Throughout the sixweek trial of television evangelist Jim Bakker on charges of fraud and conspiracy, prosecution lawyers portrayed Bakker as a defrocked swindler who robbed his followers of millions of dollars so that he could live in luxury. For his part, Bakker’s defence lawyer, George Davis, sought to depict the boyish-looking 49year-old as a divinely inspired “creative genius” who left the day-to-day running of church business to others while he concentrated on spiritual issues. Last week, a federal jury in Charlotte, N.C., deliberated for only 10 hours before agreeing with
the prosecution. The six-man-six-woman jury convicted Bakker on all 24 charges of diverting more than $4 million away from his PTL (for Praise the Lord and People that Love) church and related ventures to his own family’s use. Jury foreman Ricky Hill said that Bakker had become corrupted by the PTL ministry that he founded. Said Hill: “He didn’t become a man of God.” In fact, Hill said, the jury did not believe any of Bakker’s testimony. He added, “We kept looking for something from the defence and we never saw it.”
Bakker faces a maximum penalty of 120 years in prison and a $5-million fine when he is sentenced on Oct. 24. Both he and his wife, Tammy Faye, sat quietly in court as U.S. Federal District Judge Robert Potter read the verdict. After Potter allowed Bakker to remain free on $294,000 bail, supporters greeted the disgraced evangelist outside the courtroom with tears. On the steps of the courthouse, Tammy Faye Bakker sang a verse from the hymn “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less.” She added: “It’s not over till it’s over. I have a great faith in the God I’ve served, and He will not let us down.” Davis said that he would appeal the conviction.
It was a relatively subdued
ending to a tumultuous trial, which was halted shortly after it began when a weeping Bakker suffered an apparent breakdown in court. Bakker’s lawyers said that he could not continue because he was suffering from hallucinations. Potter ordered tests to determine whether Bakker was competent to stand trial. Federally appointed psychiatrists declared a week later that Bakker was not mentally ill. Psychiatrist Basil Jackson said that during an anxiety attack, Bakker thought that television technicians wearing headphones were giant ants.
Bakker’s problems with money and government agencies stretch back to 1979, when the Federal Communications Commission investigated whether Bakker lied during his fundraising appeals for the PTL. No formal charges were laid after the PTL agreed to sell off its only ministry-owned television station. Later, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service launched an investigation to see whether the Bakkers were illegally using their ministry’s tax-exempt status to pay for their increasingly lavish lifestyle, which included four residences and a fleet of Mercedes-Benz cars. Bakker’s religious empire—which at one time included 13 million cable television viewers—began to disintegrate after he confessed in March, 1987, to a 1980 sexual encounter with church secretary Jessica Hahn, then 21. Bakker later admitted that PTL officials paid Hahn $315,000 to keep quiet about the liaison, but she sold her story— and seminude photos—to Playboy magazine. Bakker was indicted on charges of fraud and conspiracy in December, 1988.
The charges against Bakker centred on PTL’S promotion of so-called lifetime partnerships in the church’s 2,300-acre Heritage U.S.A. theme park in Fort Mill, S.C. Under the program, donors who contributed more than $1,000 could spend three nights a year for the
rest of their lives at a PTL hotel free of charge. The government charged that the PTL sold 153,000 partnerships from 1984 to 1987— and raised $158 million—but had only 258 rooms available for partners and that one large hotel and other promised facilities were never completed. Christine Howe, a former PTL reservations supervisor, testified that in every month during Bakker’s last year at the PTL, as many as 3,700 lifetime partners were denied the accommodation they had requested at the theme park.
Bakker, who at times grinned while he testified, insisted that those who paid the $1,000 for
the lifetime partnerships were giving gifts “for the total use of the ministry” and not just for the resort lodging. He also blamed Jerry Falwell, a fundamentalist preacher who founded the now-defunct Moral Majority, for most of the PTL’S problems. Falwell briefly assumed control of the PTL after Bakker resigned and then barred Bakker's return after uncovering information that he turned over to the justice department. Bakker told the jury, “The real conspiracy to defraud came from the group of people who took over the ministry.”
In her closing statement to the jury, federal prosecutor Deborah Smith—a fraud specialist with the justice department in Washington, D.C.—declared that Bakker was guilty of “immense corruption.” She also quoted from the Bible, citing a passage from the Book of Luke which contains the words “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it.” Smith pointedly compared the Bible’s message to Bakker’s action in promising his followers luxury hotel accommodation—a project that was never finished at his Christian theme park.
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