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By Melanie Asmar
All Joel Levitt wants is a few answers. But when the questions have to do with religion and money, straight answers don't come cheaply.
Levitt's inquiry into the financial and moral dealings of his church has cost him nearly two years of rummaging through court records and check ledgers, growing legal fees--and even his membership in Calvary Temple, the non-denominational church presided over for more than fifty years by pioneering televangelist Charles E. Blair.
A few weeks ago, on the same day that Levitt filed a lawsuit in Denver District Court seeking access to church records that Calvary's governing Board of Elders had refused to provide him, the board voted unanimously to expel Levitt, banning him from attending any church services or activities. An active member of the congregation for more than a decade, Levitt says he was kicked out because he was asking pointed questions about a dark chapter in Calvary's history--the collapse of a church-backed nursing-home project into bankruptcy and scandal. The financial failure, which most church members would rather forget, wiped out the life savings of hundreds of elderly investors and led to Blair's 1976 conviction on seventeen counts of securities fraud.
Although the case is ancient history from a legal standpoint, Levitt has focused on a twenty-year string of broken promises by Blair and other church leaders to pay the investors back; he believes that Calvary Temple has a moral obligation to reimburse surviving investors for their losses.
"They didn't like the fact that I was digging so much," says Levitt, a former Air Force recruiter who now works in the mutual-fund industry. "Basically, they're telling me they don't want to hear about it anymore."
But church officials say that Levitt is pursuing a vendetta against Calvary's leadership and Blair, who stepped down from the pulpit last year. One boardmember chided him for his "obsessive preoccupation with this matter" in a letter urging him to end his persistent record requests.
"There have been several times Joel has spent the whole day going through file cabinets here," adds Gary Jensen, Calvary's administrative pastor. "It's gone past the point of being ridiculous. We've been aboveboard. His requests are burdensome, and we question his purpose."
Longtime Calvary worshipers have lived with a shadow over their church for nearly thirty years. Back in the late 1960s, Blair began soliciting donations and selling interest-bearing certificates to build a nursing home and senior citizen complex known as Life Center. By 1971, the project was in serious financial trouble, but Blair and his sales team continued to peddle securities, promising a handsome return. Many of the investors were older churchgoers who sunk their nest eggs into the "blessed" scheme and received an average of only 33 cents on the dollar in the subsequent bankruptcy.
Legally, the Life Center debt was discharged in the early 1980s. But one reason Blair received probation rather than a prison sentence for his part in the disaster was because he pledged to repay all creditors in full, with special attention to hardship cases. Many investors forgave part or all of what was owed them, but actual repayment efforts yielded only a small amount of the millions that had been lost.
Facing increasing criticism from the media and elderly investors, in 1986 Blair and a committee of national religious leaders launched the Second Mile campaign, a fundraising drive with the stated goal of repaying the most needy Life Center investors. At that point, Levitt had been attending Calvary Temple for several years. "I was there when they said that every dime was going to go to distressed investors," he recalls.
Like many others in the church, Levitt donated to the campaign. But the Second Mile was soon snarled in another scandal. Of the $1.7 million raised, more than a third went to undistressed creditors--including $200,000 to Calvary Temple, $200,000 to lawyers, accountants and administrators, $12,462 to an advertising agency owned by Blair, and even $2,323 to Blair personally, who described himself as a "qualified investor."
Hundreds of investors sued over the alleged misuse of the funds. In 1991, weeks before the case was scheduled to go to trial, Blair and members of his family reportedly contacted many of the plaintiffs and urged them to approve a $700,000 settlement offer, with the understanding that the rest of the $1.8 million they'd lost would eventually be repaid. A letter sent by Blair to Calvary Temple members explained that the settlement "will make it possible for Pastor Blair to direct his energy and efforts toward the full reimbursement of the remaining Second Mile creditors."
The investors accepted the settlement, ending Blair's long journey through the courts. But in 1997, Levitt decided to launch an investigation of his own. He was troubled by a lavish celebration thrown for Blair at the Colorado Convention Center in honor of his half-century in the pulpit and by an article that had appeared in Westword recapping the Life Center and Second Mile debacles ("Give Till It Hurts," June 5, 1997). What had happened in the past six years, he wondered, to Blair's promise to repay the rest of the money, a course of action that had been endorsed by the church's governing board?
"I felt an obligation," Levitt says. "The church is basically debt-free now. I couldn't see how a Christian could stand in that $10 million building and not try to pay these people back, especially if the pastor and the Board of Elders said we would."
Levitt waded through court records to obtain a list of Life Center investors. He estimates that there are still between 200 and 300 investors and their spouses who'd suffered losses totaling more than $1 million, including some who hadn't participated in the lawsuit. At his own expense, he mailed out surveys and received more than seventy responses. Several reported that they'd been contacted by Blair in 1991 and promised full restitution if they approved the Second Mile settlement. But church officials couldn't find any trace of fundraising efforts since that time.
"For seven years, none of them contacted these people," Levitt says. "To me, Blair's speech about paying these people back was nothing but a bait and switch to get them to agree to the settlement."
