Jim Bakker Trial: 1989

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Jim Bakker Trial: 1989

Defendant: Jim Bakker
Crime Charged: Fraud and conspiracy
Chief Defense Lawyers: Harold Bender and George T. Davis
Chief Prosecutors: Jerry Miller and Deborah Smith
Judge: Robert D. Potter
Place: Charlotte, North Carolina
Dates of Trial: August 21-October 5, 1989
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: 45 years imprisonment and $500,000 fine

SIGNIFICANCE: This trial marked the first prosecution of a television evangelist on charges of duping his followers.

For years Jim Bakker's Praise The Lord (PTL) ministry had been the most successful television program of its type. Following the exposure in 1987 of an affair with assistant Jessica Hahn, his financial empire began to crumble. An investigation into the workings of PTL led to 24 indictments charging that Bakker had defrauded the public of millions.

Between 1984 and 1987, PTL supporters paid $158 million to obtain "lifetime partnerships" in Bakker's Heritage USA theme park, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Miller alleged when testimony began August 28, 1989. Miller explained how the $1,000 partnerships were supposed to entitle the contributor to three nights' lodging a year for life at Heritage USA. But with accommodations for just 25,000 vacationers, Bakker oversold an additional 43,000 memberships, diverting $3.7 million to his own personal use. According to Miller, Bakker used PTL to "cheat people out of their money [with] a disdain for all those around him."

George Davis, defending, said that Bakker admitted the facts of the case but denied any wrongdoing. "He was," argued Davis, "a creative, religious genius."

When Bakker's former personal assistant David Taggart, himself previously convicted of fraud, took the stand, he cataloged Bakker's lavish lifestyle: condominiums, houses, mink coats, diamonds, two Rolls Royces, and a Mercedes, all paid for out of donations.

Further evidence of extravagance came from Steve Nelson, an ex-PTL vice president, who also spoke of warning Bakker about the overbooked vacation deals. "I told him that I thought we had some big-time problems. I specifically said, "Someone could go to jail for this.' He told me not to worry, that there was always room at the inn." Seconds after giving his testimony, Nelson collapsed in court. At the behest of his lawyer, Bakker prayed gently at Nelson's side while paramedics administered treatment.

The next day it was Bakker's turn to require medical attention. He had been found beneath a desk in his lawyer's office, huddled in a fetal position, apparently hallucinating. "Please don't do this to me," he sobbed, as he was led away in shackles for psychiatric evaluation.

One week later Bakker was back in court to hear former aide Richard Dortch agree with prosecution contentions that the partnerships had been a classic "pyramid scheme." Dortch quoted Bakker as saying, "There's no limit to the amount of people we can offer them to, because I can control the crowds of people as they come."

Hurricane Interrupts Trial

No sooner had Bakker's defense gotten under way than Judge Robert Potter had to suspend the trial yet again, this time because Hurricane Hugo was imminent. When testimony resumed, Heritage contributor Sam Gassaway, an Atlanta land developer, denied expecting a guarantee of lodging. "I was a partner to help build something, I did not expect title or anything of that nature."

Central to the defense argument was the contention that Bakker had never actually sold anything, that all of the monies he had received were donations, not purchases.

Bakker confirmed this when he testified. He started out in control, but the longer he remained on the stand the more his composure frayed. incontrol, Prosecutor Deborah Smith lashed him for continuing to receive million-dollar bonuses, despite knowing that PTL was financially troubled.

"I said to them not to give me the bonuses many, many times," insisted Bakker.

"And then you cashed the checks and used them to buy houses many, many times," Smith replied icily.

Alluding to $600,000 in bonuses received over six weeks in 1986, Bakker reiterated the Heritage board credo: "We say that by faith, God will supply the need."

"How about truth?" Smith shot back. "Did you ever tell them the truth of what the financial situation was?"

His voice dropping to a whisper, Bakker went on to blame Jerry Falwell and other evangelists for the PTL debacle. "The real conspiracy to defraud came from the group of people who took over the ministry for their own gain."

In closing, Smith told the jurors, "What you have here is a pyramid on the brink of collapse, a house of cards ready to fall." She concluded by quoting Lord Tennyson: "A lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies. Mr. Bakker is a world-class master of using half-truths."

Both defense attorneys made final addresses. George Davis, apparently pinning all his hopes on a mistrial, urged those jurors with doubts to hold out, "even if it's one versus eleven."

Fellow counsel Harold Bender adopted a more traditional tack. "He [Bakker] doesn't expect you to give him mercy. He doesn't expect mercy. But he does have the right to expect justice under the law."

On October 5, 1989, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Judge Robert Potter, as expected, came down hard. Saying, "Those of us who do have a religion are sick of being saps for money-grubbing preachers and priests," he jailed Bakker for 45 years and fined him $500,000.

Citing federal sentencing guidelines and Judge Potter's inappropriate mention of religion, an appeals court in February 1991 ordered a resentencing. On August 23, 1991, Judge George Mullen reduced Bakker's jail term to 18 years, making him eligible for parole in 1995. Mullen reduced Bakker's sentence again on December 22, 1992, to eight years, making him eligible for parole in 1993.

While Jim Bakker served his time, his wife Tammy Faye filed for divorce. The divorce became official in 1992. Jim Bakker was paroled in 1994, and at the time of his release said that he was not sure if he would ever return to preaching. In 1996, his book, I Was Wrong, was published telling his side of the PTL scandal.

Today, Jim Bakker is remarried and living in Los Angeles, California. He teaches Bible classes and preaches at the Los Angeles International Church. Bakker has recently said that he may some day consider a return to televangelism.

Those who expected Jim Bakker's trial to titillate and tantalize came away disappointed. There was hardly a mention of his affairs. Wisely, the prosecution concentrated on Bakker's greed and hubris. Measured against his indifference to those he bilked, any other diversions would have seemed irrelevant.

Colin Evans and

Ron Formica

Suggestions for Further Reading

Fitzgerald, Frances. "Jim And Tammy." The New Yorker (April 23, 1990): 45ff.

Martz, Larry and Ginny Carroll. Ministry of Greed. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988.

Richardson, Michael. The Edge of Disaster. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Shephard, Charles E. Forgiven. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.

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