The shady side of Jim Bakker
After becoming one of the most notorious figures of the 1980s, wildly popular televangelist Jim Bakker would re-emerge from a headline-making scandal to stir the pot with multiple other controversies over the next few decades … but more on all that below.
As of this writing in March 2020, Bakker most recently found himself in the midst of major legal trouble after he tried to sell a fake treatment for the coronavirus (COVID-19) when the world became consumed with fear over the disease. While some famous faces have shared advice or have come up with interesting ways to fight this global pandemic, Bakker took, well, a different and shadier route. Falsely claiming on The Jim Bakker Show that a supposedly all-natural product would protect his devoted flock from the novel coronavirus was not only seen as controversial — even late-night host John Oliver called out Bakker’s antics on Last Week Tonight — it was also in violation of both state and federal law in the United States, according to NPR. Yikes.
But a lot more went down in the four-plus decades this controversial TV star’s been in the public eye. So, let’s explore the shady side of Jim Bakker.
The Bakkers made bank on The PTL Club
Back in the late 1970s — long before fellow televangelist Joel Osteen founded his megachurch — Jim Bakker and then-wife Tammy Faye Bakker were traveling Pentecostal preachers who came upon the idea of creating a evangelical puppet show for a Minnesota TV station. Their modest production caught the eye of popular televangelist Pat Robertson and, as Christianity Today reported, he helped launch their own talk show, The PTL Club.
An acronym for “Praise the Lord,” The PTL Club was sort of “a Christian version of The Tonight Show,” PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire author John Wigger told ABC News in 2019. As the series’ popularity grew, so did the volume of viewer donations, with the show’s former security chief, Don Hardister, recalling to the publication, “We had a cash office and at times there was certainly more money in than … I could imagine. People would send us mink coats, diamond rings, deeds. I mean, we got all sorts of donations.”
For their part, the Bakkers didn’t necessarily try to conceal their newfound (and seemingly shady) wealth. By the 1980s — an era characterized by conspicuous consumption — their surprising purchases rivaled, say, the Trump family, with the Los Angeles Times reporting on such perks as “gold-plated swan-shaped bathroom fixtures” and “an air-conditioned doghouse.”
Jim Bakker and that Heritage USA timeshare scam
Suddenly swimming in cash in 1978, Jim Bakker saw an opportunity to rake in even more dough with a faith-based theme park, and opened Heritage USA nearby Charlotte, N.C. As Religion & Politics recalled, the project amounted to a 2,300 acre-sized, Christian version of Disneyland, which was about 10 times the size of the original park and boasted the likes of the childhood home of evangelist Billy Graham, a glitzy Vegas-style version of “a passion play depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ, with the aid of light-show special effects,” and a $12-million water park. There was also a campground, hotels, and even condos.
To fund construction, the Bakkers ended up selling timeshares — or, in The PTL Club parlance, $1,000 “lifetime partnerships” that offered fans a few nights’ stay at the park each year. At the time, critics joked that the show’s acronym actually stood for “Pass the Loot.” But what the Bakkers’ followers didn’t know, reporter Mark Becker told ABC News, was that more of these oft-hawked partnerships had been sold than could actually be accommodated. “Problem is, there were way too many people giving $1,000, not nearly enough hotel rooms,” Becker explained, revealing the Bakkers sold “more than 66,000 lifetime partnerships” in a hotel that only had 500 rooms. Wow.
Jim Bakker got caught up in a sex scandal
In 1987, reports emerged surrounding a sexual encounter Jim Bakker admittedly had with church secretary Jessica Hahn, 21 at the time of the incident, seven years earlier. As journalists began digging, they uncovered evidence that Bakker, who was 20 years her senior, spent about $265,000 in hush money to buy Hahn’s silence, per The Washington Post. She was reportedly even forced to sign a confession admitting it was she — not Bakker — who was the sexual aggressor.
“That was essentially the straw that broke the camel’s back,” attorney John Stewart, who had represented Hahn in her federal court case, said. “She didn’t want to live a lie.” The media outlet detailed how Hahn eventually went public, telling her side of the story in a blockbuster interview with Playboy and then testifying before a federal grand jury. According to her account, she was lured to Bakker’s hotel room by evangelist John Wesley Fletcher, who reportedly told her, “You’re going to do something tremendous for God.”
“The way Jessica Hahn later described her sexual encounter with Jim Bakker,” author John Wigger told later ABC News, “sounds very much like rape.”
The IRS questioned some of Jim Bakker's shadier deductions
Jessica Hahn’s hush money claim captured the attention of federal investigators, leading the Internal Revenue Service to poke around into Jim Bakker’s finances in 1987.
