US televangelist Benny Hinn is returning to New Zealand again this year. Last year he was in Auckland; this year he is conducting two 'Training for Ministry' crusades in my hometown of Christchurch on February 18th and 19th.
But these are dark days for the man who lives in a $7 million sea front mansion, stays in $10,000 a night hotel suites, flies in a private jet and claims to cure people of diseases such as cancer.
The Travelling Benny Hinn Medicine Show returns to New Zealand facing potential fraud and dishonesty charges in the United States.
Six US televangelists are being investigated by Senator Charles Grassley, the highest ranking Republican senator on the Senate Finance Committee.
They are Randy White, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer, Eddie Long, Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn.
Several of these televangelists appear on New Zealand television screens. Benny Hinn appears every weekday on TV2 and also pops up on the fundamentalist Christian station, Shine TV.
Letters were sent to the six televangelists demanding that financial statements be turned over to the financial committee by December 6.
Because they have tax status as churches, the ministries do not have to file IRS returns like other non-profit secular organisations - leaving much financial information hidden behind closed doors.
The letters sent in December were the culmination of a long investigation fuelled in part by complaints from Ole Anthony, a crusader against religious fraud who operates the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, which describes itself as a watchdog monitoring religious media, fraud and abuse. “We’ve been working with them for two years,” Anthony told CBS News. “We have furnished them with enough information to fill a small Volkswagen.”
Anthony said after twenty years of working with media organizations to expose televangelist's, he saw little reform. He says that’s why he turned to another tactic, going straight to Grassley. He is confident that Grassley’s inquiry will be different, “What we hope is that this will lead to reform in religious nonprofit's.”
Only two of six Christian ministries under scrutiny for allegations of lavish spending turned over documents to a Senate panel by the December 6 deadline, with others either fighting the request or asking for more time.
In the case of Benny Hinn, he has asked for 'more time' to respond. That though hasn't stopped Hinn using his television show to defend himself against charges of financial fraud. On a recent programme (screened on TV2 last week) he declared that he was 'only' paid what a company 'executive' might be expected to receive - although he didn't give any figures. Recent investigations suggest that Hinn is receiving something between $US1.8 and $2.5 million per year.
Hinn's spokesperson has recently said the Benny Hinn Ministry is now 'reviewing' the situation 'to determine the best course of action'.
In an initial statement to CBS News, Creflo Dollar called his ministry an 'open book' and said he would comply with any “valid request” from Grassley.
However Dollar, whose programme screens also on TV2, has since decided he doesn't want to cooperate with the Senate Committee and has refused to hand over his financial records - and has hired a lawyer to fight the Senate Committee.
Dollar, who lives in a $2.5 million mansion in Georgia and drives a church-bought Rolls Royce, claims the church -which he heads and controls- owns some of his luxury items and he paid for the rest.
This investigation is extremely significant because it could lead to criminal charges, the tax-exempt status of various televangelists being revoked, and new legislation introduced to reform religious broadcasting in the United States.
A local senior member of the Anglican Church who I spoke to says he has concerns that Hinn will collect a 'significant' amount of money from people who attend his February events.
He says they are organised and promoted by local evangelical churches.
'Will they be informing people of the Senate investigation in the United States? I doubt it.' he told me. 'I really hope that Benny Hinn and others of his ilk are finally brought to heel because for too long they have been giving the Christian Church a bad name.'