Bakker's role in fund raising questioned
Ex-PTL leader's daughter says she just asked for advice in church drives for money
HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. - Jim Bakker, whose PTL television ministry collapsed seven years ago under allegations of fraud, has apologized for the "arrogant lifestyle" he once enjoyed, renounced the prosperity gospel that paid for it and written a book with a blunt admission: I was wrong. Virtually every remnant of his once-prosperous PTL ministry is gone, except his mailing list.
Critics say Mr. Bakker, while serving nearly five years of an eight-year prison term for the largest mail fraud in history, lent his name to a direct-mail campaign to benefit his daughter and a church ministry he helped create.
And though associates say he is banned from fund raising under the terms of his parole, Mr. Bakker donated his prison writings and a cache of PTL memorabilia - even his federal parole papers - to raise funds for his daughter's fledgling ministry, New Covenant Ministries Inc., where he also was scheduled to work after his release from prison.
Mr. Bakker was released in July 1994 and lives on a rented farm in Hendersonville. He is on parole until October. Currently on tour promoting his book, he declined to be interviewed. He is scheduled to be in Dallas next week.
His daughter, Tammy Sue Bakker-Chapman, said she assumed the reins of the ministry in 1992, when her mother and father divorced. In a letter sent to The Dallas Morning News in response to questions, she said that Mr. Bakker was employed by New Covenant at the time he went to prison but that he is not employed by the ministry now.
Asked whether Mr. Bakker has participated in her monthly direct-mail campaigns, Ms. Bakker-Chapman wrote: "As any daughter does, I ask my father for advice."
Federal parole officials in North Carolina would not comment, citing federal privacy laws, on whether Mr. Bakker had violated the terms of his parole or on the precise nature of his restrictions.
Prosecutors in Mr. Bakker's criminal fraud case won't comment on his activities since he went to prison. Their statements at his sentencing seven years ago reflected concerns that Mr. Bakker, once free, would "continue to perpetuate this fraud, that he hasn't blinked, he hasn't backed down from it a bit."
Wendell Bird, an Atlanta lawyer trying to recover money for defrauded PTL followers, said he does not know whether Mr. Bakker has benefited from New Covenant's financial appeals.
"It's clear he's masterminding it, though," Mr. Bird said.
A Dallas-based evangelist watchdog group, the Trinity Foundation, says the fund-raising tactics employed by New Covenant suggest that Mr. Bakker may be preparing a return to public fund raising once he has finished parole.
Ole Anthony, president of Trinity Foundation, said New Covenant's mail appeals have the ring of a "convenient money-raising scheme."
Because it is a single church organization, New Covenant is not required to file with the Internal Revenue Service an accounting of funds raised, where they are spent or the names and salaries of its principals. Other types of nonprofit organizations are required to file such information with state and federal tax authorities.
New Covenant offered to disclose its financial data to The News but did not do so. Although Mr. Bakker and New Covenant sought and received accreditation from the American Evangelistic Association after the PTL scandal, the trade group says it does not monitor the finances of the ministry.
Although Mr. Bakker did not solicit money directly, mail appeals from New Covenant signed by Ms. Bakker-Chapman sought money for his defense fund, touted Bibles left over from his television ministry and sold copies of his books.
In those New Covenant pleas, Ms. Bakker-Chapman included letters from Mr. Bakker recounting his life in prison, his legal situation and his conversion to penitence from prosperity gospel - a belief, in essence, that church contributions will result in material wealth for the donor.
Recently appointed directors of New Covenant, founded in 1989 by Mr. Bakker and his then-wife Tammy Faye Bakker, say Mr. Bakker does not receive money from the organization and cannot as a condition of his parole.
"We've been - and he has been - so cautious about doing anything that might cause him difficulty," said the Rev. Tommy Reid, an Assemblies of God pastor from Buffalo, N.Y., and New Covenant board president. "Not just with his parole officer, but the parole board also.
"As far as New Covenant's past practices," Mr. Reid said, "we wouldn't know much about that."
Mr. Anthony said he had believed that Mr. Bakker was truly repentant until Trinity Foundation began receiving New Covenant's mailings. He said that Mr. Bakker's involvement in New Covenant's tax-exempt fund-raising campaign and the ministry's unwillingness to disclose its finances make it too similar to Mr. Bakker's fraudulent PTL scheme.