They uncovered an incredible trove of questionable deductions claimed by his tax-exempt ministry in the early ’80s, reported the Los Angeles Times, which “[ranged] from a $592,000 oceanfront condominium in Palm Beach, Fla., to $67,000 in women’s clothes and an $800 Gucci briefcase.” IRS investigators also questioned a Hawaiian vacation taken by the Bakkers around that time, which included deductions like “a $350-a-night hotel suite… a $120 Gucci pen, a $74 toilet kit and a $70 address book.” Meanwhile, that Florida condo was purchased by the ministry for $390,000 in 1982, with an added $202,000 spent to furnish the place.
All told, the IRS called into question more than $1.3 million worth of deductions that, to investigators, sure looked like the Bakkers had been using The PTL Club donations to support their lavish lifestyle. At this point, the quickly forming cracks in Jim Bakker’s televangelist empire were rapidly widening.
Jim Bakker was forced out of PTL
If you ask Jim Bakker, he was supposedly set up amid his adulterous encounter with then-21-year-old Jessica Hahn. According to the Charlotte Observer, Bakker alleged that he’d been “wickedly manipulated by treacherous former friends [who] conspired to betray [him] into a sexual encounter.” But as the scandal caught fire, the disgraced televangelist stepped down from the PTL, handing over control to Reverend Jerry Falwell. While Bakker saw his resignation as a temporary measure to keep him out of the spotlight until things blew over, it didn’t turn out that way.
The Washington Post reports that Falwell dug into the ministry’s finances and was shocked by what he supposedly found. “We don’t know the depth of the problems,” he claimed of the discrepancies. Fearing there would be some “staggering” revelations to come, Falwell confirmed that $265,000 in hush money was indeed paid to Jessica Hahn, coming out of church funds.
In light of this new information, Falwell took permanent control of PTL and removed Bakker from his own ministry, barring him from ever returning. “We don’t know what we’re going to do with our lives,” a shocked Tammy Faye Bakker told the publication. “Jim’s almost numb.”
This televangelist was indicted on federal fraud charges
As if being disgraced by a sex scandal (not to mention further allegations of same-sex dalliances), kicked out of his own ministry, and seeing his shady financial shenanigans examined by the IRS weren’t bad enough, things were about to get even worse for Jim Bakker in the late ’80s. As The Washington Post reported, Bakker was indicted by a federal grand jury on 24 charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, and conspiring to defraud the public in 1988 following a 15-month investigation.
Also charged in the indictment was former PTL Executive Vice President Richard W. Dortch. Meanwhile, a separate indictment charged Bakker’s former special assistant, David A. Taggart, and his brother, James H. Taggart, who was described as an “interior designer” for the ministry. Each were charged with 11 counts of tax evasion and conspiracy to impede the IRS.
In its indictment, the grand jury accused Bakker and Dortch of conspiring to fund their “lavish and extravagant lifestyles” through PTL’s above-mentioned timeshare scam. Stating that the case “has nothing to do with religion,” the chief of the Justice Department’s fraud section, William E. Hendricks III, noted to the media outlet that it was rather about “the fraudulent sale of spaces in hotels and other lodging.”
Jim Bakker was convicted and sentenced to 45 years in the slammer
In 1989, Jim Bakker was found guilty of all 24 counts of fraud after prosecutors targeted the 66,000 “lifetime partnerships” he sold at $1,000 a pop for a free stay at his theme park’s hotel, the Charlotte Observer reported. According to the Los Angeles Times, the disgraced televangelist received a sentence of 45 years in a federal penitentiary, and would be eligible for parole after 10 years behind bars. The sentencing memo requested that Bakker be ordered to pay restitution, with unsettled claims adding up to about $100 million. He was ultimately fined $500,000.
“I’m deeply sorry for those I have hurt,” Bakker told the judge ahead of his sentencing. “I have sinned. But never in my life did I intend to defraud.” As stiff as the sentence was, Jessica Hahn still felt it wasn’t severe enough. “In my opinion, I still feel like it won’t add up to the years that people worked to save up money to give to PTL,” she later said, per the Los Angeles Times.
Tammy Faye Bakker divorced him while he was imprisoned for fraud
While Jim Bakker was serving his time, his lawyer had successfully waged a campaign to reduce his sentence to 18 years in 1991, reported the Los Angeles Times. “I ask all that I have hurt to please forgive me,” Bakker said at the time. “I have asked heavenly God to please forgive me and now I ask this court for human forgiveness.”
One person who wasn’t feeling so forgiving, however, was the televangelist’s wife, Tammy Faye Bakker. Eleven months after her husband’s initial sentencing, she issued a statement to People. “I AM EXPERIENCING MANY EMOTIONS as I write to you today. Great sadness, fear of your rejection, and relief that I am able to be totally honest with you. I do not expect your understanding, but please try not to react cruelly,” Tammy Faye wrote, before dropping a bombshell. “Jim and I are getting a divorce.”
On Mar. 14, 1992, the Bakkers were officially ex-spouses. According to the Los Angeles Times, Tammy Faye was granted full custody of their then-16-year-old son, James Clarke Bakker.
