Los Angeles Times Magazine, Dec. 8, 2002
By WILLIAM LOBDELL, William Lobdell is a Times staff writer who covers religion.
Ole E. Anthony 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.''
For now, he and his half-dozen investigators soldier on in a target-rich environment: the unregulated industry of televangelism is estimated to generate at least $1 billion through its roughly 2,000 electronic preachers, including 80 nationally syndicated television pastors. Trinity's forces dig through trash bins, search computer databases and go undercover with hidden cameras. Their victim's hotline turns up informants, victims and new scams. They enlist double agents in their fight. And they provide their research to academics, fellow watchdog groups, government agencies and the media, including The Times.
In 1991, Anthony went undercover with a hidden camera to expose the operations of Robert Tilton, a televangelist now based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and who at the height of his success took in more than $80 million annually and appeared in every television market in the U.S., sometimes as many as six times a day. Anthony says he posed as himself, president of the Trinity Foundation, a religious organization. And he said he was interested in using direct mail. His video documented Tilton's well-oiled direct-mail operation that helped bring in an estimated $380,000 a day to Tilton.
Part of the investigation focused on how the mail was processed: Trinity alleged that Tilton's organization put checks and cash in one pile and dumped the accompanying prayer requests into the trash--an accusation still hotly disputed by Tilton supporters. The video and documents obtained by Trinity became the basis of an ABC "PrimeTime Live" expose by Diane Sawyer that ultimately crippled Tilton's huge ministry along with two other televangelists. One of them, W.V. Grant, then based in Dallas, spent 16 months in jail for tax fraud after Trinity's investigation.
Anthony's operatives struck dumpster pay dirt five years ago in south Florida when they found a travel itinerary for Benny Hinn, the Trinity Broadcasting Network's superstar faith healer who has filled sports arenas with ailing believers seeking miracles cures. Hinn's itinerary included first-class tickets on the Concorde from New York to London ($8,850 each) and reservations for presidential suites at pricey European hotels ($2,200 a night). A news story, including footage of Hinn and his associates boarding the jet, ran on CNN's "Impact." In addition, property records and videos supplied by Trinity investigators led to CNN and Dallas Morning News coverage of another Hinn controversy: fund-raising for a $30-million healing center in Dallas that has yet to be built.
Hinn and other pastors ask viewers to send in donations for both specific projects and for general expansion of the television ministry. Donors aren't told of the opulent lifestyles led by some of the televangelists, but that fact isn't too much of a secret either--perhaps because it fits nicely with the message of the Prosperity Gospel they are spreading. A quick computer search of homes owned by Trinity Broadcasting Network, for example, reveals 17 residences in Orange County alone, including two hilltop mansions in a gated Newport Beach community.
''These people are putting this . . . this . . . slime on Christ," says Harry Guetzlaff, a 58-year-old Trinity investigator. But the targets of Trinity's investigations say it's Anthony who is the blasphemer.
''Whatever pluses there might be, the minuses cancel him out,'' says Dennis G. Brewer Sr., a Texas attorney who represents numerous televangelists and has tangled with Anthony. ''He's a liability to the Body of Christ.''
Similar comments were uttered nearly 50 years ago in Wickenburg, Ariz., during Ole Anthony's teenage years. By his own accounts, he had a normal childhood until age 16, ''when something snapped'' and he became the small town's most notorious juvenile delinquent. He let his red hair and beard grow long, drank heavily, took drugs and boosted cars. One Easter morning, he got up early and drove his '47 Packard to a natural desert amphitheater where the town's sunrise service was to take place. He poured gasoline on the huge wooden cross that rose from the desert floor and torched it.
''It made national news,'' he says. ''Everyone thought the communists did it.'' Eventually, Anthony was arrested for the act of vandalism. A sheriff's deputy told his mother, ''Edna, the boy's gone too far this time.''
