A Beverly Hills house and country club membership. Vacations in Palm Springs and the South Seas. A closet as big as an apartment, stuffed with hundreds of pairs of shoes, suits, dresses and golf shoes.
People with close ties to TV evangelist Oral Roberts and his son, Richard, say they witnessed such extravagances years before a recent lawsuit accusing them of lavish spending engulfed the ministers and their debt-ridden university in scandal.
Harry McNevin said in a recent interview that he quit the Board of Regents at Oral Roberts University in disgust in 1987 after it became clear that the Robertses were dipping into the school’s endowment fund for their personal use.
“We were dealing in millions,” he said.
The luxurious ways of some of America’s top evangelists have come under scrutiny on various fronts recently. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley announced a Senate investigation this week into whether six celebrity preachers violated their organizations’ tax-exempt status by living lavishly on the backs of small donors.
The Robertses are not among the six. But those targeted include three members of the ORU Board of Regents: Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn.
In her 1983 memoir, “Ashes to Gold,” Richard Roberts’ first wife, Patti, documented the jet-set lifestyle: a blue Mercedes as a Christmas gift for Richard, a Jaguar for her, Italian suits and Palm Beach vacations.
“We lived like characters in a novel or a made-for-TV movie about the beautiful people and I reveled in it,” she wrote. “Having made a truce, albeit an uneasy one, with my conscience over the source of our wealth, I proceeded to enjoy its prerogatives with total abandon.”
Richard Roberts, who is paid $228,000 a year as university president, has taken a leave of absence pending an investigation.
But he disputed the recent allegations of overspending, which are contained in a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit filed by three former ORU professors, and said he pays personal expenses out of his pocket.
Interviewed on a flight aboard the university’s leased Hawker 700 jet to a recent TV interview in New York, Roberts said the lawsuit amounts to “a personal character attack.”
“There are people in the world who are against ministries,” he said. “I think people are not hoping there’s a Christian university in Tulsa.”
The university declined comment on McNevin’s accusation that endowment funds were tapped for personal spending. Endowments are supposed to be for major projects, not day-to-day operating expenses. The principal in an endowment is typically left untouched, and only the earnings are spent.
Oral Roberts University is more than $50 million in debt, its campus dominated by a 60-foot bronze sculpture of praying hands is starting to look shabby, and a long-promised student center remains in limbo.
University officials blame the debt on lack of major donors and the cost of maintenance on the 44-year-old, 5,700-student campus. Two more crippling blows came in the closing of ORU’s law school and the City of Faith, a $250 million attempt by Oral Roberts in the late 1970s to build a great medical center and research institute. The City of Faith closed in 1991.
An endowment once estimated near $60 million now stands at around $34 million. (In contrast, Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., founded in 1978 by televangelist Pat Robertson, has an endowment of more $277 million, according to published reports.)
ORU’s debt load, coupled with the lawsuit’s allegations, has some students wondering where their $17,580 in tuition and fees winds up.
“I have sat here and wondered the last three and a half years where my money has gone a new clothing line, golf cart repairs?” said Cornell Cross, a senior from Burlington, Vt.
McNevin said the ministry lost sight of the sacrifices made by countless donors who sent $5, $10 and $20 contributions to support the ministry and school. In 1980, a peak year, contributions totaled $88 million, and the ministry sent out so much mail that it needed its own ZIP code.
“It’s as if you took their life’s sweat and blood and, with no hesitation, just poured it on the ground,” McNevin said.
McNevin said the last straw came when the board practically “rubber-stamped” the use of millions in endowment money to buy a Beverly Hills property so that Oral Roberts could have a West Coast office and house. He said a country club membership was purchased along with the home.
“His idea was if he could get on the golf course with these people, he could get donations for the university,” McNevin recalls.
McNevin said another time, Richard Roberts took an ORU regent and their wives on the university jet to the South Seas just to get away for few days.
The Oct. 2 lawsuit, filed by three former ORU professors, includes allegations of a $39,000 shopping tab at one store for Richard Roberts’ wife, Lindsay, a $29,411 senior trip to the Bahamas on the university jet for one of the Roberts daughters, and a stable of horses for the Roberts children.
Suzanne Culpepper, a former ORU student and $125-a-week nanny for the Robertses’ three daughters, said she witnessed the lavish lifestyle. In 1989, she stayed for a summer at the Robertses’ gated, several-home compound near campus. She said she was fired by Lindsay Roberts after refusing to work on her day off.
One night, with the couple away, she wandered into the couple’s bedroom and inside a closet “bigger than my one-bedroom apartment,” she said.
Out of sheer curiosity, Culpepper said, she found herself counting everything. The tally for Richard Roberts: 454 ties, 18 pairs of golf shoes, 100 pairs of dress shoes, 160 suits, plus a 6-foot-long dresser stuffed with 100 more dress shirts still in their packaging.
For Lindsay Roberts: two rows of dresses and blouses, and an entire wall of shoe racks with 275 pairs on them, all arranged by color.
“In chapel, they were constantly asking the students for money for the school, or this program would be shut down,” she said. “Living with them, I was frustrated at the excess I would see.”
Regents chairman George Pearsons, who is supervising an outside probe into the lawsuit’s claims, said people have the wrong idea about how the Roberts family lives.
“It’s a perception of a lifestyle that in my observation is just not true, it’s not there,” he said. “We’re not talking about walls of gold and all that.”
Pearsons is the son-in-law of Kenneth Copeland, one of the six preachers named in the Grassley investigation.
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