Jim Bakker cashed in by writing a tell-all book
According to The New York Times, Jim Bakker was released from prison in 1994 and placed on parole after serving just about five years of his 18-year sentence. Having lost his ministry amid scandal, his wife following divorce, and with his reputation shattered, Bakker decided to write a book.
Two years later, he released I Was Wrong: The Untold Story of the Shocking Journey from PTL Power to Prison and Beyond. For Bakker, it seemed the book represented a dual opportunity: attempting some damage control while making a few bucks at the same time. He claimed to have atoned for his many sins, alleging that prison had given him time to contemplate the error of his ways. Money, he alleged, had corrupted his soul. As the Charlotte Observer reported, Bakker wrote that he became “physically nauseated” while studying the Bible behind bars when he realized the prosperity gospel he’d been preaching was actually “contradicting Christ.”
The book, ABC News later noted, also saw Bakker insisting that his sexual encounter with Jessica Hahn was consensual, despite her insistence it was anything but.
Jim Bakker launched a new ministry after his release from prison
According to The Jim Bakker Show‘s website, the titular host had been doing “inner-city outreach” at a Los Angeles church in 1998 when he met fellow minister Lori Graham. They got married less than two months later, after which Graham — who took Bakker’s last name — told the Charlotte Observer (via the Orlando Sentinel) the two were so “broke” that the groom’s tux and bride’s gown had to be donated by friends.
In the early 2000s, Bakker and his new wife launched The Jim Bakker Show. Originally broadcasting from a restaurant in Branson, Mo. that had been converted into a TV Studio, Bakker also set up a new ministry, the Morningside Church, where parishioners (or anybody, really) were invited to donate online.
Despite the evidence that led a federal grand jury to indict her new husband of 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy, Bakker’s second wife maintained he had been railroaded by the feds. “Jim didn’t steal $158 million. It was such a travesty,” Lori Bakker told the Charlotte Observer. “People are smart enough to know he went to prison for a crime he didn’t commit.”
Jim Bakker built a new TV studio and a new theme park
If The Jim Bakker Show illustrated anything, it was that its host hadn’t lost his touch for asking viewers to send him their money. The Charlotte Observer reports that the Bakkers had moved their modest operation in Branson to the small Missouri town of Blue Eye in 2008 — but a major expansion was underway.
Millionaire Jerry Crawford — who had previously funded their Branson operation — bankrolled the Bakkers, allegedly paying $17 million to buy 800 acres of land, as well as for the construction of the Morningside Church, from which The Jim Bakker Show would broadcast. The ambitious project, in addition to the main building, also included 100 condos. That’s right: condos. Sound familiar? According to The Jim Bakker Show‘s website, this new venture — Morningside USA — wasn’t just a worship center, but also included shopping facilities, a camping and RV park, restaurants, hotels, and cottages. Also onsite was the Morningside School of Media, presumably set up to train the next generation of televangelists.
Those Jim Bakker apocalypse food buckets
With his new televised iteration came a new televised shtick: Jim Bakker went from telling his followers that God wanted them to be wealthy to sharing dire warnings that humanity must prepare for the looming apocalypse. His refrain, the Charlotte Observer reported in 2018: “We are in the final days.” Of course, Bakker then offered a solution: buckets of freeze-dried food and survival gear.
As the Daily Mail reported six years earlier, these products ranged from generators and vitamins to a “Silver Solution” enema kit. The items Bakker pushed the hardest, however, were his food buckets. One of these included 60 freeze-dried meals, with dishes like black bean burgers and buttermilk pancakes — all for the not-so-low price of $2,275.
Brooklyn chef Greg Lauro cooked and sampled the dishes from Bakker’s End-Of-Days food buckets in 2015, offering his review in a video that described one of the meals as “one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten in my life.”
Jim Bakker was sued for cashing in on the coronavirus
While the CDC has instructed that one of the best lines of defense against coronavirus is washing your hands, Jim Bakker made headlines when he offered another solution … but for all the wrong reasons.
According to CBS News, The Jim Bakker Show‘s website offered a pseudo-scientific product called “Silver Sol Liquid” — advertised as four 4-ounce bottles for $80 a pop — in February 2020, which claimed to have the ability to diagnose and even cure COVID-19. Naturally, the FDA caught wind of this faux coronavirus treatment and sent a letter warning that these unproven claims were in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. After receiving the FDA’s attempt “to protect consumers from certain products that, without approval or authorization by FDA, claim to mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose or cure COVID-19 in people,” Bakker and Morningside Church Productions were sued by the state of Missouri for being in violation of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act by “falsely promising to consumers that Silver Solution can cure, eliminate, kill or deactivate coronavirus and/or boost elderly consumers’ immune system and help keep them healthy.” The lawsuit also pointed out that there is “no vaccine, pill, potion or other product available” to treat the virus (via CBS News).
Bakker’s not the only celeb to dish out unhelpful advice amid the coronavirus pandemic, but he’s at least since heeded the FDA’s warning to take the liquid silver solution off his website.
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