A nationally known evangelist based in Orange County has issued an urgent fundraising letter, saying that a “bizarre error” by postal workers caused donations to be thrown away over several months.
But those blamed for the alleged error have challenged the claim, and a critic has complained to postal inspectors about the high-profile ministry’s assertion.
In his letter to supporters last week, Hank Hanegraaff, a best-selling Christian author and radio personality known as the “Bible Answer Man,” said that for three months, many envelopes addressed to his ministry’s post office box in Rancho Santa Margarita were routed to a business. That company, Hanegraaff said, tossed the letters in the trash.
Hanegraaff said that the mix-up may have resulted in the loss of “hundreds of thousands of dollars” because it happened during the last three months of the year, when the ministry traditionally receives 17% of its nearly $8 million in annual donations.
“Our local U.S. post office has accepted full responsibility for this error and has fixed the problem,” Hanegraaff wrote. “We bear them no ill will and believe this was an honest mistake by novice postal employees. But much has been lost.”
U.S. Postal Service officials said they knew of no major problems with mail delivered to Hanegraaff’s Christian Research Institute, and that no manager at the Rancho Santa Margarita branch had spoken with ministry officials or issued an apology.
“Nobody knows about this,” said Richard Maher, U.S. Postal Service spokesman for Southern California.
An executive with the company that Hanegraaff said threw away his ministry’s donations said the statements in the fundraising letter were exaggerated.
Alan Baron, chief operating officer with On-Target Marketing in Foothill Ranch, said his company received a single tray of the Christian Research Institute’s mail and called the ministry the same day to correct the problem. Baron said no mail was thrown in the trash.
“I don’t know why this is being blown out of proportion,” Baron said. “This was a very limited problem, and it was quickly solved.”
This is the second financial controversy to hit Hanegraaff in 18 months. In 2003, officials with the national Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an industry watchdog group, conducted an audit that resulted in what they called a “significant reimbursement” to his ministry, the Christian Research Institute. The source of the reimbursement was not publicly revealed.
Hanegraaff, whose daily show is broadcast on scores of radio stations in the U.S. and abroad, is known as a Christian purist who holds pastors, churches and denominations accountable for teaching Bible-based Christianity.
The current controversy was uncovered by Bill Alnor, a journalism professor at Texas A&M; University-Kingsville and longtime Hanegraaff critic.
Alnor said he was immediately suspicious of the fundraising letter he found Jan. 14 posted on the Christian Research Institute’s website.
In the appeal, Hanegraaff asked supporters to make sure their checks had been cashed, and for others to send a “sacrificial gift” to make up for the budget shortfall caused by the post office’s mistake.
“Gifts of $50, $100, or $200 are especially needed, but any amount will help,” Hanegraaff wrote.
“The letter seemed odd to me from the start,” said Alnor, who broke the story last week in the Christian Sentinel, his online magazine.
He said it didn’t make sense to him that large volumes of mail would be misdirected for three months. Alnor said he contacted the postmaster and several employees of the Ranch Santa Margarita Post Office branch, all of whom said they knew of no errors in the delivery of the ministry’s mail.
On Wednesday,, Alnor said he complained to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Paul Young, executive vice president with the Christian Research Institute, called Alnor’s story “a pack of lies.”
Young said the ministry noticed in October a “significant” drop in mail volume and began meeting with postal employees to find out why.
The drop-off continued through December, Young said, and stopped only after an On-Target Marketing employee called the Christian Research Institute to report that a tray of the ministry’s mail had been delivered to his company.
Young said it was discovered that many letters had already been thrown away at On-Target and that the ministry was able to recover enough envelopes from a trash bin to fill a postal bag.
Post office officials were informed of the misdirected mail and the problem stopped, Young said.
The two On-Target employees whom Young said worked with him to retrieve the mail could not be reached for comment Friday.
Young said he didn’t know why the ministry’s account differs sharply from those given by Postal Service officials and On-Target executives.
“We feel in good faith that our mail has not been totally delivered to us” since October, Young said.
The Christian Research Institute ran a deficit of $560,000 in 2002, according to the most recent tax records available, and Hanegraaff has been criticized for his spending habits.
He earned $280,000 in salary and allowances in 2002, and his wife, Kathy, received $111,000.
During the 2003 tempest that hit the Christian Research Institute, at least six employees were fired or resigned after complaining about alleged commingling of ministry and personal funds by the Hanegraaffs.
Those employees said the ministry routinely used donations to pay for Hanegraaff’s personal expenses and luxury items, including a board-approved 2003 Lexus sports car and smaller items, such as repairs to his children’s computers and birthday flowers for his mother.
Hanegraaff denied any misuse of ministry money, but vowed to tighten accounting procedures.