He was given an option: three years in prison or three years of military service. He joined the Air Force and learned to install and monitor devices that detected nuclear tests behind the Iron and Bamboo curtains, according to Capt. William D. Ballard, his commanding officer. After his discharge, he continued the intelligence work as a contract employee until 1968.
With his sharp mind and intense personality, Anthony transitioned smoothly into the booming Dallas business world, where he worked as a fund-raising specialist for a variety of big-ticket projects, including ski resorts, casinos, movies, even a religious television station. He worked closely with a number of politicians and now calls many of the shady deals ''probably illegal. Thank God the statute of limitations has passed.''
Despite outward success, Anthony felt inwardly bankrupt until he heard a talk by an evangelical author.
''The words that really got to me were: 'You were meant to be a failure. That is the only way God can use you. Look around you with honest eyes. Don't you see that all human effort is futile, empty and vain? All that is necessary for you is: Abandon yourself, pick up your cross and follow Him.' '' So Ole Anthony closed his eyes and prayed.
He has trouble explaining exactly what happened next, though he's sure it was a personal encounter with Jesus.
''I left time. Boom! I could have been gone 10 seconds or 10,000 years. There's nothing to compare it with.'' Anthony says he felt perfect love, peace, joy and acceptance. His heart's every desire was fulfilled. He later tried to describe the feeling to a caller on a Christian radio station.
''Lady, have you ever had an orgasm?'' he asked. ''This was a thousand times better.''
He walked away from his business and said goodbye to dumbfounded friends. His plan was to surrender completely and wait for God to reveal the next step. He said his new faith was tested when he soon found himself homeless. For a while, he worked at a Christian TV station raising money on air--he smiles at the irony. "I would even cry on demand," he says. But the station was sold and everyone was let go. Anthony started living under a bridge in West Dallas. Huddled around the flames that leapt from a 55-gallon drum on a cold spring night, Anthony began to doubt his encounter with God. Maybe he had gotten the message mixed up. So he prayed again: ''Did I not hear you correctly?''
He says he heard God's voice again:
''Your warfare is over, so take your eyes off yourself. Let me have the joy of making you what I want. I will supply your every need with no effort on your part. I love you.'' For Anthony, that settled it. ''I really, really understood.''
In 1973, Anthony and a small group of like-minded believers started the Trinity Foundation, which was not named after the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but for the first nuclear bomb that was detonated in New Mexico in 1945.
During his career in military intelligence, Anthony observed the explosion of a hydrogen bomb in the South Pacific. The 9-megaton blast obliterated a sizable island. ''It just vaporized it. And that's what God did to me. He just blew away every value system. If you understand that God wants complete surrender from you, it's like an atomic bomb going off in your head.'' (Critics say Anthony founded Trinity and decided to live in poverty only because he had failed at everything else. ''He tried a lot of things and just didn't do well at any of them,'' says Brewer.)
Anthony and other members set up a system of biblically based checks and balances that include vows of poverty and a requirement that the group must unanimously agree on major decisions. ''We don't do anything by merely majority rule,'' says Gary Buckner, a former homeless client of Trinity who now owns the turn-of-the-century, two-story home that houses the nonprofit's main office. ''It's whether we can all come to an agreement. If not, we'll drop it and take it up later. Some issues take quite a while to get to the bottom of.''
The group's communal life has been criticized for its heavy-handedness, including Trinity's former practice of putting members on ''the hot seat,'' where they publicly reveal their deepest faults and secrets to the members. "It could get pretty intense,'' admits Pete Evans, a longtime member who said the sessions stopped mostly because of Anthony's failing health. ''We want to see ourselves as God sees us: stripped down and naked with whatever sins we've got laid on the table. That honesty is what knitted us close together.''
Anthony's pain also brought the community closer because members have served him as amateur nurses and have seen his suffering on a daily basis for more than 20 years. In 1979, Anthony was working out at a local gym and sat in a steam room afterward. Workers had left electrical wires exposed, and his left foot touched them. Anthony estimates the jolt pinned him to the wall for six minutes before a worker discovered him, took a wooden broom and knocked the wires away.
