Wednesday, December 11, 2002

An absolutely fascinating article from the LATimes (LRR) about Ole E. Anthony, bane of televangelists:

He is the founder of the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, a group of about 400 Christians, 100 of whom live communally in a rundown section of the city, attempting to emulate the practices of the 1st century church--right down to its poverty. Each Trinity employee, including Anthony, earns $50 per week, after room and board. Trinity's annual budget is $500,000, a sum that some of the nation's most popular televangelists routinely raise in a single day. Foundation members hold Bible studies and church services in their houses and apartments and run a small school and a restaurant serving hearty dinners for $3. The organization's primary mission is to house the homeless, not in specially dedicated shelters, but in the bedrooms and living rooms of Trinity members.

And that is how Anthony came to oversee a national spy operation dedicated to rooting out fraud and excess among some of America's biggest TV pastors. Many of the destitute who took refugee at Trinity told him that they had given their last dollars to TV pastors who had promised the gullible and often desperate believers a huge return on their faith-inspired giving. It's called the Prosperity Gospel, and it's preached often over the airwaves.

''It's a perverted theology that tells people they'll get a return on their investment,'' Anthony says. ''They're told they'll get a hundredfold blessing for their money. They are told to write hot checks, take out loans. These televangelists have got to know what they're doing.''

In 1989, Anthony launched his own war on dishonest religious broadcasters, using the skills he learned as an intelligence operative with the U.S. Air Force to ferret out corruption. ''I do enjoy the hunt,'' he says. ''But I'd much rather be out of a job.''

Pete Evans, a slight, bespectacled 47-year-old with graying hair and a boyish face, looks more like a graduate student than one of Trinity's best investigators. These attributes have helped him slip unnoticed inside a number of televangelists' organizations. ''We're looking for the 'smell factor,' '' Evans says. ''We looking for connections to different corporations, financial documents that indicate fraud, potential informants and any indication of immoral activity.''

He has worked undercover as a printer with Benny Hinn Ministries in Florida, and he lived for more than four months among followers of the Word of Faith Fellowship in South Carolina. During that assignment, he carried a hidden video camera and taped disturbing scenes of church elders trying to ''scream the devil'' out of children. The footage ran on "Inside Edition."

''It turns my stomach to witness those things,'' he says, ''but it does create a desire within me to expose what's going on.''

Nonetheless, Evans is semiretired from undercover work. ''It used to be pretty easy, but it's getting harder,'' he says. ''People are starting to know who I am.'' The more security-conscious televangelists now run background checks on potential employees and volunteers and have tightened access to sensitive areas.

Much of Trinity's work is less glamorous than Evans' undercover operations. Members get tips from informants and disgruntled employees who often call the nonprofit's (800) 229-VICTIM hotline. They track televangelists' assets and companies through Internet database searches that include family members and known associates. And they watch thousands of hours of the televangelists' broadcasts, which frequently reveal nuggets of information. ''These people like to brag,'' Anthony says. ''Their egos are so big that they can't help it.''

The most productive investigative work is frequently the dirtiest: making ''trash runs'' behind the televangelists' headquarters, their banks, accountants' and attorneys' offices, direct-mail houses and homes. (Trash is public property, though going through dumpsters on private property is trespassing. )

Under the cover of night, Anthony's troops will jump into trash bins wearing latex gloves and sort through spoiled food, leaky soda cans and soggy coffee grounds in search of pay dirt: a memo, minutes of a meeting, a bank statement, an airline ticket, a staff roster. Those scraps of information, collected over years, can piece together a bigger story.

Can we send them to Boston?

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