"It makes a sham of his public professions of repentance," Mr. Anthony said. "Using his daughter as a front, claiming innocence, claiming he was victimized, then being able to continue the fund raising with all of the ex-supporters that were the major donors during his time at PTL - that's the sham, that's the sad part."
Nelson Miles, a former Assemblies of God minister who was one of Mr. Bakker's first guests on the fledgling PTL network in 1978, said he believes Mr. Bakker's transformation and believes his pleas of forgiveness are sincere.
"I see him now getting back to even better than the first Jim Bakker that I knew," he said. "I'm seeing him now going back to the purity and honesty that he had with him at that time.
"He's already tried to make his position clear and tried to put everything on the table," he said. "Let's put the past behind us at this point and give him a chance anew."
Their television show and ministry, which included a religious theme park known as Heritage USA, collapsed under charges of fraud related to the oversale of time-share units at the park.
New Covenant Church and Missionary Fellowship Inc. served briefly as the final television ministry for the Bakkers. It was formed in Orlando, Fla., only months before Mr. Bakker's 1989 federal jury conviction on 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy.
By the time Mr. Bakker came up for sentencing in October 1989, the television show was off the air and his offices were locked, although church services were held in the strip shopping center leased by New Covenant.
In a report submitted to court before Mr. Bakker's sentencing hearing, New Covenant's monthly income from mail and television solicitations was listed as high as $186,000 in June 1989 and as low as $98,000 for that September. No public accounting of New Covenant funds has been made since.
The report also listed employees of the New Covenant ministry, which included producers Norman and Dorothy Bakker, Mr. Bakker's brother and sister-in-law. His sister, Donna Puckett, handled accounts payable. Norman Bakker also was listed as the ministry's mail director.
Mr. Bakker was given a 45-year prison sentence in Charlotte, N.C., by U.S. District Judge Robert Potter in October 1989.
"Those of us who do have a religion are ridiculed as being saps from money-grubbing preachers or priests," said Judge Potter as he pronounced his sentence.
Mr. Bakker went to prison in late October 1989, and Tammy Faye Bakker took over the ministry's reins.
Writing about those days in her new book, Tammy: Telling It My Way, she said two evangelist friends gave the struggling ministry copies of their mailing lists to help rebuild the Bakkers' fund raising.
"Once again I was able to contact the PTL partners and let them know where we were and what we were doing," she wrote.
By 1991, an appeals court upheld Mr. Bakker's conviction but ordered resentencing by a different judge, citing Judge Potter's comments during the sentencing as prejudicial. Mr. Bakker was then handed an 18-year sentence, which was reduced again to eight years.
In the meantime, Mr. Bakker had lost a $129 million civil judgment in a common law fraud lawsuit filed by the so-called "lifetime partners" of PTL. The class-action suit, filed by six former partners, sought to recover money that they and thousands of others had donated in return for lifetime, limited, free lodging at PTL's defunct Heritage USA resort in Fort Mill, S.C.
In all, court records alleged that 116,000 people were defrauded of nearly $158 million in donations for Heritage USA "partnerships." However, no money was collected because PTL was already bankrupt and Heritage was on the auction block.
In March 1992, after standing by her husband through the scandal and trials, Ms. Bakker divorced her husband, who then ceded the ministry to his 22-year-old daughter, a Christian music recording artist who had debuted on the PTL network.
"When my dad asked me to take over the ministry, I was scared to death," Ms. Bakker-Chapman wrote in a Christmas 1992 appeal. "I'm so thankful to those who gave to Dad's defense fund. I don't know what we would do in our continuing efforts to get Dad out of prison without it."
For the next year, New Covenant officials were adamant in denying any link to Mr. Bakker, arguing that the ministry was solely Ms. Bakker-Chapman's.
Mr. Bird, the Atlanta attorney who represents former PTL partners, said New Covenant was concerned about violating Mr. Bakker's parole, "because he is forbidden to raise funds, basically."
The only clue to Mr. Bakker's parole provisions appears in a fund-raising letter from New Covenant dated July 1, 1994, the same day Mr. Bakker was released from federal prison.
