The T Stands For Troubled

In his white pants and dark blue blazer, religious broadcaster Paul Crouch always looks on camera as if he had just stepped off a yacht. He is, in fact, an expert navigator in the perilous seas of televangelism. While other TV evangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart drown in disgrace, the low-key Crouch has cruised to the top of religious broadcasting. His Trinity Broadcasting Network, with more than 285 stations, is the largest purveyor of religious programming in the world.

But now Crouch and his broadcast empire are threatened by two lawsuits and a Federal Communications Commission investigation. The FCC is looking into allegations that Crouch attempted through a "sham front" to acquire more commercial stations than the 12 allowed by law. (His other broadcasting properties are educational or low-power stations not covered by FCC limitations.) In Texas, parents of a teenage boy are suing Crouch and a fellow evangelist in an alleged sex-for-drugs scandal on property owned by the broadcaster. In California, TBN's former personnel director has sued Crouch, charging that she, her husband and son were fired because she would not go along with allegedly illegal and unethical practices.

The major issue in front of the FCC concerns a TBN affiliate, Trinity Broadcasting of Florida, which is seeking to renew its license for WHFT, a commercial station in Miami. In a challenge to that renewal, Glendale Broadcasting Co. charges that TBN has owned more commercial stations than the FCC allows through another company, National Minority TV, Inc. The question the FCC must decide is whether NMTV is controlled by a majority of minority members, as the commission requires, or whether it is a ruse established by Crouch to acquire additional commercial stations for himself. The four directors of National Minority TV are Crouch, who is white; his administrative assistant, Jane Duff, a black woman; the Rev. E.V. Hill, a prominent black pastor from Los Angeles, and Phillip Aguilar, a Hispanic who heads Set-Free Christian Fellowship, a ministry that rehabilitates drug addicts and is supported by TBN. Glendale claims that Duff and Aguilar are mere "figureheads," and asks the FCC to determine whether TBN itself "is qualified to remain a commission licensee."

In Tarrant County, Texas, meanwhile, Crouch and Aguilar are defendants in a lawsuit which claims that 17-year-old Ryan Brewer was given crack in return for sex with a male counselor while undergoing drug rehabilitation. The incident allegedly occurred in a program run by Aguilar's Set-Free ministry on land owned by Crouch in Colleyville. Crouch's ministry maintains that the suit is a "meritless ploy to attract publicity."

In Orange County, Calif., where TBN is based, Ruth Ward has filed a suit alleging that Crouch routinely lightened the payroll by shifting more than 50 full-time employees to the status of independent contractors. In this way, the former personnel manager says, TBN sought to avoid social-security and tax deductions. "Even if a person works every day of the year with the exception of one week, I want them on independent contract," Ward quotes Crouch as demanding, Demoted in 1990 to the mail room, Ward alleges she discovered another apparently unethical practice: cheeks that she believed should have been directed to the other ministers who buy time on TBN and solicit donations for various projects were deposited in the network's account. "All of the allegations have been denied," says TBN attorney Colby May. "These kinds of suits are brought every day."

Despite Crouch's clean-cut image on air, some of his business practices have long raised eyebrows within the broadcasting industry. Among them is Crouch's habit of ordaining his station managers as ministers, which allows them to deduct their housing expenses as parsonages-and permits Crouch to pay them lower salaries. According to Ward, who was also TBN's payroll manager, Crouch and his wife supplement their combined annual salaries of $150,000 by charging almost everything they use-their three homes, living expenses, fleet of cars and a corporate jet-to their not-for-profit ministry. The Crouches, however, remain at least outwardly unruffled by the allegations surrounding them. They are busy extending their network. During a recent taping of his flagship talk show, "Praise the Lord," Paul and his wife, Jan, boasted about their recent trip to Moscow. The good news was that somewhere in Russia they have another station under construction.