San Diego-Based Evangelist Accused of Evading Taxes
By Seth Hettena
A federal grand jury on Tuesday indicted the head of a worldwide evangelical movement on charges of income tax evasion.
Morris Cerullo, president of Morris Cerullo World Evangelism, misstated his income by $550,000 between 1998 and 2000, according to the indictment. Cerullo was charged with three counts of filing false tax returns, each of which carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a $100,000 penalty.
Arrangements were being made for Cerullo’s surrender, said Assistant U.S. Attorney George Hardy.
Cerullo, an evangelist known for his cable network and worldwide crusades, could not be reached for comment. His defense attorney, Greg Vega, a former U.S. Attorney in San Diego, said Cerullo looked forward to an opportunity to respond to the allegations in court.
“After three years of investigation of both (Cerullo) and his ministry, he is pleased that the IRS has found nothing to be inappropriate in the operation of the ministry,” Vega said.
Two former executives of the San Diego-based ministry have sued Cerullo saying they were fired after they complained about Cerullo’s fund-raising practices. When former senior executive John Paul Warren filed suit in 2001, his lawyers claimed at the time. Cerullo lived in a mansion in the exclusive San Diego-area community of Rancho Santa Fe and owned a jet with a gold-plated interior. Several employees had reported possible criminal violations to the Internal Revenue Service, according to the lawyers, who did not return calls seeking comment.
“All who partake in this country’s benefits have a responsibility to pay their taxes, and there are no self-bestowed exemptions,” said U.S. Attorney Carol Lam.
Cerullo’s ministry says it has offices in Canada, Mexico, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa and it claims to have trained more than 1 million people in Christian proselytizing.
He bought PTL television network and Heritage USA theme park in 1990, three years after the park closed amid the sex and money scandal that engulfed PTL founder Jim Bakker.
Cerullo, who claims he was living in a Jewish orphanage when he became a Christian at the age of 14 ‚ ½, drew fire in 2000 from Jewish groups for deceptive advertising about a made-for-TV film, “The Rabbi,” that ended with the lead character converting to Christianity.
In 1992, authorities in India ordered Cerullo to leave the country after he was nearly lynched by an angry mob. Cerullo worked a crowd of 30,000 ” “ many of them sick ” “ into a frenzy for two hours and then pronounced them cured, prompting many in the crowd to call him a cheat.