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Evangelist Popoff Off Air, Files Bankruptcy Petitions

September 26, 1987|JOHN DART | Times Religion Writer

Evangelist Peter Popoff, who admitted 16 months ago to relying on a radio receiver in his ear to identify people and their ailments at his faith healing rallies, is off television and recently filed bankruptcy petitions for himself and his evangelistic association, it was learned this week.

Popoff's attorney, William J. Simon of San Bernardino, attributed the collapse of his ministry to financial mismanagement more than to disclosures about Popoff.

Popoff and other Pentecostal faith healers have described the purported ability of an evangelist to call out people and illnesses as made possible by a "word of knowledge" from the Holy Spirit.

But a group headed by magician-debunker James Randi, struck by Popoff's remarkable recall of information provided on cards filled out by audiences, surreptitiously set up a radio receiver at several healing rallies and recorded transmissions from Popoff's wife, Elizabeth. Randi played tapes and recordings of Popoff's technique on "The Tonight Show" on April 22, 1986.

The next month, Popoff told The Times that he used the device about half the time. But he also denied that it was kept secret from his followers. His business manager at that time said that Popoff's ministry was receiving an average of $550,000 a month in contributions.

Simon said he did not know when Popoff stopped buying television time for taped programs of his healing crusades. But a spokesman for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Religion, a group once headed by Randi and which has continued to follow Popoff's career, said Popoff went off television last fall.

The evangelist's attorney said Popoff filed both petitions for protection from creditors under Chapter 7 of the federal bankruptcy code. According to Simon, Popoff is saying: "We give up. Take any assets that exist to pay my creditors the best you can."

Simon said 790 creditors have claims against Popoff and the Peter Popoff Evangelistic Assn. The attorney said the ministry lists $1,006,158.80 in total assets. He said the ministry lists unsecured debts totaling $1,146,612.03, with no secured credits. Popoff and his wife have total unsecured debts of $434,516.52, he said. This includes $201,000 claimed by evangelist Leroy Jenkins in a dispute arising over the use of mailing lists.

"They have already lost their house, which is going into foreclosure," Simon said.

However, the Popoffs have not ended their ministry. On Jan. 6, the evangelist incorporated People United for Christ, also based in Upland, as a California nonprofit organization.

Simon said that the evangelist is an employee of People United for Christ and is its chief radio spokesman. The board chairman is Popoff's father, George, who once was active in a ministry that claimed to smuggle Bibles into Iron Curtain countries.

Simon said the bankruptcy was "a classic case of poor business judgment."

"Apparently, at least two years ago, Peter was advised that they were overextending themselves. The staff was too large and the size of the audience he was trying to reach was beyond the organization's budget," Simon said.

"Instead of scaling down, he kept hoping that contributions would continue."

The personal and corporate bankruptcy petitions were filed Aug. 11 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in San Bernardino. A hearing by the interim trustee, N. L. Hanover, is set for Oct. 15.

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