Since the Second Mile campaign had never been officially closed, Levitt decided to make several small donations to the campaign to see what would happen. A church attorney mailed his checks back to him and asked him why he was attempting to revive a project that had been settled by court action years ago.
Undaunted, last summer Levitt began to request church financial records related to the Second Mile campaign. In the military, he'd been trained as a chapel management superintendent, auditing church records, and Colorado law allows members of a church that is set up as a nonprofit corporation, such as Calvary Temple, to inspect the organization's financial records of the past three years. Church officials would later claim that Levitt "employed what may be deceit" to obtain older documents as well, but Levitt says that the staff readily offered him access to the materials, including board minutes dating back to 1975.
Levitt's requests prompted the church leadership to form a committee to review the Second Mile campaign. The group essentially confirmed Levitt's findings: that Blair and the board had issued statements of intent to repay the full amount, yet no funds had been raised since the settlement. But the committee also noted that the membership of Calvary Temple, once one of the largest churches of its kind in the country, had dropped dramatically since the Life Center collapse and was only half of what it was in 1991. "It seems clear that the congregation today is utterly inadequate to address this need," the group concluded. It recommended that the church take no further action to repay investors.
At Calvary's annual business meeting last March, the congregation voted 173-4 in support of the committee's position. Despite this overwhelming defeat, Levitt vowed to continue a petition drive to direct the board to repay the investors. He also brought several former investors to the meeting, including 94-year-old Nellie Moorehead, but they weren't allowed to address the group.
If she'd had the chance to speak, Moorehead says, she would have told them that she sank $10,000 in Blair's dream three decades ago and has managed to get barely half of it back over the years. "I wanted to tell them that if they were good Christians, they would want to pay the money back," she says.
There may have been little support for Levitt's position among the congregation, but the resistance was even stronger among the church's former and current leadership. In April, after repeated requests, Levitt was finally granted a meeting with Charles Blair, now retired, and his wife, Betty Blair. The pastor emeritus did not respond to Westword's request for comment about the meeting, but Levitt says the encounter was a revelation to him.
Blair admitted that he hadn't contacted any of the aggrieved investors in the past eight years, Levitt says. He and his wife also denied speaking with investors during settlement discussions--despite newspaper accounts to the contrary and the recollections of the people Levitt had surveyed.
"I showed him a letter he signed in 1991," Levitt says, "promising that he was going to work as hard as he could to repay them. He told me, 'I didn't mean to pay back the people who sued. Why would I do that?' He said that these people were hidden enemies of the church and that they should be my enemies, too. He said that all distressed investors who didn't sue were repaid, with a few exceptions, and that's an absolute lie.
"I confronted him, probably like no one confronted him. He got up and prayed. I told him he had to make restitution, and he said something like, 'Oh, I'd give a couple of bucks.'"
By this point, Levitt's investigation had expanded. He was now requesting information about the salaries of pastors and other staffers, prompting church officials to consult with their attorneys about what the law required them to release. He was also asking questions about the church's relationship, if any, to the Byrum advertising agency; Blair had once testified in court that he'd given the for-profit operation to the church, but church officials say the two entities aren't related.
Administrative pastor Jensen denies any improprieties in the church's finances and says that Levitt simply refused to accede to the will of the majority and his pastors. "We've continually said to Joel that if there's a question about Pastor Blair's work or Calvary Temple, we'd cooperate 100 percent with any official investigation," he says. "We feel we've done all the internal ethical and moral review of these issues we can do."
In May, Levitt was summoned to a meeting with church leaders and told not to discuss the Second Mile campaign in the Sunday school class that he led. Levitt says he agreed to the demand but that his class was canceled anyway. His requests for more detailed financial data were refused, on the grounds that they were not being made "in good faith and for a proper purpose," as the law requires. "Your apparent purpose is to dig up old wounds and perhaps to humiliate and chastise Pastor Blair and others," wrote Calvary attorney William C. Ritter in a stern letter that warned Levitt to stop his "continued harassment" of church staffers and boardmembers.
"He seems to want to look at everything," says Ritter. "It was a question of the church being inundated. They're understaffed for a big ministry like that, and his requests took up considerable time and resources."
Levitt's attorney, Dan Lynch, says the question of whether Levitt's requests were reasonable and in good faith is a matter for the courts to decide. "Harassment is in the eye of the beholder," says Lynch, who also represented investors in the Second Mile civil lawsuit. "If they have a policy that expels members because they ask for records, that defeats the intent of the statute."
A few days after he received Ritter's letter, Levitt was expelled from the church. His stated intention to take legal action to obtain the information he sought, as well as his efforts "to stir up discord and dissension," were cited as reasons.
"Joel is under what we would call 'spiritual discipline,'" says Jensen. "If he was to--I guess I'll use a church term--if he was to repent and come before the Board of Elders, we'd discuss his membership."
Levitt says he's not the one who needs to repent. Although Calvary Temple leaders insist he has no right to inspect their finances now that he's no longer a member, he vows to continue the fight. He's heartened by the fact that his Sunday school class has decided to still meet at a coffee shop despite being officially canceled.
"They can try to get rid of me, but I'm still going to look at the records," he says. "If people who spend so much time reading their holy books would expend the same energy to get financial accountability from their religious leaders, there would be no poverty in America.