You've got to hand it to Charles E. Blair. Thousands of people did, to their everlasting regret.
This Sunday, June 8, Blair will celebrate fifty years as the pastor and guiding light of Calvary Temple, which, under his stewardship, has become one of the largest and most successful non-denominational churches in the country. At a special brunch in his honor at the Colorado Convention Center, he will be praised by brother-in-Christ Pat Robertson and applauded by thousands of devoted followers.
Blair's half-century in the pulpit has been nothing short of miraculous. How else to explain the transformation of an obscure Assembly of God church with only 32 adult members into a thriving evangelical powerhouse that has its own school, a television ministry and missionary work around the globe?
Some of Blair's miracles, though, probably won't receive much attention on Sunday. It's a miracle, for example, how Blair and his cohorts managed to raise millions of dollars for an ill-conceived nursing-home project without ever telling the investors, many of them elderly true believers of modest means, how risky the venture really was. It's a miracle that Blair managed to avoid jail time for his part in the scheme, despite being convicted of seventeen counts of securities fraud. A miracle, too, that he remains one of the most beloved and respected figures in the evangelical Christian community--despite the collapse of his empire in bankruptcy and scandal, despite the string of broken promises and lame excuses he's offered to the people he bilked.
Over the years Blair has managed to rebuild his church and his reputation. Some of the investors in his Life Center project have forgiven the debt. Others have accepted partial recompense from bankruptcy proceedings or from an out-of-court settlement reached in a lawsuit six years ago. Quite a few have died, still waiting for Blair to deliver on his pledge to repay all investors in full--a pledge he first made 22 years ago.
True, Blair has made attempts to help out some investors, liquidating personal assets in the process. But he's also helped himself to funds that were supposed to repay folks impoverished by his huckstering, thereby compounding his original sin. And he has never publicly acknowledged the degree of his guilt in the affair, preferring to speak vaguely of past "mistakes" and failure to properly supervise his underlings. As a group of Christian mediators put it more than a decade ago, "His public response to the problem has been to trivialize his own fault in it, which is really a form of denial."
So while the faithful commemorate Charles Blair on Sunday, let us not forget his victims, either. For some people, Blair's misdeeds may seem like ancient history--a history he keeps revising--but for those who paid the price of his miracles, it's a story worth remembering:
1947: The Central Assembly Church of Denver hires a 26-year-old traveling evangelist, Charles Eldon Blair, as its new pastor. The baby-faced preacher from Oklahoma has grand plans for his struggling flock; in his first seven years on the job, the church becomes an interdenominational juggernaut ("All Faiths Welcome"). Membership swells from 58 members to more than 1,200, and annual income multiplies from $12,000 to $200,000, allowing Blair to launch a television program and to invest in Cherry Creek real estate with an eye toward building a bigger church.
1955: One of the fastest-growing churches in the country, the rechristened Calvary Temple moves into new digs at University and Alameda, courtesy of Sears Roebuck & Co.--which provides the land, along with $68,000 in cash, in exchange for a block of houses along First Avenue owned by the church and badly needed for development of the Cherry Creek shopping center. Sears gets its parking lot, and Blair acquires a reputation as a religious leader of exceptional shrewdness.
1965: Swimming in success, Blair leads Calvary Temple on a bold new mission--one that he says came to him in a dream. He proposes buying an abandoned chiropractic center in east Denver and converting it into a four-tower, six-story nursing home and senior citizen complex. The project, known as Life Center, will be financed largely through the sale of interest-bearing certificates sold to private investors through two foundations. From the pulpit, Blair solicits donations from his flock and his burgeoning TV audience, stressing the magnificent blessings that would come to those who contribute to the Lord's work.
1971: With only two of the four towers opened, an attorney and an accountant warn Blair in separate memos that Life Center is operating at an enormous loss. By the end of the third quarter, both the Center and the Charles E. Blair Foundation are legally insolvent. Yet Blair and his team of crack salesmen persist in peddling $4 million worth of securities to investors, promising a return of up to 8.5 percent. Many of the investors are elderly followers of Blair's, who sink their entire nest eggs into the project in hopes of having first crack at the apartments for seniors planned for the still-uncompleted complex.
1972: The Securities and Exchange Commission informs Blair that, in its opinion, Life Center is "operating a Ponzi scheme." By this point, Blair has already ordered a halt to the sale of Life Center securities, but Calvary Temple continues to sell securities for its own building projects and to make "temporary" transfers of funds to Life Center. In addition, trust funds administered by Blair and other church officials are being used to make unsecured loans to Life Center. Publicly, Blair still insists that the investors' money couldn't be safer. In June the city celebrates Charles E. Blair Day, and the beaming pastor is handed the keys to the city.
