NEW YORK - A senator's high-profile investigation of lavish spending by televangelists, including Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church in Tampa, wrapped up after more than three years Thursday with no penalties for the Whites or the other pastors who refused to cooperate.
There were also no definitive findings of wrongdoing.
A report released by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley raises questions about the personal use of church-owned airplanes, luxury homes and credit cards by the Whites and pastors of five other media-based ministries across the country. It expresses concern about the lack of oversight of finances by boards often packed with the televangelists' relatives and friends.
However, the senator draws no specific conclusions about whether the ministries violated IRS rules barring excessive compensation for leaders of religious nonprofits. Instead, he forwarded the information to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an independent accrediting group, asking it to spearhead an initiative on the best ways to address the issues raised.
Grassley, a Republican, released the report at the end of his tenure as the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee. He began the investigation in November 2007.
The six televangelists targeted in the investigation preach some form of the prosperity gospel, which teaches that God wants to bless the faithful with earthly riches. Ministers in this tradition often hold up their own wealth as evidence that the teaching works.
The Whites, who are now divorced, were included in the inquiry because of problems detailed in investigative reports by the Tribune, Grassley's office has said. At the time, Without Walls was one of the largest independent nondenominational churches in the nation.
Beginning in May 2007, the Tribune's reports included allegations that the Whites had borrowed $170,000 from an elderly church member and failed to keep promises to care for her or pay it back. A young woman said she was promised a house for winning a church essay contest and did not get it, though the church repeatedly publicized the award ceremony.
A former accountant for the church said he resigned after Randy White, the senior pastor, ordered him to pay his $24,000 personal American Express bill, though that would leave the ministry unable to make payroll.
The Whites later repaid the widow and secured a house for the young woman.
Grassley's review includes allegations that the Whites billed their ministry for a chartered jet trip to a boxing match in Las Vegas. They paid five sports personalities to accompany them, including Gary Sheffield and Darryl Strawberry. Tickets alone for the group ran $17,000 to $18,000, according to an unnamed source described as "an insider."
Another insider said the Whites received "housing allowances" from the ministry for their multi-million-dollar homes in Tampa and New York City.
All six of the targeted televangelists insisted they comply with tax regulations for religious nonprofits. Two - Joyce Meyer Ministries based in Missouri and Benny Hinn Ministries based in Irving, Texas - responded to all of Grassley's questions and later told the senator they have made changes in how they govern their ministries.
Meyer released a statement Thursday affirming her commitment to financial transparency. Representatives for the other ministries did not immediately respond to calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Four of the televangelists, including the Whites, would not answer all of Grassley's questions. Randy White and his attorneys cited constitutional protections and concerns about confidentiality when pressed for full disclosure, the report says.
"As a result, committee staff ceased communicating with (the church) ... and began obtaining information from public records and third parties, including insiders," the report says.
Grassley's staff did not issue subpoenas because witnesses feared retaliation if they spoke out publicly, according to the report, and the Finance Committee did not have the time or resources to enforce the subpoenas.
The other ministries that refused to provide full information are:
Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries of Newark, Texas;
Creflo and Taffi Dollar of World Changers Church International and Creflo Dollar Ministries of College Park, Ga.;
Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and Bishop Eddie Long Ministries of Lithonia, Ga.; Long was recently sued by four young men who claim he coerced them into sexual relationships. The bishop has denied the allegations.
Randy White stepped down as senior pastor of Without Walls in 2009. His ex-wife, who had left the organization, returned and is currently the senior pastor.