Ostensibly, the letter was to inform supporters that Mr. Bakker was to be released to a halfway house in Asheville, N.C., pending his parole.
Writing that many supporters had asked that Mr. Bakker write a book and tell his side of the PTL story, Ms. Bakker-Chapman said, "Dad has told me he is no longer interested in vindicating himself."
Ms. Bakker-Chapman's letter said papers filed with the court on behalf of Mr. Bakker's appeal had convinced many "my dad was innocent." She offered the entire appeal package for sale at $100.
The package, obtained by The News, contained copies of Mr. Bakker's parole appeal as well as a confidential presentencing report from 1989 prepared by a U.S. parole officer. It also contained a document that alluded to possible restrictions that he would face once he was freed.
A U.S. Parole Commission order, dated May 1993, stated: ". . . you shall refrain from engaging directly or indirectly in the occupational activity in which you were engaged when you committed the instant offense behavior; namely, televangelism."
Mr. Bakker was released in late 1994 and settled into a rented farmhouse just outside Hendersonville, where he began working on his memoirs.
New Covenant Ministries, which had been based in Florida, was incorporated in North Carolina in December 1995. Its operations were moved to Hendersonville, and a mailbox was rented next to Mr. Bakker's.
A year ago, Ms. Bakker-Chapman wrote followers that Mr. Bakker's probation officer had given approval for him to work at New Covenant, although the letter did not address his specific role in the ministry.
She wrote that their dream was to be able to "restore hurting pastors and their families and others to full restoration in Jesus."
Mr. Reid said he came onto New Covenant's board in December as a favor to Mr. Bakker. His goal, he said, was to help Ms. Bakker-Chapman form a "credible organization" that would one day accommodate her and her father. He said he brought in the Rev. David Rich of Buffalo and former Kentucky Gov. Julian Carroll to help manage New Covenant's new mission.
Mr. Reid said that New Covenant now oversees Ms. Bakker-Chapman's finances, including her musical ministry.
"There is nothing afoot, there are no facilities being considered," Mr. Reid said. "We're just basically an organization in limbo."
In April 1993, Mr. Bakker wrote an eight-page sermon based on a book recounting near-death experiences. The sermon cited his PTL Parallel Bible as one of his most prized possessions in prison.
That same month, the sermon was made part of a New Covenant fund-raising appeal. The appeal offered both the book and the PTL Bible as premiums for those who donated to New Covenant.
In May 1993, Mr. Bakker's parole was denied by the U.S. Parole Commission. That prompted a short letter from Mr. Bakker to his supporters asking them to write letters to the commission on his behalf. The letter became part of New Covenant's May 1993 direct mail appeal, which also asked supporters to send $100 for a PTL Parallel Bible, $25 for Ms. Bakker-Chapman's latest recording or $10 for a reprint of one of Mr. Bakker's books.
In June 1993, Ms. Bakker-Chapman asked for contributions to her father's defense fund. She warned readers that donations weren't tax-deductible and offered "Kwikscan" New Testament Bibles as a gift for helping that fund.
Throughout that summer, New Covenant letters continued to offer the same books and reprints as Mr. Bakker waited for word on a chance of early parole.
The U.S. Parole Commission turned down his appeal in August 1993, which meant that Mr. Bakker would serve the remainder of his eight-year sentence without a chance for early release. The commission said parole was denied because of the dollar amount of his fraud and because of the nature of the scheme.
"You abused the trust implied by your chosen profession and the fact that you were a highly respected public figure," the commission order said.
Mr. Bakker continued to maintain his innocence. However, when his views on prosperity preaching changed abruptly, he noted the shift in a letter to his followers.
"I preached material prosperity for years, but I must admit I was wrong," he wrote in a September 1993 letter. "It is simply not what Jesus taught."
The letter became part of a September 1993 New Covenant appeal. In it, he credits the change to a retranslation of the pertinent Bible passage, the second chapter of 3 John, from its original Greek. In its October 1993 fund-raiser, Ms. Bakker-Chapman offered a "genuine bonded leather Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible" for a gift of $100 - "the best thing next to being able to read Hebrew and Greek."
