PTL Empire Was ‘Vision From God,’ Bakker Testifies : Former Evangelist Defends ‘Partnership’ Scheme, Blames Media and Devil for Downfall

Times Staff Writer

Defrocked evangelist Jim Bakker, testifying for the first time in his fraud and conspiracy trial, said Friday that the fallen PTL empire originated with a vision from God and the former TV preacher’s own “need to serve people.”

“I felt like I was almost born with this vision in my heart,” Bakker said quietly, under questioning from his attorney, George T. Davis. “I felt God spoke to me (and told me) to build a Christian center for people.”

Later, under cross-examination by prosecutor Deborah Smith, Bakker blamed the media, the devil and his betrayal by aides for the downfall of his multimillion-dollar empire.


‘Devil Caused Problems’

“I would say, yes, I think the devil caused a lot of problems,” Bakker said.

Bakker is scheduled to resume testifying on Monday.

As his trial nears its end, the one-time evangelist is trying to convince jurors that he is a sincere, God-fearing man who was misled and mistreated but intended no harm.

Prosecutors, however, charge that he used television and the mails to sell unsuspecting supporters “partnerships” to spend three nights at the nearby Heritage USA Christian theme park even when he knew he had not built enough rooms for them.

As Bakker does battle inside the Charles R. Jonas Federal Building and Courthouse, a sideshow takes place outside, including a radio station that gives away caps to anybody who puts his head under a couch placed under a stately magnolia tree. (Bakker reportedly put his head under a couch when he broke down and cried, suffering what a psychiatrist called “a panic attack” earlier in the trial.)

Also, a group of Florida supporters marches in front of the courthouse singing hymns and carrying petitions for mercy.

Bakker, 49, is charged with 24 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy. According to the government, he and close aides in the PTL ministry that he founded not only oversold the partnerships but also diverted more than $3.7 million of the PTL money to pay for their huge bonuses and sumptuous life styles.

Much of the trial has been devoted to a battle between “partners” who testified for the prosecution and those who appeared for the defense. Typically, the partnerships cost $1,000.

Prosecutors’ witnesses, many of whom were on fixed incomes, asserted that they were turned down for reservations, while a succession of defense witnesses testified that they were satisfied givers to PTL, which stands for People That Love and Praise the Lord.

The once-charismatic evangelist faces up to 120 years in prison and fines of $5 million if the jury of six men and six women convicts him.

Three of his former associates already have been sentenced in the case. Richard Dortch, who pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy, was sentenced to eight years; David Taggart was sentenced to 18 years, 5 months, and Taggart’s brother James to 17 years, 9 months--both on tax evasion convictions.

Bakker’s appearance, on the 21st day of trial, is a defense gamble on his persuasive skills. As Seth Langson, a local attorney, put it: “He takes pride in persuading the masses. This is his ultimate test.”

Dressed in a dark suit and wearing glasses, Bakker usually addressed the jury when questioned by his own lawyer, but, when Smith took over, he faced her, and sometimes was so feisty that she had to ask him to let her finish a question.

Does Not Remember

Many times when she asked him about seemingly incriminating testimony or evidence, such as computer printouts, Bakker said he did not remember it or did not believe it. And he often asserted that documents signed in his name were not actually signed by him.

“A lot of people sign my name,” he said when denying that he approved a bonus for Taggart.

“I’m not an accountant,” Bakker said defiantly at one point, explaining that he does not understand finance.

Smith several times noted Bakker’s huge salary and bonuses, contrasting them with low-paid employees he laid off after a 1986 meeting in Palm Springs. Bakker countered that, even if he had given up his $500,000 annual salary, it would have run PTL for only a day or so.

He said he did not remember a 1984 bonus of $390,000, half of which went for a down payment on a Palm Desert home.

However, Bakker did say that “if I had it to do all over again, I would not have allowed the (PTL) board” to pay him such large bonuses.

Under the gentle guidance of courtly, 82-year-old Davis, Bakker unfolded the history of his career as an evangelist, discussed the challenges of creating the PTL empire and asserted that he had a plan that would accommodate all the partners who wanted lodgings.

“The vision from God was to build a modern Christian campground” for people to worship at, he said. “In the middle of the night I woke up. It was a dream or a vision; I don’t know. I began to write down the concept of lifetime partnerships.”

Television would be the way to sell them. Bakker said: “Television is the most powerful medium in the world today, and the most important message, the gospel of Jesus Christ, should be propagated over the medium.”

But the demands were powerful, too, he said. “You never get away from the pressure that you have to raise funds for the next week, the next month, the next year.”

Bakker’s PTL empire--at one time taking in more than $100 million a year--crumbled rapidly after former church secretary Jessica Hahn disclosed their 1980 tryst. Bakker resigned from the ministry in 1987, the year PTL declared bankruptcy. Bakker is alleged to have paid Hahn money to hush up the affair.