Mishel McCumber is a writer/researcher who worked as Webmaster for Jimmy Swaggart Ministries from 2008 to 2011. Her day to day dealings there brought her in close and frequent contact with the ministry’s major players and gave her rare, behind the scene glimpses of a ministry with far too many secrets. It was a ministry not only ravaged by greed, lust and hypocrisy but one driven to extremes to hide their dirty secrets from deceived donors at all costs.
For those of you who think Jimmy Swaggart’s peccadilloes in the 80’s permanently knocked him out of the televangelism arena, think again. With the launch of his SonLife Broadcasting Network, Swaggart is now pulling in roughly half a million per day during his monthly four day beg-a-thon. That sum does not include the donations that are called in, mailed in, or made online during the rest of the month. It also does not include proceeds from the mountains of books, CDs and Bibles that the ministry relentlessly peddles, or the untold millions Swaggart receives in rental income from his extensive real estate holdings.
Swaggart’s personal home sits on some of the most expensive real estate in the Baton Rouge. His estate includes three houses, a gazebo, a pond, and twenty landscaped acres. Swaggart once described his house as a modest two bedroom cottage. That, however, is a stretch even for a seasoned tale-bearer such as Swaggart. One of Swaggart’s bathrooms in his “cottage” boasts a four-columned Jacuzzi with a gold swan that spouts water into an eight foot long tub. The square footage of Jimmy and Frances’ house alone is 9,337 square feet. That’s some cottage! An unidentified Swaggart family member has placed the worth of the Swaggart’s three homes and surrounding acreage at 30 million. It sits across from the highly exclusive Baton Rouge Country Club which cost in excess of 40 thousand per year to join. Of course the Swaggarts are proud members. According to a report by John Camp, the investigative reporter who broke the original hooker story, Swaggart purchased the lot adjoining the one he already owned in June of 1985. That was less than a month after making a desperate plea for money from his television audience in which he claimed that severe losses were threatening the very future of the ministry. Swaggart said he was forced to buy the land because of death threats and the discovery of intruders on his property. “We felt . . . if the wrong people got that property, we would be in trouble,” he is quoted as saying. This of course is preposterous. How many people could afford a multi-million dollar property just to harass Jimmy Swaggart?
In 1985, the ministry boasted 150 million in assets including a DC3 jet once owned by the Rockefellers. Swaggarts also made frequent use of their condominium retreat, located on a private golf course about 15 miles from Palm Springs, California. Swaggart claimed the condominium was a gift but state land records tell a different story. According to those records the ministry bought the Condo for $280,000 in 1986.
Swaggart has never had trouble raising money. Much of the money for the building of Swaggart’s empire rode in on the back of questionable fund-raising. George Jernigan, Swaggart’s former Director of Finance, was fired in the 80’s for urging Swaggart to be frank in his fund-raising appeals. The controversy primarily centered on Swaggart’s misappropriation of funds gathered through emotional appeals in which pictures of emaciated African children were shown to garner the empathy of his Christian viewers. According to Jernigan, contributions were not going to the Children’s Fund but were being siphoned into the general account and used for building projects. Only pennies on the dollar were actually being spent in the feeding of starving children. The Advocate, the local Baton Rouge newspaper, rents a massive building (paid for of course by donor money) from Swaggart to the tune of a million and a half dollars per year. The college dormitories, also paid for by donor money, have long since been turned into apartments and rented to the public. The building of course is staffed with Swaggart’s non-profit employees. The old college sports complex is open to the public as a fitness center and staffed with Swaggart employees. The ministry print shop was built with tax-free donations and is said to produce the ministry’s various printing material. They run a business out of the same print shop called StarCom Printing. They use the ministry printing press to print CD covers for hard-core hip-hop bands and posters for area night clubs – all inconsistent with the values he claims he holds. The checks for work done by StarCom printing are made payable to Jimmy Swaggart Ministries and the shop is staffed with his non-profit employees.
It is evident that the ministry has again risen to power, funded in part by questionable real estate transactions and tax exempt donations from hoodwinked donors. A CNN Impact investigation lead by John Camp showed that from 1992-96, over half of the ministries income was gained through real estate sales and rental income; roughly 27 million out of a total of 54 million. This same investigation stated that the salaries of Swaggart, his wife and his son Donnie totaled $600,000 plus perks. It would be fascinating to know what they currently make, since the launch of SonLife Broadcasting Network. Yet even if Jimmy, Frances and Donnie have had no salary increase for the last 12 years, the current dollar value of that same salary today would be $884,577.44 annually, not including perks! That is more than the president of the United States makes! Yet they unashamedly urge their donors to, “give till it hurts”.
One of Swaggart’s more controversial dealings was with a man named Sam Recile. Recile paid over 2.1 million dollars to the ministry for options to buy the ministry-owned land now occupied by the Mall of Louisiana. The land was at the center of a scheme in which Recile swindled investors out of 16 million dollars. The highly publicized investigation into the ordeal eventually put Recile behind bars. The constant local news coverage should have alerted Swaggart to the fact that he was dealing with a con man. However the ministry continued taking money from Recile. At one point the ministry was receiving ten thousand dollars in cash per day from Recile in order to keep the land option open. This enabled Recile to continue his scheme and bilk even more money out of unsuspecting investors. Then, in 1996, at the same time Swaggart was making his on-air appeals for church van, the ministry bought a fleet of 5 Mercedes costing the ministry roughly a quarter of a million dollars. These cars were purchased just days after the 10 million dollar land sale of ministry property to the Mall of Louisiana. Swaggart claimed the cars were a gift from Clyde Fuller, a wealthy donor, but then Swaggart always did have difficulty telling the truth. According to motor vehicle records, the cars were purchased by Jimmy Swaggart Ministries and Family Worship Center Church.
Prior to 1982, Swaggart’s operation was classified by the IRS as a tax-exempt religious organization. He paid no income tax but was required to file informational tax returns open to the public. However, in 1982 the ministry sought reclassification as a church. Churches are not required to file an informational return, nor are they required to make their financial dealings public. While ministries are not required to make such dealings public, many do. If Swaggart runs his organization as above board as he claims, then why would he not be open with the public about any and all financial dealings? I personally think it is time to demand accountability.