THE CON: The Praise the Lord (PTL) ministry had a wildly successful television program and big plans for the future. Bakker raised millions from his faithful fans to build hotels and a Christian theme park before a sex scandal – and a serious audit – put the minister in the hot seat.
THE DAMAGE: $158 million - or about $297 million today - was lost to worthless lifetime memberships at Heritage USA.
THE OUTCOME: Bakker spent five years in prison; today, he runs a not-for-profit church in Missouri.
For 10 years, Jim Bakker appeared on television nearly every day, encouraging members of his television ministry to help celebrate and grow the Christian faith. On the popular "Jim and Tammy Show," he and his wife asked their viewers to support the PTL ministry, which stands for Praise the Lord. Throughout the 1980s, the money rolled in – until it was discovered that ministry had used funds as hush money in a sex scandal. Bakker resigned in 1987 but soon faced federal fraud charges. It turned out more than hush money had been diverted from the PTL.
At the crux of the fraud was Heritage USA, a 2,300-acre theme park in South Carolina complete with hotels, campgrounds and a water park. To fund the construction of the park, Bakker sold “lifetime partnerships” that, at $1,000, came with a free weekend visit every year. He quickly hit the cap of 25,000 partnerships but went right on collecting. As his deception came to light, Bakker maintained his air of pious innocence in an appearance on "Nightline," in which he denied that money was missing at PTL. In fact, $4 million from 150,000 loyal PTL members went straight into Bakker's pockets.
Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker made their television premiere in 1965 as the hosts of a children's puppet show that aired on a Virginia station owned by Rev. Pat Robertson. The couple parlayed their growing popularity for several years in a late night talk show on the Christian Broadcasting Network called the 700 Club. In 1974, they took over the PTL Club ministry in Charlotte, North Carolina, and kicked off "The Jim and Tammy Show." Within two years, the daily religious talk show was carried by 46 affiliates across the country.
As the PTL ministry grew, so too did the criticism and scrutiny of Bakker's fundraising and management. In 1979, a story broke in The Charlotte Observer charging that hundreds of thousands of dollars raised for international mission efforts were actually spent at home. The Federal Communications Commission launched an investigation but no formal charges were pressed. A few years later, the IRS probed the PTL Club's bookkeeping and found $13 million in revenues with incomplete accounting. Asked about the state of his financial records, Bakker surmised that “the devil got into the computer.” In any case, he was off the hook when the Justice Department dismissed the notion of any wrongdoing.
At its peak, PTL employed 2,000 people and brought in $129 million a year. In 1983, Bakker made his biggest move to expand his ministry beyond the reach of the television. He wanted to create a vast theme park in Fort Mill, South Carolina – a destination spot for Christians with hotels, motels, campgrounds and a water park. He needed at least $25 million to fund Heritage USA, so he asked 25,000 supporters to donate $1,000. As “lifetime partners,” they could have three nights free lodging every year for the rest of their lives.
The partnerships – 66,000 in total – were quickly snapped up. Against the counsel of his advisors, Bakker proposed yet another hotel. Again, he sold well over twice as many of partnerships as were available. In just four years, solicitations for Heritage USA brought in $158 million.
Cash flowed into the organization – but only as fast as those dollars were spent. On top of the operating expenses and payroll and various construction projects, there were the Bakkers themselves. The couple, who assured their 13 million viewers that they gave everything they had to the ministry, lived large. They drove matching his-and-her Rolls Royces and outfitted a new condo in Florida with gold plumbing fixtures.
The ministry's debt mounted but that was just the start of Bakker's problems. He knew the story of a church secretary given $265,000 to keep quiet about their sexual encounter was about to break. Bakker resigned from the ministry in 1987 and tried to control his image by admitting to the encounter but insisting it wasn't his fault. He issued a statem
ent and blamed “treacherous former friends...who victimized me with the aid of a female confederate.” Within two months, Bakker was defrocked by the Assemblies of God and the PTL ministry – with debts totaling about $130 million – filed for bankruptcy.
The drama didn't let up during Bakker's trial; after his lawyer claimed to find him cowering on the floor hallucinating, he was examined and found fit to stand trial. Convicted on 24 counts of mail and wire fraud, he stood for sentencing before a judge whose tough style earned him the nickname “Maximum Bob.” In 1989, that judge sentenced Bakker to 45 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
Bakker served just five years in prison; he was released in 1994 after an ape llate judge reduced his sentence. Today, Bakker and his second wife operate the Morningside Church in Missouri, a non-profit that aims to “win the world to Christ.”