Mormon Whistleblower Denounces Brother's Media Leaks as Church Responds to $100 Billion Tithing Controversy

This story is being co-published with Religion Unplugged.

SALT LAKE CITY— Reactions rippled across the Internet after stories broke on Religion Unplugged and The Washington Post Monday evening about a whistleblower complaint filed alleged a non-profit supporting organization controlled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints used member tithes to amass more than $100 billion in a set of investment funds.

The whistleblower distanced himself from the public exposure of the case by his twin brother. After pointing reporters to its frequently asked questions about finances on Monday, The LDS Church published a statement on Tuesday and then posted three short videos to YouTube on Friday. And past and present members of the LDS Church discussed the allegations as the story spread through traditional and social media.

Religion Unplugged obtained a 74-page document filed with the Internal Revenue Service in November from Lars Nielsen, a former member of the LDS Church. The document makes several allegations including that Ensign Peak Advisors, Inc. (EPA), grew to more than $100 billion owned assets under management from $10 billion during the past 22 years, fueled by a mix of investment strategy and tithe money from church members. The document alleges EPA did not make charitable distributions but that it did send $2 billion to help two for-profit companies

Response from Whistle Blower

Religion Unplugged had a copy of the Form 211 filed with the IRS whistleblower office on Nov. 15, 2019 in Ogden, Utah, which named the whistleblower as David A. Nielsen, the twin brother of Lars Nielsen. ReligionUnplugged chose not to reveal the name of the whistleblower in its story on Monday. The Washington Post, meanwhile, did reveal David Nielsen's identity in its story the same day. And the whistleblower's identity was published in many places since then. Lars Nielsen also published his 74-page document on Scribd, which has been viewed more than 17,000 times, and published two YouTube videos, which have gained more than 20,000 views each.

On Friday at 6:30 p.m., Religion Unplugged received a statement from David Nielsen by email that said, "No one has been authorized to speak for me, including my brother, Lars Nielsen. Any public disclosure of information that has been in my possession was unauthorized by me. Repeated attempts to dissuade my brother, Lars Nielsen, from making public disclosures have been ignored. I will have no further comment on this matter."

Lars Nielsen told Religion Unplugged that he and David took their faith seriously as well as science seriously growing up in an LDS family. They competed together in science bowls and sports like water polo, David playing goalie and Lars playing fielder. "We always worked together so we weren't directly competing with each other," he said. "It made for a really great dynamic. That continued throughout our lives."

The brothers took classes together as undergraduates at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, often studying as lab partners. They went to separate places for their terms as missionaries for the LDS Church. They both went to elite graduate schools with David obtaining a Master's in Business Administration (MBA) at University of California, Los Angeles and Lars obtaining an MBA and a PhD in Organic Chemistry at Harvard University. The brothers often visited each other by train or Chinatown bus lines between Boston and New York, when Lars was in graduate school and David was working at financial firms in New York such as Goldman Sachs and D.E. Shaw & Co. "It was a great time," Lars said. "We bonded over a lot of things."

Lars said he became disillusioned with the LDS Church and left it eight years ago.

David's LinkedIn profile shows that he worked at Ensign Peak Advisors Inc. in Salt Lake City between 2010 and 2019, where he was a senior portfolio manager. The Washington Post reported that David's job at EPA became complicated in recent months as his wife and children left the LDS Church. The whistleblower complaint noted that David had concerns about some practices at EPA since 2013 and voiced some of those concerns internally. David and Lars worked on a narrative about those issues at EPA in recent months. Lars said he wanted to make those allegations public, while David preferred to file the evidence to the IRS as a whistleblower complaint.

"I realized the ball on this had already started rolling," Lars said, noting that the complaint was submitted to the IRS office in Ogden, Utah, a place with many Mormon residents. "The chance of this being contained are so low... A story as big as this will get out."

Lars said he thought David would also agree to release the materials publicly. He realized his brother had other considerations including his own family. He noted his brother is patient and considers others feelings. "I believe he is acting ethically according to his value system," Lars said. "I have a different value system. It's not like one is better than the other."

Official Church Response

After the stories broke on Monday, the press office of the LDS Church provided a statement in response: "We take seriously the responsibility to care for the tithes and donations received from members. The vast majority of these funds are used immediately to meet the needs of the growing Church including more meetinghouses, temples, education, humanitarian work and missionary efforts throughout the world. Over many years, a portion is methodically safeguarded through wise financial management and the building of a prudent reserve for the future. This is a sound doctrinal and financial principle taught by the Savior in the Parable of the Talents and lived by the Church and its members. All Church funds exist for no other reason than to support the Church's divinely appointed mission," the statement said. "Claims being currently circulated are based on a narrow perspective and limited information. The Church complies with all applicable law governing our donations, investments, taxes, and reserves. We continue to welcome the opportunity to work with officials to address questions they may have."

On Friday evening, the church press office released three short videos on YouTube and emailed a statement and the videos to church members. "It's a very humbling responsibility to take care of those sacred funds," said Gérald Caussé, presiding bishop of the LDS Church, explaining that he and other leaders of the LDS Church have a business background. "Any decision is made in a spirit of prayer. We seek the will of the Lord. We don't want to implement anything that would be ours. We try our best to be instruments in the hands of the Lord."

Caussé explained that the church doesn't want to bury money in the ground but to invest the "sacred funds" to grow. "It's about building a reserve for the church. Ultimately, all of those fund will be used for church purposes. So this is about preparing for the future. This is not expenditures. These are investments," he said. Caussé noted that the church reserve funds are managed by professional, talented investors but "at the end of the day, the main decisions are made by the presiding councils according to the spirit of revelation." Other church leaders said the strength of the church is in the members.

Church leaders and spokespersons didn't address the direct allegations in the media reports this week or in the whistleblower allegations. It did not confirm or deny the amount of money alleged to be managed by Ensign Peak Advisors Inc. It did not address concerns that Ensign Peak Advisors is registered as a non-profit 509a3 supporting organization to the LDS Church but has allegedly not made charitable distributions.

"One of the aspects of being wise stewards and taking care of these sacred resources properly is to diversify," said W. Christopher Waddell, second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric. He suggested both the church and people should diversify their investments, live within their means and have "a financial store of savings for a rainy day." He acknowledged that some tithes are set aside in case of hard economic times. "Over time we know there are cycles. We will have the resources necessary to continue doing this divine work."

Whistleblowing And Excommunication

Whistleblowing is rare within the LDS Church, which champions values such as obedience and loyalty, and teaches that the church president is the mouthpiece of God himself. But fear of retaliation can also be a factor. To question God or the actions of church leaders may be considered apostasy—in Mormonism, a concept similar to heresy—and is grounds for excommunication from the church.

Apostasy, former member Sam Young explains, "is the worst possible sin you can commit. Apostasy is considered worse than murder." Young, the most high-profile LDS whistleblower prior to the EPA revelations, was excommunicated from the LDS Church in September 2018 after he collected and released hundreds of accounts of child molestation and other sexually inappropriate behaviors by members of the church's all-volunteer clergy. According to a letter regarding the decision, Young was excommunicated for "deliberately attacking and publicly opposing the Church and its leaders."

"I didn't feel that I was agitating against the church," Young said. "But that's what they saw. I was speaking out against something in the church."

Young launched an aggressive campaign to end one-on-one meetings between church members and volunteer leaders after learning that a local bishop—similar to the pastor of a single congregation—had asked sexually explicit questions of his then 12-year-old daughter. He later learned that another daughter, who had left the church for unstated reasons in college, had been subjected to similarly explicit questioning by a bishop at church-owned Brigham Young University.

Those excommunicated from the LDS Church are barred from participating in religious rites such as communion. They may not enter the temple, nor may they attend LDS weddings, which take place in the temple. Their own religious status and rituals—baptism, their marriage and any priesthood ordination—are canceled and removed from church records.

Young, who himself served as an LDS bishop prior to his excommunication, doesn't believe the EPA whistleblowers will be subject to excommunication unless they continue to agitate. It was the length of his advocacy—and the publicity that it attracted—that ultimately raised the ire of the regional authorities who removed him from the church.

"I resigned voluntarily some eight years ago," said Lars Nielsen. He said he is not worried that the LDS Church tells Mormon children that their excommunicated fathers will not be their fathers in the afterlife and said some people tell his children that even though he resigned and was not excommunicated. "It used to bother me. It doesn't anymore given how intelligent and discerning my children are," he said.

For his own part, Young said he was shocked by Monday's revelations. "I had no idea they [LDS Church] had that much money," he said, recalling a time during his religious service when he had to fight for the release of $16,000 for the installation of a handicap-accessible bathroom at his church for one of his congregants. He denounced the church for ignoring Christ's teachings about charity and for focusing on "making money...rather than helping the poor and needy."

Among members of the LDS Church, and among the broader Mormon community, reaction to Monday's news has varied considerably. While some expressed feelings of betrayal, others say they are proud to see that their church has amassed a considerable fortune.

"I am comforted by it. It's nice to know that the church is apparently practicing what it preaches, living within your means, saving what you can, investing wisely, and stockpiling supplies for a metaphorical rainy day," said Logan Kearsley, an active member in Utah who indicated he tithes and attends the LDS temple.

A Focus on Tithing

Due perhaps to the volunteer nature of the vast majority of its leadership, beliefs about even core doctrines in the LDS Church can vary widely from one individual to the next. The matter of tithing is no different. In writings now canonized as church scripture, Joseph Smith, the founder of not only the LDS Church but multiple Mormon sects, referred to tithing as a religious "law" that required members to donate all their surplus property upon conversion to the faith, and to contribute 10 percent of their interest annually thereafter for the maintenance of the church. The church no longer requires the donation of "surplus" property, but a 2002 Sunday School manual teaches that members should give 10 percent of their income to the church. The payments are required—on an honor system—for admission to LDS temples, and church teachings imply that those who do not make the payments will not attain the highest-possible rewards from God on Earth or in heaven.

But there is some variation among church members when it comes to their beliefs about the purpose of these tithes. Some believe the tithes are a form of charitable giving, in line with Christ's Biblical teachings, to be used for humanitarian purposes. Others believe tithes are paid directly to the church, for the maintenance and purposes of the church, in addition to the Christian mandate to donate charity for the welfare of humanity. They say tithing is a sign of faith in obedience to God, more than an act of humanitarianism.

"Tithing is about me and how I feel about God," said Riley Rackliffe, an active member of the church who grew up in Utah. "Not about building chapels or printing hymnals or paying for scout camps. It does pay for all those things, but that's not why I pay it." For those who viewed tithes as an act of faith or obedience, the size of the church's fortunes is not only acceptable, but gratifying. Others, particularly those who understood tithing to be humanitarian giving, were more likely to express disappointment.

Reactions to the News of Ensign Peak Advisors, Inc.

Chloe Jones, a former member of the LDS Church who is now attending graduate school at Arizona State University, said this week's news has caused similar tensions in her own family—parts of which left when she was 14 years old, while others continued to practice.

Jones said her family struggled financially prior to leaving the church, in part because of pressure to make tithing payments despite being unable to buy enough food for the family. She said she felt frustrated to know that the church was sitting on a large amount of money. "We often would go on spending freezes and eat at my granny's, and they still had to pay 10 percent of their income to the church," she said. She said she too payed tithing on money she earned babysitting but didn't understand the practice.

News of the church's fortune and spending habits, she said, would "add tension to family gatherings during the holidays, especially in big families like mine where some of us have left and some of us haven't."

Troy Marsh, a physical therapist who lives outside of Salt Lake City, said he attends both LDS Church meetings, and other churches. To learn of the church's "huge" surplus surprised but did not alarm him, though he said he would like to see the church do more humanitarian work with its funds than it apparently has. "Tithing as a principle is universally a good thing," he said. "It's a way of sharing with others. I pay tithing because I love my neighbors, which includes all people."

He said he would like to see more done to "uplift humankind" and invest in causes like affordable housing, clean water and education. He said he wouldn't change the amount he pays to the church as a result of the news, but said he would like to see more transparency from the church. "I think it's important....to know the money is going to a good place," he said. "Not to line the pockets of the bureaucracy."

As a former bishop, Young said it was his understanding—and his teaching—that tithes were charitable contributions that would be used to maintain the church and to support other humanitarian efforts. "To take those donations and buy a mall—no, you don't do that," he said. "That's not where the tithing money is supposed to go."

Yet even some who view tithing as a sacrifice dedicated to God, rather than humanitarian giving, said reports of the church's wealth did change the way they felt about making donations to it.

Michelle Quist, a popular political columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune, wrote on Twitter that she felt "deflated" by news that the church had $100 billion in an investment account. "My reaction was, oh, man, that's a whole lot of money," she said. "They don't need my money. They really, really don't need my money."

Quist, who has a day job as an attorney, is a single mother raising seven children. She said she pays her tithing in six-month chunks and had just sent her latest check when the news broke. "I had just sent this big check, and then I see this number. And I know all these things just came up that are going to make it difficult to balance my own budget this month. Just thinking about that check I sent, is just hard."

Quist said she was OK with the church saving money and even using their funds to buy a mall if that's what they want. But she said she would have a hard time donating the next time the church asks for additional funds for a humanitarian cause. "Tithing I understand," she said, "but it's the request beyond tithing—there's always the request to join the refugee thing this month, or help people specific to our neighborhood, or whatever the issue is at the moment. Which I want to do that, but why are they asking me, the single mom of seven, when we have a hundred billion just sitting there?"

Utah As LDS Epicenter

In Utah, the wealth and influence of the LDS Church has long been accepted as a fact of life—one that often draws considerable criticism. Some people compare Salt Lake City to Mormonism what the Vatican in Rome is to Catholicism.

A 2016 survey by The Salt Lake Tribune determined that roughly nine in ten representatives in Utah's state legislature are members of the LDS Church; comparatively, Utah's population is estimated at roughly 50 percent LDS. That year, church influence was attributed to the death of a hate crimes bill in the state legislature that abruptly lost momentum when the church issued a rare public statement criticizing it. This year, after state lawmakers collaborated with the church to craft a ban on conversion therapy for sexual minorities, the church dampened hopes of ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment when it indicated its opposition to the initiative remained unchanged.

At the municipal level, the LDS Church used both its clout and its wealth to purchase chunks of Salt Lake City's Main Street—including the actual street itself—construct a plaza to facilitate foot traffic between church-owned properties near Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City. A few years later, the church began construction of the City Creek Center, an open-air mall across the street from Temple Square, with the stated goal of revitalizing the downtown area that is home to the church's worldwide headquarters. Though the church has stated that tithing and other nonprofit donations were not used in the construction of the mall, the recent leak regarding the church's investment activities alleges otherwise.

The whistleblower complaint alleges that $1.4 billion of funding from EPA did go toward the mall project and came from a funding pool that included tithing dollars. A slide from an EPA internal presentation dated March 2013 and titled "Framework and Exposures" indicates $1.4 million was paid to the City Creek project over five years.

The issue of City Creek was especially onerous to Emily Hayes, a Salt Lake-area real estate agent and former church member. The construction of the mall, she said, did little to help with Salt Lake's affordable housing crisis, and may have even exacerbated it. "It was a great thing to revitalize the downtown area," she said, "but what it brought in, most people can't afford."

Hayes said she was shocked to learn how much money the church had, and while others long suspected the church was using donations to fund City Creek, she said she never assumed the organization would be so brazen as to lie about the source of its funds for the project. After this week's revelations, she said she thought the church needed to give the money back to the community, in the form of investments in affordable housing or a homeless shelter. "We're taught to give our wealth away, we're supposed to tithe 10% per year, and they're not even tithing half a percent," she said. "I think it's a scam, at this point."

Although she personally left the church four years ago, Hayes said she has tried to sound the alarm among members of her family who continue to practice within the faith. Some of her family, she said, refuses to even talk about it.

Fodder for Critics and Political Opponents

Cheryl Nunn, a financial advisor by trade and current candidate for state legislative office said she suspected, based on her analysis, that the LDS Church was contributing as little as 1.75 percent of its revenue to humanitarian causes. "What is surprising is the level of dishonesty involved. Telling members that they did not use their contributions to bail out their for-profit businesses like the extravagant City Creek Mall with high-end stores only wealthy people can patronize.... I hurt to think of all the poor and needy that these funds were donated by the generous members of the LDS Church to help."

Nunn, a former member of the church who left only recently after the publication in 2015 of an internal policy that banned the baptism of children of same-sex couples, said she also felt personally betrayed "for all the decades of tithing I paid to the Mormon Church as a member." She said she hoped this week's revelations would decrease the church's influence in Utah. "The church weighs in on almost every one of our important bills," she said. "That weight is much less credible now that the truth about their fraud on tithing paying members has been exposed."

But current state senator Luz Escamilla expressed faith that Utah residents, at least, would look beyond the matter of religion when considering the performance of their elected officials. Escamilla, an actively practicing member of the LDS Church, came under fire this summer while running for mayor in Salt Lake City, where practicing members of the church are the minority. Political opponents insinuated that electing Escamilla would increase the power of the LDS Church in Salt Lake City. Escamilla ultimately lost the election.

"I believe that the votes of my district consider my effectiveness as a legislator, rather than my personal faith, when casting their votes," she said Friday in a statement. For herself, Escamilla said she wouldn't speculate on the church's financial position or activities. "The documents filed with the IRS are generating a lot of speculation, but there is very little concrete information available."

Why Lars Nielsen Went Public

Lars Nielsen says that when he was younger he took Mormonism very seriously. "I wanted to go to the highest degree of the celestial kingdom. I wondered if I could do even better than that," he told Religion Unplugged. Over time, he said he became disillusioned with the LDS Church and the conflict between science and religion.

He said he stopped worrying about reactions from the church, friends and family in the decade since he resigned from the church. And he says he decided to expose the allegations about EPA because he was concerned for his brother as well as for LDS church members and U.S. taxpayers.

"My calculus was, look, there are millions of American taxpayers out there. Each one of them has a voice or a share in this whole unfolding," he said. "I was just wrecked by this. There is just no way that I could sleep knowing that these people I knew about and cared about started giving money to a church," he said. He recalled, at age 19, "I was telling them as a Mormon missionary that they have to give more."

Paul Glader is executive editor of ReligionUnplugged and is on Twitter @PaulGlader. Emma Penrod is a journalist based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - DECEMBER 17: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, historic Mormon Salt Lake Temple is shown here with Christmas light display on December 17, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. A inside whistle blower has alleged the Mormon Church misled members on how a $100 billion investment fund was used. George Frey/Getty Images/Getty