Anthony believes his suffering is what keeps him and his organization humble and obedient. ''The accident happened in the middle of all kinds of big projects I had planned,'' he says. ''This brought me back to reality. God isn't interested in my big, scary talents and projects. Obedience is how you know the heart of God.''
Anthony's skills at uncovering the financial and moral failings of televangelists are praised by admirers and have earned a grudging respect among his critics. ''He's ruthless in his pursuit of the truth,'' says Stephen Winzenburg, who studies televangelists as a professor at Grand View College in Des Moines. ''If you're not telling the truth, he's going to catch you. His operation is really impressive, especially when you consider what he's up against.''
Says J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma, a conservative Christian magazine that covers televangelists: ''[Anthony] is a very complex man. Most of our readers don't know about his faith. They think he's out to get every televangelist. I know he's sickened by a lot of the excess. I don't blame him for that.''
But critics ask if Trinity's stealth methods used in its undercover work reflect the Christian principles that Anthony says he tries to live by. J.C. Joyce, a Tulsa, Okla., attorney who represented Tilton, says Anthony has admitted under oath that he had made false statements during his covert investigations and ''would do anything'' to get televangelists. Joyce cites an instance when he says Anthony posed as a pastor interested in learning about sophisticated fund-raising techniques so that he could gain access, with a hidden camera, to a direct-mail company that Tilton had used. ''I just don't have any great use for anybody who doesn't live or die by the truth,'' Joyce says. ''For [Anthony], the end justifies the means.''
Anthony responds by saying he only played himself, the head of a large religious nonprofit, and that the Trinity Foundation at the time was interested in using direct mail. He maintains he has lied only once during his investigations: When he was caught in a trash bin outside a bank in Muskogee, Okla., and told security guards that he was looking for aluminum cans.
But he also contends that the Bible is full of stories about people of God who use covert means "to free people from tyranny": the prostitute Rahab hiding Israelite spies in her Jericho home and then lying to authorities to cover for them; Jael offering to hide the Canaanite general Sisera in her tent and, when he fell asleep, pounding a tent peg through his head; and Esther tricking the arrogant and corrupt Haman by throwing a feast in his honor, an event that led to his hanging.
"Obviously, [we're] not out to kill anyone," Anthony writes in a Trinity Foundation brochure. "But in this instance we hope the use of a concealed camera, by bringing hidden things to light, will be just as effective . . . in freeing God's people from ministries growing fat off their [donations]."
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.
Sometimes the rewards are unexpected. Digging through televangelist W.V. Grant's trash, Trinity sleuths found photos of the pastor naked and published one in the centerfold of their satirical magazine, ''The Door.'' But the productivity of the trash runs has dropped dramatically in recent years as shredders and locked trash bins have become in vogue among televangelists.
Some ministers have gone on the offensive, sending investigators to find damaging information about Trinity. Some have filed suits against Trinity, but none have been successful. Anthony says he takes delight in the scrutiny. He's proud that many of Trinity's members have had drug and alcohol problems and spent time in jail. ''My God, they have more felons per capita than Huntsville!'' one televangelist was reported to have said after seeing an investigator's report.
''They don't understand me at all,'' Anthony says. ''One of their investigators is a double agent for me right now. And I hope you print that, so they'll all be wondering if that's their guy.''
Those who have tangled with Trinity during the past decade say the organization's best days are behind it, especially with Anthony's health in decline. They point to the lack of blockbuster investigations since the mid-1990s. ''I believe in my heart that he's like salt that has lost its flavor,'' Brewer says. ''I just think Ole has lost his touch.''
Anthony chuckles at the notion, contending that his group is involved
in more investigations than ever, though much of the work appears
uncredited in the national and foreign media. ''If they think I've
lost it, just wait.''