Falwell Finally 'Fesses Up, Sort of

TV preacher Jerry Falwell offered up a partial confession of sorts this weekend regarding his run-in with the Internal Revenue Service in the 1990s.

On Sunday afternoon, Falwell debated Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn on Fox News Live about the role of churches in politics. The exchange focused on a "summit" on "politics and the pulpit" that Falwell has scheduled in September during his yearly conference for pastors at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. The controversial televangelist plans to provide pastors with advice on how they can engage in political campaigns without jeopardizing their churches' tax exemptions.

Lynn questioned whether Falwell was the ideal person to provide such advice, noting that the TV preacher agreed to pay $50,000 in back taxes as part of a 1993 settlement agreement reached after an IRS investigation of Falwell's Old Time Gospel Hour. The IRS revoked the tax exemption of the TV ministry for the years 1986 and 1987 after concluding that resources had been improperly shifted to a political action committee devoted to electing social conservatives to public office.

After being confronted on Fox with these facts, Falwell sputtered, "Old Time Gospel Hour of the 1980s -- that's a television program, 48 years old, operated to this present day -- is still tax exempt. We went through four and half years of audits and our attorneys and the IRS attorneys agreed that they would settle if we would pay $50,000 in taxes rather than a million dollars continuing legal fees. We did that, consenting nor denying under any agreement."

In two previous television debates with AU staff members, Falwell had flatly denied that any of his ministries had ever lost their tax exemptions for illegal politicking. On CNBC's "Capital Report" July 2, Falwell insisted that the Old Time Gospel Hour had "never" lost its tax exemption and indignantly thundered, "You are telling a lie right now, Barry."

To make sure viewers knew the truth this time, Lynn brandished a Feb. 17, 1993, public statement issued by Falwell announcing that settlement agreement. The bottom line, Lynn told Fox viewers, is that one of Falwell's organizations lost its tax-exempt status for illegal politicking and paid a steep price for doing so. In that letter, Falwell wrote, "Accordingly, OTGH agrees to the two-year revocation of tax exempt status, based on the IRS finding that it engaged in political activity and the payment of $50,000 for tax deficiencies."

Americans United is asking the IRS to take another look at Falwell's activities. AU said a recent Falwell endorsement of presidential candidate George W. Bush distributed by Jerry Falwell Ministries appears to violate federal tax law.

As for the Falwell conference on church electioneering, Lynn is advising pastors to skip it. "The scriptures say, if the blind lead the blind, they both will fall into the ditch," Lynn told The Washington Post. "Or in this case, the hands of the IRS."