Tax exemptions for wealthy media-based ministries lead a senator to ask hard questions.
Should Congress care if a minister drives a Bentley, flies private jets, or buys a $23,000 commode?
Yes, says Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, if the high-spending ways violate the US tax code – especially a tax exemption for religious organizations.
He's given six televangelist ministries a deadline of this Friday to respond to questions on issues ranging from compensation and housing allowances to personal use of assets and unreported income.
"If tax-exempt organizations, including media-based ministries, thumb their noses at the laws governing their preferential tax treatment, the American public, their contributors, and the Internal Revenue Service have a right to know," says Senator Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.
In the past five years, Grassley has led probes of nonprofits that unearthed lavish perks at the Smithsonian Institution, conflicts of interest at the Nature Conservancy, and mismanagement at the American Red Cross. Now, he's looking at some of America's largest, media-based ministries.
"Considering tax-exempt media-based ministries today are a billion-dollar industry ... with minimal transparency, it would be irresponsible not to examine this tax-exempt part of our economy," he said in a statement this week.
But church groups and other nonprofits worry that this probe could lead Congress to pass laws that slip into constitutionally protected territory – imposing excessive government oversight on a wide range of churches and other nonprofits.
Last week, National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) wrote to Grassley expressing concern about "the broader implications of this issue, not only for our members, but for all non-profit Christian ministries as well."
The information requested of the six ministries "goes far beyond a mere request for financial records necessary to scrutinize the charitable nature of an organization's operations," said NRB president and CEO Frank Wright in a Dec. 4 statement.
This includes requests for compensation agreements, employment contracts, minutes of board meetings, credit card statements, flight records, plastic surgery expenses, and a detailed account of the personal use of assets.