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The Shock Jock of Televangelism : With Savvy Philanthropy and an In-Your-Face Style, Dr. Gene Scott Has Generated a Lavish Lifestyle, Powerful Friends in Los Angeles and a Fiercely Loyal Global Following

July 10, 1994|Glenn F. Bunting | Glenn F. Bunting is a staff writer for The Times' Washington Bureau. His last article for the magazine was a profile of former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley

The price of membership is steep. For starters, Scott expects the usual 10% of his followers' income in weekly tithings. Since 1988, at the start of each year, Scott has reminded his followers that he is collecting "firstfruits" above and beyond weekly donations. Firstfruits, according to Scott, is spelled out in Scripture as "the firstfruit of the new year belongs to the Lord." The firstfruits check includes the first returns on any form of income--an investment, a pay raise, a second job, a tax refund, even Lotto winnings. What if you're out of work? "Well then, you give the first week's unemployment check," Scott advises.

For non-givers, Scott warns: "If you get too smart with God, He might let you live this next year without Him so you can see the difference."

While raking in uncounted millions, Scott refuses to open his church's books to the scrutiny of independent auditors or follow accounting safeguards required by the 700-member National Religious Broadcasters, a group Scott derides as "Not Real Bright" for inviting as a speaker televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who was disgraced by a sex scandal in 1988. Such devastating scandals had cast a pall over televangelists nationwide, but the industry appears to be on the rebound. Former NRB chairman David Clark says he is encouraged by recent trends in religious programming that emphasize ministry and teaching in place of "glitz, glamour and hype."

"This year marks the end of the televangelist scandals and the impact from them is basically over," Clark says. A recent study of religious programming found that on-air fund-raising and promotional activities have fallen to the same levels as before the Swaggart scandal.

Scott, like a number of other televangelists around the country, is not rushing to join the NRB, which requires organizations to undergo independent financial audits annually, publish a yearly report of income and expenses and disclose total compensation packages of top church officials. He is, says Clark, one of a fading breed. "I see a move away from the entrepreneurial, Lone Ranger guy like him (Scott). I think the next generation will be pastors of mega-churches with thousands of members and budgets of $8 (million) to $10 million a year, minimum."

Still Scott thrives, with a church he says is accountable to God, his congregation, a board of directors he declines to identify and the Full Gospel Fellowship of Churches and Ministries, of which he was president. Such lax financial accountability--combined with Scott's lifestyle--has, in the past, attracted the attention of state and federal investigators.

The California Attorney General's Office in 1978 investigated allegations of fraud at Scott's church and 11 other religious organizations. The probe, launched after complaints by church members, was dropped in 1980 when the state Legislature passed a law preventing the attorney general from prosecuting cases of civil fraud against tax-exempt religious organizations.

In 1977, the Federal Communications Commission opened an exhaustive investigation after former employees accused Scott of diverting donations of cash, furs, jewelry, stock and other valuables for his own use and concealing assets in Swiss bank accounts. The allegations were never proved, and Scott adamantly denies any improprieties.

He stymied repeated attempts by the federal government to scrutinize his church's financial operation by directing contributors to sign pledge slips that specifically stated Scott could spend the money however he pleased. This arrangement did not appear to affect the church's flow of funds.

"He can do anything he wants with the contributions I send him," allows Mike Parker, the former mayor of Tacoma, Wash., who has been watching Scott for a decade and donates weekly. It is virtually impossible to know how financial resources are divided among Scott, the church and their many corporations. The church's financial empire consists of a complex web of dozens of interlocking companies, among them Bishop Dr. Gene Scott Corp., Dr. Gene Scott Inc., Dr. Gene Scott Consultants Inc., Gene Scott Travel Inc., W. Eugene Scott, Ph.D., Inc., Gene Scott Evangelistic Assn. and Wescott Christian Center.

Scott's second wife, for example, received a $190,000 finder's fee when Dr. Gene Scott Inc. purchased the Silver Oaks Ranch in Bradbury. At the time, Christine Shaw's personal fortune included several million dollars worth of horses, stamps, art and vintage cars--the same items accumulated by Scott and his church.

For his part, Scott maintains that he has no property, investments, stocks or bonds and that everything he owns is in the name of the church. His contract calls for a $1 annual salary, plus unlimited expenses.

"God knows how much money he has raised over the years soliciting funds," complains Chuck Dziedzic, the FCC administrator who spearheaded the investigation of Scott's church. "We never came close to finding out. I don't think anybody knows but him."

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