Updated April 4, 2008 6:35pm
By the NBC News Investigative Unit
A Tampa megachurch under scrutiny by Senate investigators directed church staffers to make political contributions to a Republican gubernatorial candidate, according to documents obtained by NBC News.
A month-long NBC News investigation also found information indicating that the church's pastor, Randy White, seems to have lied about a business transaction in a deposition made under oath, and misrepresented his religious academic credentials.
Without Walls International, a megachurch founded by televangelists Randy and Paula White, is one of six tax-exempt religious ministries the Senate Finance Committee is examining, amid allegations some of the ministers misused church funds to enrich themselves. Last month, NBC News reported the results of its investigation into some of these allegations.
directed political contributions?
NBC News obtained an e-mail (some identifying pieces of information in the e-mail have been removed by NBC) in which a Without Walls church staff member reporting to the Whites appears to direct other staffers to make political contributions to a Republican candidate for governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, who won the gubernatorial race later that year.
In the e-mail in 2006, the staffer writes, "Per our recent conversations…This is just a reminder that I need each of your checks for $500 made payable to: Charlie Crist for Governor. I need to send these our [sic] tonight."
Florida state election records list several $500 donations to Crist dated days later, from individuals listed as recipients in the e-mail. A spokesman for Gov. Crist told NBC News in an e-mail that neither the governor nor his campaign staff was aware that the Whites' church may have directed such donations to Crist's 2006 campaign.
The IRS prohibits tax-exempt churches from "directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for elective public office." Without Walls International Church declined to respond to NBC News' questions about the e-mail.
[Update 04/04/08 6:35pm: On Friday, attorneys representing the Whites sent NBC News a new statement. "It is our understanding," the statement reads, "that no political contributions were solicited on behalf of the Church. If individuals solicited contributions for a particular candidate on their own behalf, they would have been doing so just as people who support a particular candidate would do in any organization – asking among their friends and colleagues at work."]
pastor lied about business deal under oath?
NBC News also obtained copies of audio recordings and documents which strongly suggest that Randy White lied under oath when testifying about a 2002 business deal.
Todd Bates, a pilot and aircraft broker who owns Motor City Aviation near Detroit, sued the Whites' church in 2002 because, he says, Randy White reneged on a verbal deal he made to purchase a used corporate jet Bates had found for the church.
In a deposition taken under oath as part of the case in 2002, White testifies that he never told Bates he would buy the airplane, and that he in fact never spoke to Bates by phone. Here are excerpts from the deposition:
BATES' ATTORNEY: "You never had a conversation on the phone with Mr. Bates where you told him, I'm buying the airplane?"
RANDY WHITE: "Correct."
BATES' ATTORNEY: "You never were on the phone with Mr. Bates at all, to your recollection?"
RANDY WHITE: "Correct."
Then, a few moments later:
BATES: "So would it be fair to say that if, in fact, you did, say, have a [sic] conversations with Mr. Bates on the phone and did say those words to Mr. Bates, you're a liar?"
RANDY WHITE: "I don't lie."
At the time of the deposition, Bates says, Randy White was unaware that Bates had recorded his telephone calls with White regarding the plane deal. Bates provided copies of these recordings to NBC News. In a recording dated May 2002, Randy White seems to agree to buy the plane.
"If what you're telling me is, that you want this aircraft, and you want to do it, I will handle it for you, I will put together all of the details, and it will be dealt with, and it will be dealt with quickly, efficiently and then I will come down there and set up your flight department and get everything set up with your lease-back hours and everything like I said."
"Cool. That's where we want to go with it."
"...if you're telling me -- as you being the head honcho, top dog at Without Walls -- that this is the deal, then you and me as Christians and whatever are agreeing that we've got a deal, then we've got a deal and we'll work out the details later."
"Good. Let's make it happen."
In a recording of another call (click to listen) dated several
weeks later, Randy White appears to backpedal after Bates challenges
TODD BATES: "I assure you that there's nobody else I would have done this for. Except, I would've thought that a pastor of a large church gives me his word that he's buying an airplane -- I didn't think I had to worry about anything else."
RANDY WHITE: "Right. Well, it's not that I was lying to you. At that time I was buying the airplane, but a better deal came along."
"I was stunned," Bates told NBC in an interview, "at the amount of lies and misrepresentations."
Bates settled with the Whites' church for an undisclosed sum. Since then he has pursued a public Internet campaign to discredit the Whites as frauds.
pastor misrepresented academic credentials?
Bates provided NBC News documentation supporting another of his claims: that Randy White has lied about his academic credentials. In preparation for his lawsuit, Bates researched Randy White's background. He wrote to two schools Randy White had claimed awarded him degrees, asking them to verify the degrees. In correspondence, both schools specifically denied awarding Randy White degrees.
A "Pastor's Bio" posted on the Without Walls International Church Web site in 2002 states that White received a Bachelor's degree in Ministerial Studies and a Master's Degree in Divinity from Lee College in Cleveland, Tenn., now known as Lee University.
While Bates provided the saved Web page to NBC News, NBC News independently confirmed its authenticity, finding the exact same text stored on an archived version of the church's Web site.
A representative from Lee University told Bates in a 2002 e-mail that Randy White "was only here for two classes and then left during our Fall semester of 1975. He did not graduate from our institution with a degree of any kind…"
In his deposition in the lawsuit brought by Bates, White admits he obtained no degree from Lee, but claims he attended for two years. In response to another question, he claims he received an honorary degree in "Humane Letters" from Virginia State University in recognition of his church work.
A representative from Virginia State University told Bates in a 2002 letter that Randy White's name did not appear on its list of honorary degree recipients from 1935-2002.
NBC News double-checked with both academic institutions. While federal law has changed since Bates' inquiries, and now prohibits schools from acknowledging any information without students' permissions, neither school denied the validity or accuracy of the correpondence Bates provided NBC News. Elizabeth Gearhart, a staff member in the Registrar's office at Lee University, told NBC News in an email that "Bishop White has requested that no information regarding him be released from our institution."
The Whites declined to be interviewed by NBC News or to answer repeated questions about these issues. They have denied wrongdoing, stating: "We take our financial responsibilities to our partners very seriously and to the best of our knowledge we comply with all tax laws."
Last month, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, told NBC News that the Whites had agreed to cooperate with the committee's investigation. On Monday, a Senate Finance Committee staffer issued a memorandum saying it had received an intitial submission of information regarding the Whites' church.
At the same time, attorneys for the Whites' church issued a new statement saying "the Church is committed to complying with the requests of those governmental entities lawfully entitled to receive what they seek" and that church representatives "expect to have further dialogue with the Senator's office."
Linda Fecteau and Luke Mayo contributed to this report.