mansions one street apart in a gated community here, provided by the network using viewer donations and tax-free earnings.
But Mrs. Crouch, 74, rarely sleeps in the $5.6 million house with tennis court and pool. She mostly lives in a large company house near Orlando, Fla., where she runs a side business, the Holy Land Experience theme park. Mr. Crouch, 78, has an adjacent home there too, but rarely visits. Its occupant is often a security guard who doubles as Mrs. Crouch’s chauffeur.
The twin sets of luxury homes only hint at the high living enjoyed by the Crouches, inspirational television personalities whose multitudes of stations and satellite signals reach millions of worshipers across the globe. Almost since they started in the 1970s, the couple have been criticized for secrecy about their use of donations, which totaled $93 million in 2010.
Now, after an upheaval with Shakespearean echoes, one son in this first family of televangelism has ousted the other to become the heir apparent. A granddaughter, who was in charge of TBN’s finances, has gone public with the most detailed allegations of financial improprieties yet, which TBN has denied, saying its practices were audited and legal.
The granddaughter, Brittany Koper, and her husband have been fired by the network, which accused them of stealing $1.3 million to buy real estate and cars and make family loans. "They’re just trying to divert attention from their own crimes," said Colby May, a lawyer representing TBN. Janice and Paul Crouch declined requests for interviews.
In two pending lawsuits and in her first public interview, Ms. Koper described company-paid luxuries that she said appeared to violate the Internal Revenue Service’s ban on "excess compensation" by nonprofit organizations as well as possibly state and federal laws on false bookkeeping and self-dealing.
The lavish perquisites, corroborated by two other former TBN employees, include additional, often-vacant homes in Texas and on the former Conway Twitty estate in Tennessee, corporate jets valued at $8 million and $49 million each and thousand-dollar dinners with fine wines, paid with tax-exempt money.
In the lawsuits and interviews, Ms. Koper, 26, also charges that TBN has spent millions of dollars in sweetheart deals with a commercial film company owned until recently by a son of the Crouches, Matthew, including poorly monitored investments made after he joined the TBN board in 2007.
"My job as finance director was to find ways to label extravagant personal spending as ministry expenses," Ms. Koper said. This is one way, she said, the company avoids probing questions from the I.R.S. She said that the absence of outsiders on TBN’s governing board — currently consisting of Paul, Janice and Matthew Crouch — had led to a serious lack of accountability for spending.
Ms. Koper and the two other former TBN employees also said that dozens of staff members, including Ms. Koper, chauffeurs, sound engineers and others had been ordained as ministers by TBN. This allowed the network to avoid paying Social Security taxes on their salaries and made it easier to justify providing family members with rent-free houses, sometimes called "parsonages," she said.
The company did not always succeed. Last year, officials in Orange County, Fla., turned down TBN’s application to register the adjacent lakefront houses in Windermere as parsonages, saying they served no religious purpose, The Orlando Sentinel reported. The designation would have resulted in religious exemptions and saved TBN roughly $50,000 in taxes a year.
Ms. Koper said that the company run by Matthew Crouch, 50, who is her uncle, had received an estimated $50 million in TBN money over the years, with little oversight, to finance religious film projects and television shows. TBN recouped only a small fraction of its loans and investments, sometimes forgiving large sums in return for broadcast rights of limited value, she said.
She also questioned the justification for providing rent-free houses for Matthew, now a TBN vice president, and his wife, Laurie, and separate houses for their young-adult sons in Costa Mesa, Calif., including one that Ms. Koper said was remodeled at company expense with wall-mounted Transformer robot figures costing several thousand dollars, a putting green and an indoor basketball court.
Ms. Koper and her husband, Michael Koper, 28, who formerly managed sales of TBN airtime, said they were fired last September after writing memorandums to the elder Mr. Crouch about questionable spending. They showed a reporter for The New York Times what they said were copies of the memos.
"People have been conned by my grandparents," Ms. Koper said.
But TBN said the pair made their charges only after the company confronted them with evidence of embezzlement. TBN later filed and then dropped a civil lawsuit accusing the Kopers of fraud, and this week filed a new suit in a California court, repeating only a few of the original allegations. No criminal charges against the Kopers have been filed.
Mr. May, the lawyer, offered a broad defense of TBN and the Crouches. He said that TBN had indeed ordained hundreds of people who felt a true "ministerial call" and that performers at Holy Land Experience, for example, were "ministers playing roles."
He said that all contracts with the film company that Matthew Crouch led until mid-2010, Gener8Xion Entertainment, had been at "arm’s length" and provided good value to TBN.
Mr. May added that TBN owned so many homes because traveling employees and guests used them. He said that the remodeled house, in the Lifestyles complex in Costa Mesa, was not occupied, but used as a set for youth television programs, with the Transformers serving as props. Matthew Crouch, through the company spokesman, declined an interview request. But Gilbert J. Luft, president of the Lifestyles Homeowners Association in Costa Mesa, said that the sons were familiar residents and that the association does not permit filming there.
Extolling TBN’s prominence and programs, Mr. May said the spending that some call opulent "is necessary to convey the ministry’s position of accomplishment."
The Gospel of Prosperity
On the air, the Crouches combine uplifting talk with encouragement to give to the Lord, and so be repaid. This "prosperity gospel" is shared by several televangelists who appear on TBN. But many conventional Christian leaders regard it as a sham.
"Prosperity theology is a false theology," said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Between its message and its reputation for high spending, Mr. Mohler said, "TBN has been a huge embarrassment to evangelical Christianity for decades."