CAMARILLO — For 25 years now, controversy has swirled around L. Joe Bass--accusations of dishonesty, stories of an intemperate man on a personal power trip, entrenched behind a security screen of electronic surveillance gear and subordinates sworn to silence.
But throughout those years, despite the complaints of critics--and the occasional probing of government investigative agencies--the religious leader has survived and prospered. It has been sort of an evangelical Horatio Alger story--a high school dropout who founded and built a $34-million-a-year complex of organizations with activities that range from smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain to feeding the poor of the Third World.
Today, Bass and his embattled International Christian Aid (ICA) organization face their stiffest test yet--investigation by U.S. Postal Service inspectors and a federal grand jury in Los Angeles, prompted by accusations that the money he raised for the starving people of Ethiopia was never spent there.
Four months after Bass, 48, announced that help was on its way, there is still no confirmation that any of it has been distributed to the needy of Ethiopia. In fact, the officials to whom Bass says the aid has been sent have vowed that they won't accept it--or any other ICA goods--until the controversy is cleared up to their satisfaction.
The federal investigation centers on the possibility of mail fraud in solicitations circulated by ICA. More than a dozen former and current ICA employees have been subpoenaed as grand jury witnesses. Many of those witnesses have been been interviewed by The Times and could be expected to repeat for the grand jury allegations that ICA spends relatively little of its money on direct aid to the poor.
The scenario to be played out for federal investigators in many ways mirrors the story of Bass' career. It is the story of a man who inspires both unswerving loyalty and angry repudiation among followers, who successfully elicits millions of dollars in donations from around the world but can't win the confidence of other Christian relief agencies, who boasts he has nothing to hide, but insists on secrecy.
Sees Ego Trip
"He's out to get power," contends Evelyn Hughes, who spent 18 months as Bass' executive secretary. "He wants to be recognized as the top man in whatever he does."
Hughes' comment was typical of those former Bass subordinates who form the core of his critics, but she was one of only a few who agreed to permit her name to be used in this report. Most would agree to be interviewed only on the condition that they not be identified.
Bass says he is not worried about the controversy, which he dismisses as "sour grapes" or the work of "the Communist press."
Moreover, he says all the aid promised to Ethiopia will be delivered as advertised. "Every penny received by this organization can be tracked to its end usage and is properly reported in audited financial reports," Bass said in a recent press release, adding that he has no fear of investigation.
As they have in the past, the critics and the investigators may find it hard to prove him wrong.
In fact, Joe Bass is something of a veteran at investigations. He or his organizations have been examined in recent years by German tax officials, by the Los Angeles Department of Social Services and by the Ventura County district attorney, among others. None has resulted in criminal charges.
Beginning of Climb
His climb toward the top floor of the evangelical pyramid has been via the back stairs, apart from the major denominations. According to his mother, that climb began more than 30 years ago, in Fort Smith, Ark.
He was a high school sophomore, the youngest of four children--two girls and two boys--born to Eula Bass and her husband, Lonnie, a used-car dealer.
"Joe never got into sports," Eula Bass said during a recent interview. "During lunch time, when he was in high school, he'd just take his Bible or some gospel literature outside and read. He liked to do that. . . . One day, when he was about 16 years old, he heard a broadcast on the radio."
It was the Wings of Healing, an obscure West Coast radio ministry that supported several overseas missions.
"Joe said, 'Mother, that's exactly what I want to do,' " Eula Bass recalled.
Dropping out of high school, Bass headed west to Oregon, where the Wings of Healing ran an unaccredited college in Portland called the Bethesda Bible Institute.
After a couple of years in Portland, Bass served two years--from 1954 to 1956--as a Wings of Healing missionary in Nigeria. He said that after returning to the United States, he was ordained a minister in 1957 in a small Pentecostal denomination--the New Antioch Church in Baltimore. He doubled back for a four-month stint of missionary work in Africa, then transferred his ordination papers to the American Evangelistic Assn., a Baltimore-based relief agency for children.
First Group Founded