The Robert Tilton Files
After PrimeTime Live torpedoed the ministry of televangelist Robert Tilton in 1991, he filed a libel lawsuit against Capital Cities/ABC, PrimeTime Live, Diane Sawyer, producer Robbie Gordon and Trinity Foundation leader Ole Anthony. Tilton lost. No surprise there. As a public figure, Tilton had to prove not only that the broadcast was false but that ABC knew it was false. As one of ABC's briefs put it, Tilton faced "one of the most difficult burdens of proof in the law. It is a burden that has been described by one Supreme Court Justice as so 'exceedingly difficult' to meet that it rises to an 'almost impossible level.'"
And thank God for that.
But court documents in the Tilton case suggest that PrimeTime producer Robbie Gordon, now considered the queen of hidden-camera investigations, pushed the ethical envelope in several aspects of the Tilton story. After the jump are some examples from court documents.
The Prayer Requests
From the opinion issued on June 20, 1995, by federal Judge Michael Burrage: "In making the statements, [ABC] relied upon Mr. [Ole] Anthony, who purportedly found the trashed prayer requests. However, [Tilton] asserts that Defendant, Kelly Sutherland, was advised by Peggy Wehmeyer, now ABC's religious [sic] editor, that Mr. Anthony could not be trusted and was obsessed with his crusade against [Tilton]." (Peggy Wehmeyer, then a religion reporter at WFAA-Channel 8, knew Anthony.)
From "findings of fact and conclusions of law" issued on July 16, 1993, by federal Judge Thomas Brett: "Many of the prayer requests Anthony stated in his log, and confirmed by deposition, that he found in the trash on September 11, 1991, could not have been found then because the postmark date was after September 11, 1991. Anthony recanted by subsequent affidavit."
"I'm not defending Bob in any way," says Steve Lumbley, who worked with Tilton's Word of Faith Outreach prayer ministry in 1991. "The mailings all had some kind of gimmick. They weren't godly at all. But the primary allegation that came out of that--that prayer requests were thrown away--was categorically untrue, and I can guarantee you that was not a normal practice."
An elaborate routing system sent Tilton's mail to a Dallas post office. The mail was then trucked to a branch of Central Bank & Trust in Tulsa where the money was removed and deposited. "The lawyers and the IRS liked it like that," Lumbley told the Dallas Observer. "Nobody from the ministry could be accused of stealing or diverting."
Envelopes and contents were taken to Internal Data Management, also in Tulsa. The prayer requests were boxed and sent by truck back to Dallas. Tilton's assistants piled the prayer requests in a room, organized by Tilton's promises to pray, lay hands, sprinkle salt, anoint with oil or whatever.
Tilton's lawyer produced large bills showing the boxes were shipped to Dallas and back to Tulsa. Why, if the prayer requests were tossed, would the ministry have wasted money shuttling them back and forth? In Tulsa, IDM kept the prayer requests for several months and then they were destroyed by incineration, according to court records.
Producer Gordon was directing the trash operation, according to her affidavit in the Tilton suit. Ole Anthony says in a deposition that ABC told him and his Trinity Foundation dumpster-divers when and where to look. "The decision to go and where to go and when to go, to do the trash, was ABC's," he testified. "...I was under the constant direction of an ABC producer [Gordon] by phone." ABC never explained why prayer requests were found in a dumpster at the CB&T downtown location (shown on TV). Tilton's mail was processed at a branch bank five miles away.
The India Crusade
Another point of contention in the Tilton lawsuit had nothing to do with Ole Anthony. PrimeTime accused Tilton of making big bucks during a mission crusade in India. "If each of these people gave just a few pennies," Diane Sawyer said over photos of sad-eyed children, "Tilton would get back hundreds of thousands of dollars, money taken from the people he himself calls 'the poorest people on earth.'"
Says Judge Burrage: "...ABC's cameraman's dope sheet for the taping of the India crusade, which provides the time sequence of the contents of the tapes, shows that the offering was actually taken up by a lady worker with a green bag. [Tilton] states that the offering was taken up at the request of Jack Harris, the coordinator for the India Crusade, before [Tilton] arrived to preach. [Tilton] also asserts that ABC's raw footage of [Tilton] shows that he did not pass a collection basket and was not present when the collection plates were passed among the crowd. He claims that ABC's raw footage instead shows another person preaching as the offering was taken by the lady worker. Moreover, [Tilton] asserts that the offering was not taken up for [Tilton] and his Church. Rather, it was taken up for the benefit of local pastors in India."
PrimeTime stated that it relied on an Indian journalist who covered the crusade as an independent contractor for ABC News, so even if the information that journalist provided was false, they would not have known it. Hidden-camera footage by Gordon, however, shows Jim Moore of Response Media telling her: "Foreign countries is all mission work. Take Tilton. Tilton does a lot of missions work. He sends a lot of money overseas...He's built a clinic in Mexico...Bob is real opposed to people raising money for missions and not doing it. Overseas is strictly outgo. There is no income."
An anonymous "old friend" of Tilton's was shown in silhouette on the PrimeTime show talking about running a "preacher scam": "We said that when we graduated, that we would buy a good tent, a dynamite sound system, a good amen section and fly around the country and get rich." He was talking about him and Tilton. The raw footage, however, showed that the man, later identified as a casual acquaintance named John Michael Taylor, actually used the words, "I said."
ABC contended that because Taylor made similar statements using "we," it didn't matter that they'd spliced in a "we" in place of an "I." But ABC News executive producer Richard Kaplan agreed that the change—for which Gordon took responsibility in an affidavit--wasn't proper editing procedure. In her deposition, Diane Sawyer admitted that she would not have made that edit.
Tilton's Criminal Connection
Gordon juxtaposed photos of Tilton and S&L fraudster Herman Beebe while Sawyer said that "by 1981, he [Tilton] had hit the big time. How? PrimeTime has learned that for several years, Tilton courted a man news accounts have tied to organized crime and drug smuggling, Herman Beebe, a financier whose banks gave Tilton a $1.3 million loan..."
Wow, it comes off like Tilton was hobnobbing with the Mafia. It's all true--but unfair. Take out all the hyperbole, and what's left is that Tilton's church got a $1.3 million loan to build a sanctuary. The loan was paid off several years later--before Beebe was convicted of bank fraud in the S&L scandal. Thousands of people borrowed money from banks owned by Beebe and other crooks. Does that tie them to organized crime and drug smuggling?
Water From the River Jordan
Gordon's hidden-camera footage was sliced and diced to make it appear as if Moore of Response Media is saying that the gimmicky stuff in Tilton's mailings, including vials containing "water from the River Jordan," comes from "that holy place, Taiwan." If true, that meant Tilton could be charged with mail fraud.
But Moore never said that. He was answering Gordon's question about where they obtained gimmicky items included in mailings for American Express and Six Flags as well as preachers. On the raw footage, Gordon says she "didn't feel like we've got him nailed right now" and that she "really wanted him to say that stuff is not from the River Jordan." Tilton produced receipts showing the water did come from the River Jordan. Lot of good that "holy water" did him.
Maybe the hand of the Lord was with the dumpster-divers after all, says Lumbley, who now runs a Web site called www.apostasywatch.com. "God was using Ole and ABC to chastise Tilton and bring him down," he says. Thanks to PrimeTime, Tilton's ministry collapsed--but he's still around. Married to his third wife, Tilton now is preaching prosperity on BET, still using prayer gimmicks. Caveat emptor. --Glenna Whitley
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.