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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Jim Bakker in PBS Hot Seat

January 26, 1988|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Onward electronic soldiers.

A federal grand jury is now investigating charges that TV evangelist Jim Bakker fraudulently raised funds for his PTL ministry and lavished millions on himself.

However, a taut and focused "Frontline" documentary on PBS charges tonight that federal agencies had significant evidence of fiscal misconduct against Bakker years ago, but inexplicably did nothing to halt his onward march.

News of his 1980 sexual liaison with Jessica Hahn did that. It was the catalyst for Bakker's fall from power and glory as head of a sprawling TV ministry and host of "The PTL Club."

Kicking off a new season of documentaries, "Frontline" (9 p.m. on Channel 15, 10 p.m. on Channels 28 and 50) claims that the Federal Communications Commission, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice "failed to act" against Bakker despite a "mountain of evidence" indicating dishonest fund-raising and misuse of PTL funds.

The only motive given is circumstantial: Christian fundamentalism's increased government influence during the Ronald Reagan years. And it didn't hurt Bakker's cause, either, that broadcasting itself had an enormous vested interest in electronic preachers such as Bakker, making enormous profits by selling them air time for their programs.

The FCC began investigating Bakker nine years ago. But the "Frontline" hour, produced by Bill Cran, says that the agency diluted and then buried the report of its own investigator, Larry Bernstein.

Bernstein, who is no longer with the FCC, charges on the program tonight that Bakker perjured himself before the FCC and that his (Bernstein's) probe uncovered evidence that Bakker "and others had enriched themselves" with PTL funds.

The investigator says that he was notified through the office of then-FCC Chairman Mark Fowler that the report should be "watered down."

Although Fowler tonight denies issuing such a directive, "Frontline" claims that the FCC ordered 33 deletions in the Bernstein report.

Meanwhile, Bakker's evangelical empire continued to grow and he and his teary wife, Tammy, continued to need more money to feed their dreams of expansion and their outrageously extravagant life style.

"When I first met Jim and Tammy Bakker, they were two of the most open, congenial kids I ever met," says "Uncle Henry" Harrison, who was Bakker's ever-jovial TV sidekick. "In the early days, PTL was primarily soul-saving, but the program became more and more money oriented, to the point where people called it a two-hour commercial."

Bakker may have had problems managing funds, but he was masterful at raising them on TV, and he knew how to position PTL as an underdog fighting the big, bad federal government. "We were the greatest source (of fund-raising) the PTL ever had," Bernstein says about the FCC. Include the Charlotte Observer, too, which had conducted its own long-running probe of PTL, earning it continuous lambasting on the air by Bakker.

Down but never out, it seems, Bakker recently announced plans for a $2-billion religious retreat in the California desert that would be larger even than Heritage USA, the Disney-esque religious theme park that the Bakkers created in Fort Mills, S.C. And of course, there would be a new TV show.

Onward indeed.

More about Bakker--and other elements of Christian fundamentalism--is coming April 6. That's the PBS airdate for "Thy Kingdom Come . . . Thy Will Be Done," a film by British producer Antony Thomas that was to have been a two-parter on "Frontline" last May.

"Frontline" executive producer David Fanning mysteriously ordered the documentary withdrawn, saying that then-breaking revelations about Bakker and PTL had rendered Thomas' production largely obsolete.

On the contrary, the Bakker controversy made it all the more relevant.

The withdrawal sparked a small controversy, which apparently yielded this new airdate, not as part of "Frontline," but as a separate PBS special, and as one 88-minute program instead of the original two totaling 104 minutes.

"I kept the integrity of both films," Thomas said by phone from London. "I was given absolute artistic and political freedom. The man who championed this was Barry Chase (PBS vice president of news and public affairs programming)."

"Thy Kingdom Come . . . Thy Will Be Done" has won an International Documentary Assn. award and is now being released theatrically in the United States.

About last year's withdrawal of his work from PBS, Thomas' position hasn't changed. "I remain," he said, "as baffled as I always was."

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