By late August 1994, a month after Mr. Bakker's release to a halfway house, Ms. Chapman wrote followers: "There are those who are trying to hurt my father by saying he is asking for money because I have offered his writings as gifts."
She gave Mr. Bakker's defense lawyer's post office box as an address to write her father directly.
"It perhaps would be best if I don't send out any more of Dad's sermons for a while," she wrote.
The sermons stopped, but New Covenant's ties to its past resurfaced four months later with an offering of a videotape of a PTL interview between Ms. Bakker-Chapman and her father shortly after the release of her first album. That was followed by a Christmas appeal offering a portfolio of family holiday photographs.
In April 1995, New Covenant offered for $100 a videotape of Mr. Bakker's eulogy for longtime PTL colleague, "Uncle" Henry Harrison. It was marketed as his first public sermon since his release from jail.
The fund-raiser was stopped when Mr. Harrison's widow objected publicly that the sale of the video was "in very poor taste."
Mr. Miles, the former PTL associate who now runs a nondenominational ministry in California, said the New Covenant mailings suggest bad influences left over from PTL.
"As far as the mailing list in prison, naturally he was desperate to try to raise money because he was busted," he said.
"So he resorted to the stuff that had been drummed into his head for at least 10 years at PTL by these conniving advisers around him who had their own agendas," he said. "God is very much using him, and I think he's going to be at the place where God wanted him all along."
Dr. John E. Douglas, president of the Lake City, Fla., organization, said New Covenant is an active member and that Mr. Bakker was ordained by the group in 1989.
"They keep their own records, their own receipts and are supposed to make them available upon request," Dr. Douglas said. Even the location of New Covenant's offices has been closely guarded by those associated with New Covenant.
In a March 1996 letter to followers, Ms. Bakker-Chapman indicated that the ministry needed money to move. She did not reveal where the ministry was located, or where the ministry was moving.
"We were told we had to find a new place for New Covenant Ministries and the owners of Dad's farm wanted to sell it," the letter stated.
In August of this year, a photocopied handwritten appeal described a breakdown of New Covenant's computers during their move to new offices. No location was given, but Ms. Bakker-Chapman asked supporters to pray hard enough that God would "speak to six people in our little group to give $1,000 each."
In return she offered several PTL Bibles, "still marked with paper clips and notes where my father preached only one time from them at our church at Heritage USA."
Mr. Reid said he provided New Covenant with a new computer. He said he has not seen any New Covenant mail appeals and doesn't have the ministry's income figures on hand, "but I don't suspect anything was wrong."
"You know, the amounts are so small that it really doesn't amount to very much," he said.
Some former Bakker supporters, however, say they are concerned about the continuing lack of accountability regarding Mr. Bakker and ministries associated with him.
In 1990, a jury awarded $129 million to former PTL "partners" defrauded by Mr. Bakker. With Mr. Bakker's assets encumbered by tax liens and legal fees, the judgment had little impact.
When an appeals court offered investors potential claims against PTL insurance policies, the $129 million judgment against Mr. Bakker was dropped. And in the subsequent retrial, Mr. Bakker won, owing nothing to his former partners. The verdict is being appealed.
"The victims never got a dime," said Mr. Bird, the Atlanta attorney representing the partners, "but we're going to pursue it until we win."
Kermit Claussen of Waupaca, Wis., is a former PTL partner. He says he doubts the sincerity of Mr. Bakker and his pleas of forgiveness.
"I think those of us who have sinned and know the Savior conduct ourselves somewhat differently," Mr. Claussen said, "and I think his efforts today are self-motivated.
"I don't think the Holy Spirit is motivating his ministry. He's a professional," he said. "There are many who know the lingo of Christianity."
The government prosecutors in his criminal trial say they can only comment on the 1989 case and play no role in monitoring Mr. Bakker's activities.
The transcripts of his sentencing hearings in 1989 and 1991 show that prosecutors were suspect of ongoing and future fund-raising attempts of Mr. Bakker.
"I'm not so much concerned today about the deterrence of other people," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Miller about Mr. Bakker at his 1989 sentencing hearing, "as I am concerned about the deterrence of this man."
Mr. Miller said, "He's going to be right back at it just as soon as he gets a chance."