1973: Blair assures his salesmen that Life Center's assets exceed its liabilities by $3 million. In fact, the opposite is true. By October the combined debt of Life Center, the Charles E. Blair Foundation and Calvary Temple soars to a staggering $23 million.
1974: All three corporations file bankruptcy. Under Chapter 11 plans approved by the bankruptcy court, Calvary Temple and the Blair Foundation will eventually pay almost all of the balance due their creditors, but much of the proceeds realized from selling Life Center's assets will go to cover trustee, receiver and legal fees, leaving nearly 1,200 creditors with more than $6 million in losses. In court, Blair denies responsibility for Life Center's collapse, saying that most of the financial details were handled by others.
1976: Convicted of seventeen counts of securities fraud, Blair is fined $12,750 and sentenced to five years' probation; he is spared a jail sentence so that he might better supervise his repayment plan. Despite a bankruptcy judge's complaint that Blair had "consciously frustrated" attempts to supervise his progress in repaying creditors, the pastor soon manages to get the fine stayed and his probation reduced to 22 months. At a press conference, Blair vows that "all our creditors will be paid in full," with special provisions made to repay hardship cases. But after nearly three years of effort, fundraising programs that are supposed to reimburse Life Center creditors have raised only $180,000.
1981: Facing foreclosure from major mortgage holders, Life Center is sold for $5.3 million--less than half its appraised value. Creditors receive $1.7 million from the sale. In later years Blair will insist that he resigned from the Life Center board of directors in 1979 and "had nothing to do with the decision to sell Life Center," but correspondence between Life Center president Corky Rogers and creditors indicates that Blair was still on the board in late 1980 and voted in favor of the sale. With the bankruptcy and his sentence finally discharged, Blair is now under no further legal obligation to pay anyone a dime. Still, he magnanimously assigns royalties from his self-serving book about the fiasco, The Man Who Could Do No Wrong, to Calvary Temple "for the purpose of reducing debt."
1983: Claiming that Blair has a moral obligation to help the most destitute victims of his failed dream, several Life Center investors seek the help of the Christian Conciliation Service of Denver, an evangelical dispute-resolution group. Blair tells the CCS panel that he has donated "about $100,000" to investors and can't afford to give more; he also insists he was guilty only of a "technical" violation of failing to offer a proper prospectus. After a thorough examination of the evidence, the panel disagrees, finding that Blair had engaged in "a pattern of dealing unfairly with other people's money." The group urges Blair to make restitution to his victims and to publicly confess his responsibility for the disaster. Blair does neither.
1986: Under pressure from the media and an embittered core of elderly investors, Blair and a committee of religious leaders launch the Second Mile campaign, a fundraising drive with the stated goal of repaying Life Center's most "distressed" investors. Donations begin pouring in from fellow evangelists such as Pat Robertson ($100,000) and Morris Cerullo ($112,145), as well as from Blair's own congregation. Despite the hoopla, a bid for executive clemency for Blair's ten-year-old fraud conviction is rejected by Governor Richard Lamm.
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1988: The Second Mile campaign comes to a dead stop--partly because the national PTL scandal derails a proposed telethon, but also because of a lawsuit alleging that Calvary Temple and its pastor have once again played fast and loose with other people's money. A subsequent audit reveals that, of the $1.7 million raised in the drive, more than a third went to presumably undistressed creditors--including $200,000 to Calvary Temple, $200,000 to various lawyers, accountants and administrators, $12,462 to an advertising agency owned by Blair, and even $2,323 to Blair himself as token recompense for all the personal sacrifices he'd made over the years. Describing himself as a "qualified investor," Blair responds with a familiar refrain: "I did nothing wrong...I have never stolen a penny or misappropriated a dollar."
1991: Weeks before he's scheduled to go to trial over the alleged misuse of Second Mile funds, Blair and his attorneys hammer out a $700,000 settlement with hundreds of long-suffering investors--a payment of roughly 37 cents on every dollar of the remaining debt. Calvary Temple issues a press release declaring, "It is still Pastor Blair's desire to find a way to raise the remaining $1.5 million to help the final 282 investors, although he has no legal obligation to do so."
1997: The 1990s have been good to Blair. He's embarked on an ambitious training program for pastors in Ethiopia, driven a case of prostate cancer into remission through prayer and radiation treatments, and resumed the television broadcasts that were suspended during the Second Mile lawsuit. But there is no further public discussion of paying back the remaining $1.5 million. In response to a request last week for a status report on the fundraising effort, Blair's longtime assistant, Joan Bjork, said that Blair was out of town and that no one else at Calvary Temple could comment on the issue.