tulsa, okla. -- Twenty years ago, televangelist Oral Roberts said he was reading a spy novel when God appeared to him and told him to raise $8 million for Roberts’ university, or else he would be “called home.”
Now, his son, Oral Roberts University President Richard Roberts, says God is speaking again, telling him to deny allegations in a lawsuit that threatens to engulf this 44-year-old Bible Belt college in scandal.
Richard Roberts is accused of illegal involvement in a local political campaign and lavish spending at donors’ expense, including numerous home remodeling projects, use of the university jet for his daughter’s senior trip to the Bahamas, and a red Mercedes convertible and a Lexus SUV for his wife, Lindsay.
His wife is accused of dropping tens of thousands of dollars on clothes, awarding nonacademic scholarships to friends of her children and sending scores of text messages on university-issued cellphones to people described in the lawsuit as “underage males.”
At a chapel service this week on the 5,300-student campus known for its 60-foot-tall bronze sculpture of praying hands, Roberts said God told him: “We live in a litigious society. Anyone can get mad and file a lawsuit against another person whether they have a legitimate case or not. This lawsuit . . . is about intimidation, blackmail and extortion.”
San Antonio televangelist John Hagee, a member of the university’s board of regents, said the executive board was “conducting a full and thorough investigation” of the allegations contained in the lawsuit of three former professors.
Colleagues fear for the reputation of the university and the future of the Roberts’ ministry, which grew from Southern tent revivals to one of the most successful evangelical empires in the country, hauling in tens of millions of dollars in contributions a year. The university reported nearly $76 million in revenue in 2005, according to the IRS.
Oral Roberts is 89 and lives in California. He holds the title of chancellor, but the university describes him as semi-retired. His son presides over day-to-day operations on the campus, whose modern, space-age design from the early 1960s now looks dated.
The three former professors filed their lawsuit on Tuesday against the university and Richard Roberts, alleging they were wrongfully dismissed after reporting the school’s involvement in a local political race.
Richard Roberts, according to the suit, in 2005 asked a professor to use his students and university resources to aid a county commissioner’s bid for Tulsa mayor. Such involvement would violate state and federal law because of the university’s nonprofit status. Up to 50 students are alleged to have worked on the campaign.
The professors said their dismissals came after they turned over to the board of regents a copy of a report documenting moral and ethical lapses on the part of Roberts and his family.
The internal document was prepared by Stephanie Cantese, Richard Roberts’ sister-in-law, according to the lawsuit.
A university student repairing Cantese’s laptop discovered the document and later provided a copy to one of the professors.
It details dozens of alleged instances of misconduct. Among them:
A longtime maintenance employee was fired so that an underage male friend of Mrs. Roberts could have his position.
Mrs. Roberts -- who is a member of the board of regents and is referred to as the university’s “first lady” on its website -- frequently had cellphone bills of more than $800 per month, with hundreds of text messages sent between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. to “underage males who had been provided phones at university expense.”
The university jet was used to take one daughter and several friends on a senior trip to Orlando, Fla., and the Bahamas. The $29,411 trip was billed to the ministry as an “evangelistic function of the president.”
Mrs. Roberts spent more than $39,000 at one Chico’s clothing store alone in less than a year, and had other accounts in Texas and California. She also repeatedly said, “As long as I wear it once on TV, we can charge it off.” The document cites inconsistencies in clothing purchases and actual usage on TV.
The university and ministry maintain a stable of horses for exclusive use by the Roberts’ children.
* The Roberts’ home has been remodeled 11 times in the past 14 years.