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Onward Christian Soldier

Ole Anthony Has Devoted His Life--and His Ministry--to Exposing Corrupt Televangelists. But Not Everyone Agrees He's Doing God's Work.

December 08, 2002|WILLIAM LOBDELL | William Lobdell is a Times staff writer who covers religion.

But he also contends that the Bible is full of stories about people of God who use covert means "to free people from tyranny": the prostitute Rahab hiding Israelite spies in her Jericho home and then lying to authorities to cover for them; Jael offering to hide the Canaanite general Sisera in her tent and, when he fell asleep, pounding a tent peg through his head; and Esther tricking the arrogant and corrupt Haman by throwing a feast in his honor, an event that led to his hanging.

"Obviously, [we're] not out to kill anyone," Anthony writes in a Trinity Foundation brochure. "But in this instance we hope the use of a concealed camera, by bringing hidden things to light, will be just as effective . . . in freeing God's people from ministries growing fat off their [donations]."

Pete Evans, a slight, bespectacled 47-year-old with graying hair and a boyish face, looks more like a graduate student than one of Trinity's best investigators. These attributes have helped him slip unnoticed inside a number of televangelists' organizations. ''We're looking for the 'smell factor,' '' Evans says. ''We looking for connections to different corporations, financial documents that indicate fraud, potential informants and any indication of immoral activity.''

He has worked undercover as a printer with Benny Hinn Ministries in Florida, and he lived for more than four months among followers of the Word of Faith Fellowship in South Carolina. During that assignment, he carried a hidden video camera and taped disturbing scenes of church elders trying to ''scream the devil'' out of children. The footage ran on "Inside Edition."

''It turns my stomach to witness those things,'' he says, ''but it does create a desire within me to expose what's going on.''

Nonetheless, Evans is semiretired from undercover work. ''It used to be pretty easy, but it's getting harder,'' he says. ''People are starting to know who I am.'' The more security-conscious televangelists now run background checks on potential employees and volunteers and have tightened access to sensitive areas.

Much of Trinity's work is less glamorous than Evans' undercover operations. Members get tips from informants and disgruntled employees who often call the nonprofit's (800) 229-VICTIM hotline. They track televangelists' assets and companies through Internet database searches that include family members and known associates. And they watch thousands of hours of the televangelists' broadcasts, which frequently reveal nuggets of information.

''These people like to brag,'' Anthony says. ''Their egos are so big that they can't help it.''

The most productive investigative work is frequently the dirtiest: making ''trash runs'' behind the televangelists' headquarters, their banks, accountants' and attorneys' offices, direct-mail houses and homes. (Trash is public property, though going through dumpsters on private property is trespassing. )

Under the cover of night, Anthony's troops will jump into trash bins wearing latex gloves and sort through spoiled food, leaky soda cans and soggy coffee grounds in search of pay dirt: a memo, minutes of a meeting, a bank statement, an airline ticket, a staff roster. Those scraps of information, collected over years, can piece together a bigger story.

Sometimes the rewards are unexpected. Digging through televangelist W.V. Grant's trash, Trinity sleuths found photos of the pastor naked and published one in the centerfold of their satirical magazine, ''The Door.'' But the productivity of the trash runs has dropped dramatically in recent years as shredders and locked trash bins have become in vogue among televangelists.

Some ministers have gone on the offensive, sending investigators to find damaging information about Trinity. Some have filed suits against Trinity, but none have been successful. Anthony says he takes delight in the scrutiny. He's proud that many of Trinity's members have had drug and alcohol problems and spent time in jail. ''My God, they have more felons per capita than Huntsville!'' one televangelist was reported to have said after seeing an investigator's report.

''They don't understand me at all,'' Anthony says. ''One of their investigators is a double agent for me right now. And I hope you print that, so they'll all be wondering if that's their guy.''

Those who have tangled with Trinity during the past decade say the organization's best days are behind it, especially with Anthony's health in decline. They point to the lack of blockbuster investigations since the mid-1990s. ''I believe in my heart that he's like salt that has lost its flavor,'' Brewer says. ''I just think Ole has lost his touch.''

Anthony chuckles at the notion, contending that his group is involved in more investigations than ever, though much of the work appears uncredited in the national and foreign media. ''If they think I've lost it, just wait.''

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