Saturday, October 24, 2009

This Day In History: Jim Bakker Sentenced

Posted by Jarvis Holliday On 10/24/2009 No comments
On October 24, 1989, twenty years ago today, television evangelist Jim Bakker was sentenced by a judge in Charlotte to 45 years in prison for fraud and conspiracy. The sentence was later reduced to eight years; then further reduced to four years for good behavior. Before he came crashing down, Jim and then-wife Tammy Faye had built a massive spiritual network in Charlotte and Fort Mill.

Wikipedia chronicles Jim Bakker's rise and fall--in Charlotte--well. See excerpt below.

Teaming with their former youth pastors Paul and Jan Crouch, the Bakkers created the "Praise the Lord" show for the Crouches' new Trinity Broadcasting Network in California. While that relationship lasted only about a year, this time the Bakkers retained the rights to use the initials PTL and traveled east to Charlotte, North Carolina, to begin their own show, The PTL Club. Their show grew quickly until it was carried by close to a hundred stations, with average viewers numbering over twelve million, and the Bakkers had established their own network, The PTL Television Network (also known as PTL-The Inspirational Network). They attributed much of their success to decisions early on to accept all denominations and to refuse no one regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, or criminal record.

By the early 1980s the Bakkers had built Heritage USA in Fort Mill, South Carolina, (south of Charlotte), then the third most successful theme park in the U.S., and a satellite system to distribute their network 24 hours a day across the country. Contributions requested from viewers were estimated to exceed $1 million a week, with proceeds to go to expanding the theme park and mission of PTL. In justifying his use of the mass media, Bakker responded to inquiries by likening his use of television to Jesus's use of the amphitheater of the time. "I believe that if Jesus were alive today he would be on TV," Bakker said.

PTL's fund raising activities between 1984–1987 underwent scrutiny by The Charlotte Observer newspaper, eventually leading to criminal charges against Jim Bakker. From 1984 to 1987, Bakker and his PTL associates sold $1,000 "lifetime memberships", which entitled buyers to a three-night stay annually at a luxury hotel at Heritage USA. According to the prosecution at Bakker's later fraud trial, tens of thousands of memberships had been sold, but only one 500-room hotel was ever completed. Bakker "sold" more "exclusive partnerships" than could be accommodated, while raising more than twice the money needed to build the actual hotel. A good deal of the money went into Heritage USA's operating expenses, and Bakker kept $3.4 million in bonuses for himself.

Bakker, who apparently made all of the financial decisions for the PTL organization, allegedly kept two sets of books to conceal the accounting irregularities. Reporters from The Charlotte Observer, led by Charles Shepard, investigated and published a series of articles regarding the PTL organization's finances.

On March 19, 1987, following the revelation of a payoff to Jessica Hahn, whom Heritage's chief builder had paid $279,000 from his own funds to keep secret her allegation that he had raped her, Bakker resigned from PTL. Bakker acknowledges he met Hahn at a hotel room in Clearwater Beach, Florida, but denies raping her. Following Bakker's resignation as PTL head, he was succeeded in late March, 1987, by Jerry Falwell. Later that summer, as donations sharply declined in the wake of Bakker's resignation and the end of the Bakkers' popular PTL Club TV show, Falwell raised $20 million to help keep the Heritage USA Theme Park solvent, including a well-publicized waterslide plunge there. Falwell called Bakker a liar, an embezzler, a sexual deviant, and "the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history." In 1988, Falwell said that the Bakker scandal had "strengthened broadcast evangelism and made Christianity stronger, more mature and more committed."

Following a 16-month Federal grand jury probe, Bakker was indicted in 1988 on eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy. In 1989, after a brief five week trial which began on August 28 in Charlotte, the jury found him guilty on all 24 counts, and Judge Robert Potter sentenced him to 45 years in federal prison and a $500,000 fine.


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