Ole Anthony wants both to take down the world's largest Christian TV network and to make better waffles.
Ole Anthony stands in the kitchen of a 1930s two-story Prairie-style house in East Dallas, whipping cream and mixing waffle batter. He walks into a living room that has been converted into a large dining room with several tables topped with vinyl tablecloths, white paper napkins, and forks and knives, and he eyes the sunlight streaming through a window. He asks if we can chat outside. It’s the type of morning “people move to Texas for,” and he would like to smoke his pipe before the members of his church and nonprofit investigative team arrive for Saturday morning brunch.
Anthony helped start the Trinity Foundation 40 years ago this month. The organization has two parts. One is a religious organization known as the Community on Columbia that Anthony describes as a “first-century church” with maybe 70 active members. Some of the members live on Columbia Avenue and gather daily for Bible study and conversation. The other part is the nonprofit investigative arm that looks into the finances of churches and televangelists. It has about 400 donors worldwide.
Though Anthony claims to be “older than dirt,” he is spry, and his 6-foot-4 frame easily sinks into a white plastic chair on the porch. He pulls up another chair for his feet, lights his pipe, and starts talking. “We’re the only group, as far as I know, in America, maybe the world, that routinely investigates religious fraud,” he says of the Trinity Foundation, which pays him $55 a week, plus room and board. “And yet there’s more fraud in the name of God than any other fraud in the world.”
Over the years, operatives of Anthony’s foundation have combed through trash and embedded themselves with televangelists to investigate their financial dealings. The Trinity Foundation has had many coups over the years, but probably the most well-known case involved Farmers Branch televangelist Robert Tilton in the early ’90s. By diving through his Dumpster, the foundation discovered prayer cards that were tossed in the trash (the money in those cards, however, found its way to Tilton’s organization). The investigation was spurred on by the request of Diane Sawyer, who aired it on Primetime Live.
More recently, Anthony’s foundation completed a six-year project for the Senate Finance Committee, which asked the organization to look into abuses of the tax code in religious nonprofits. The foundation turned in 38 reports, which will soon be released publicly.
But Anthony’s current case may be his biggest. His target is the Trinity Broadcasting Network, or TBN, the largest Christian television network in the world. Based in Costa Mesa, California, TBN has a mammoth production facility in Irving, and it has stations and satellite signals capable of reaching hundreds of millions of people all over the globe. Anthony didn’t have to send an informant into the organization to get the dirt; the granddaughter of the organization’s founders sought him out.
After five years working her way up within the network, Brittany Koper was appointed chief financial officer of TBN in June 2011. She soon discovered what looked to her like improprieties. She now alleges that the family unlawfully distributed millions of dollars to itself, purchased a $50 million jet that was used for personal travel, bought a $100,000 motor home for a family dog, and more. When Koper brought her concerns to company management, she was fired. Then TBN filed six lawsuits against her, accusing her of stealing money, among other things. (Koper’s younger sister recently alleged she was raped by a TBN staff member when she was 13.) Koper called Anthony, “which was a miracle,” he says, “because those people think I’m the Antichrist.” She asked him to help her find attorneys who would be willing to take her case on a contingency-fee basis. He started as her spokesman and is now her investigator.
One recommendation he made was that she stop talking to the media. She was hurting her case and being accused of trying to argue it in the press. Anthony is working with a couple of networks that want to air the story about TBN, but the timing isn’t yet right. This month, a U.S. District Court judge in California will decide whether the case should go to federal court. After that, the cameras and the press will be welcome.
Ole Anthony is 74 years old. The investigation into TBN will probably be his last. He says the Trinity Foundation will flourish under the leadership of lead investigator Pete Evans. He thinks that instead of Dumpster diving, he’ll lead Bible studies at some of the churches around the country that have spun off from the Community on Columbia.
“I don’t understand the word ‘retire,’ ” he says. “Retire from what? Doing what I want to do?”
What he wants to do is help the homeless, have intellectual conversations with the members of the church, and keep people—particularly televangelists—honest. But right now what he really wants to do is make some waffles.