Amazing Disgrace

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?

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast