Apocalypse Now(ish): Irvin Baxter's End Times Empire

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"I was so far in debt, I couldn't buy an hour of television time to save my neck," Baxter says. "I said, 'God, I was sure you told me to do this. I couldn't go on television if I had to. What am I supposed to do?'"

Baxter says the TV issue was solved when two men came to him in the same day, one who offered to pay the whole bill for him to appear on Daystar, a slightly less popular Christian channel, and another who would pay for time on TBN. But he still couldn't get anyone at TBN to return his calls.

"Everywhere I turned, there was a blocked door. No response. After two weeks, I called our staff together and said, 'It's God's will for us to be on TBN, because God supplied $25,000 a month. We've got to pray that God's going to open this door.' We had a prayer, maybe right here in this office. I don't remember." A few days later, the phone rang. It was Paul Crouch's personal assistant; the TBN founder had seen Baxter interviewed and taken a shine to him. A couple months later, Baxter was on TBN. "What we couldn't do, God unlocked with the greatest of ease."

There were a few lean years before they finally managed to get those TV spots, though. "We had two years in decline," Baxter says. "I think 2009 and 2010. And those were tough, tough years. We were in survival mode, frankly."

Endtime's IRS filings from 2009 and 2010 actually show significant revenue for those years; in 2010, the most recent year for which records are available, the company earned $1.8 million, $1.5 million of it from donations. But they spent about $1.9 million, including $375,000 on radio and television expenses, almost $200,000 on rent, $137,000 in travel and $45,000 on the conferences.

"Once we went on television, the income has increased back to where it was before," Baxter says, though it's still not much. "We are doing better, even though it's still a month to month deal." Their television bills are enormous, around $70,000 a month. "And that's just the television. That doesn't mean paying the salaries of 35 or 40 employees. It's a big budget, but God supplies. It's almost as though we live on manna here. You go to the mailbox and what's there is what's there."

What's there is growing, and at no small rate. Baxter's daughter Jana, a vice president, estimates that they're on track to bring in around $3.7 million in revenue this year, more than double what they earned in 2010. At the same time, she says, the television exposure has brought a flood of new people to Baxter's conferences. Dramatic current events — wars, assassinations, terror attacks — also tend to bring people to Endtime's door. "Anytime things heat up, people always turn to this ministry."

As a religious nonprofit, Endtime doesn't pay federal income tax. In return, it's supposed to refrain from making political endorsements, and it must have a clearly articulated charitable mission. On its form 990, which nonprofits have to submit to the IRS, it lists that mission this way: "To distribute religious materials throughout the world by radio and mail."

Peddling DVDs and magazine subscriptions does, indeed, seem to be Baxter's mission, but how that mission serves anyone is unclear. It is clear, however, that it serves Baxter's family well.

IRS records show that six of the seven people on Endtime's board of directors are family members: Baxter and his wife; Jana Robbins and her husband, Dave; another daughter of Baxter's, Kara McPeak; and her husband, Gary. Baxter's grandson does their social media, and according to Jana, several of Baxter's grandchildren work at the ministry, along with her own daughter, niece and other relatives.

While that's not technically illegal, the IRS also isn't overly fond of it, says Bruce Hopkins, a nonprofit lawyer who often works with religious groups.

"The IRS is not keen, shall we say, on boards that are comprised of family members or otherwise related individuals," he says. "But frankly as a matter of law, they can't do anything about it. It's not impermissible." That said, Hopkins adds, "If they were trying to get tax-exempt status today, the IRS might give them a hard time."

"That's definitely a bad sign," says Rusty Leonard, more bluntly. He's an investment analyst, a devout Christian and the founder of Ministry Watch, which encourages financial transparency in ministries and religious nonprofits. Family boards, Leonard says, "do not reflect best practices in the non-profit arena. It obviously opens the door for misuse of funds. TBN is the prime example of that."

TBN has been Ministry Watch's biggest target for years, and has attracted equal attention from investigative journalists and secular nonprofit-monitoring groups. Paul Crouch and wife Jan have been sued by their granddaughter, who accuses them of gross financial exploitation of the company; in return, the Crouches have accused her of embezzlement. The lawsuit details lavish spending by the Crouches, on private jets, 13 luxury properties for use by Crouch family members (including "his and hers" mansions for Paul and Jan) and a $100,000 mobile home for Jan's dogs.

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan