Oral Roberts Shaken by Scandal

In December 2005, Tim Brooker, a government professor at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., was summoned to meet with Richard Roberts, the evangelical institution's president and son of its founder. They got together in the spectacular penthouse suite of CityPlex, a soaring 60-story tower built by Oral Roberts, who had raised millions as a Christian televangelist. When Brooker entered, he says, Richard Roberts greeted him with outstretched arms and said, "I'm now taking you into my confidence." Brooker thought to himself, "This is freaking weird," but sat down to hear what his host had to say. According to Brooker, Roberts asked him to mobilize his students to help the Tulsa mayoral campaign of Republican candidate Randi Miller. Though Brooker's students had in the past worked on numerous political campaigns, that activity had always been voluntary and out-of-state. Brooker's longstanding mantra: "We don't do local politics because it turns neighbors into enemies." Plus, using ORU resources for political advocacy threatened the institution's nonprofit status. But Brooker says Roberts was so insistent that he felt he had little choice but to assent.

That exchange unleashed a series of events that have plunged the university, some of its professors and the Roberts family into a cauldron of lurid accusations and litigation. Brooker and two of his colleagues in the department of history, humanities and government--his wife, Prof. Paulita Brooker, and John Swails, the department chair--allege that ORU forced them out to cover up Roberts's misdeeds. Earlier this month, the trio sued the university, its board and some of its officers, alleging breach of contract, wrongful discharge and libel, among other things. On Wednesday, Roberts announced that he was taking a leave of absence, and the chairman of the Board of Regents said an independent investigation into the lawsuit's allegations was being launched. "The untrue allegations have struck a terrible blow in my heart," said Roberts. But "I will give myself afresh and anew to my family and to prayer and the word of God."

How did things get so nasty? After his meeting with Roberts, Brooker encouraged his students to volunteer for Miller. While many stepped up enthusiastically, one of them, senior Cornell Cross II, says Brooker made clear that there was pressure from on high to do so. Before long, though, Miller's campaign ran out of money and faltered (she lost in the GOP primary). Moreover, says Brooker, some students felt mistreated by another university employee involved in the campaign, Stephanie Cantees. The sister of Roberts's wife, Lindsay, Cantees was ORU's community and government-affairs liaison and had a dictatorial streak, according to Brooker (a university spokesman declined to make Cantees or any other family member, administrator or regent available for comment). All of this prompted the students to leave the campaign in early 2006.

Before departing, however, one student happened to come into possession of documents that would prove scandalous. The student had backed-up the files on Cantees's laptop on a CD as a precaution. At some point in the ensuing months, he examined the CD's contents and printed out some of the documents. He handed them over to Brooker, who then shared them with Swails, the department chair.

Swails says he read the files, which are included in his lawsuit, with "stunned amazement." They appeared to be a confidential, detailed assessment of alleged legal and ethical vulnerabilities that the Roberts family faced (the couple has three daughters, ages 18, 20 and 22). What emerged was a portrait of an extravagant lifestyle largely underwritten by university funds: a private jet often used for personal travel, including a senior trip to Orlando for one of the Roberts girls; shopping binges by Roberts's wife, Lindsay, that totaled tens of thousands of dollars; 11 renovations in 14 years to the Roberts home on campus, and a stable of horses for the kids. More disturbingly, the reports included suggestions of sexual improprieties by Lindsay with underage young men. She allegedly spent the night with an underage male at a university guest house on nine occasions and repeatedly drove around with and sent text messages to underage boys late at night, far past the citywide curfew. A university spokesman declined to comment about these documents. Lindsay Roberts issued a statement saying, "I live my life in a morally upright manner and throughout my marriage have never, ever engaged in any sexual behavior with any man outside of my marriage, as the accusations imply." Richard Roberts also issued a statement: "The untrue allegations of sexual misconduct by my wife have hurt the most."

Though Swails says he "hoped and wished the allegations were all false," he felt obligated to turn over the files to the university administration, which he did in April 2006. He received no response. Meanwhile, a separate problem was brewing for ORU. In May that year, the university received a letter from the IRS that made inquiries about whether ORU had engaged in inappropriate political activities in connection with Randi Miller's mayoral campaign. In drafting a response, says Brooker, ORU's provost called him in and pressured him to draft a response that excluded any mention of Roberts's pushing for student involvement in the campaign. Eventually, the matter was settled; the IRS made "recommendations to address certain deficiencies," and "ORU has complied," according to a university spokesman, who declined to address Brooker's allegations. Brooker says that thereafter, his relationship with the ORU brass deteriorated.

Things quieted down until this summer, when Swails and Brooker began to hear rumors that additional copies of the Cantees documents were circulating among students. Once again, Swails says he sought to alert university leaders, this time contacting a member of the Board of Regents. Again, nothing happened--except that now Swails got the feeling that he too had poisoned his relationship with the ORU administration. He soon discovered he was right. Already, the university had dismissed Paulita Brooker at the end of May. Then in July, Swails was told to fire Brooker, who tendered his resignation. And in August, Swails himself was fired, after being pulled out of class and summoned to his office, where the provost awaited him with two armed security guards, he says. (The plaintiffs maintain that they never got an adequate explanation for why they were dismissed; a university spokesman declined to comment.)

Given the swirl of allegations that have now engulfed ORU, many students on campus are jittery. "My degree has been severely devalued," says Cross, the government student who worked on the Miller campaign. He says he's even considering suing ORU himself to recover his tuition, loans and costs of attendance--an $80,000 investment, by his tally. Some students are incensed by the Roberts's lavish lifestyle. "You can see all the excesses around you here," says Michael Branscum, who graduated from ORU last year. And yet, he says, university officials are constantly asking students to dig deeper into their pockets because of the institution's financial difficulties. Some of his friends have had to abandon their studies because they couldn't make ends meet. "That got to me the most," he says.

One person who says she observed the Roberts's profligate spending up-close is Suzanne Culpepper. After hearing news of the lawsuit, she decided to come forward to recount her time working as a nanny for the Robertses one summer in the late 1980s, when she was an ORU student. Fed up with hearing the Robertses complain about the university's financial hardship at the time, she snooped around their walk-in closet one night while the couple was out and the kids were asleep. It was "bigger than the one-bedroom apartment I live in now," says Culpepper. She counted 275 pairs of shoes for Lindsay, all arranged by color, three rows of dresses and "tons of jewelry." On Richard's side, there were 160 suits, 454 ties and 18 pairs of golf shoes. (A university spokesman declined to respond to a request for comment on Culpepper's description.) "I had a righteous anger to an injustice," she says. "It is so sad that people have been misled, but the truth is coming out." Until the Robertses get a chance to respond with their own version of events, they're surely praying as fervently as ever.