February 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

Officials at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) may have violated federal tax law by stockpiling $100 billion in donations instead of using the money for charitable purposes, a whistleblower has alleged.

A complaint forwarded to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) by a former investment manager maintains that church officials misled members by amassing the donations or using some of them to prop up LDS-owned businesses.

The Washington Post reported that the complaint was filed by David A. Nielsen, a church member who worked as a senior portfolio manager in Ensign Peak Advisors, the church’s investment division.

In his complaint, Nielsen maintains that while Ensign is a tax-free division of the LDS church, it does not operate exclusively for religious, educational or other charitable purposes, as federal tax law requires.

Nielsen and his twin brother, Lars P. Nielsen, worked together on the complaint.

 “Having seen tens of billions in contributions and scores more in investment returns come in, and having seen nothing except two unlawful distributions to for-profit concerns go out, he was dejected beyond words, and so was I,” Lars Nielsen told The Post in a statement.

Members of the LDS church are expected to tithe 10 percent of their income. The complaint states that the church collects about $7 billion annually from tithes and other donations. Of that, $6 billion is used to pay the church’s operating expen­ses, and the remaining $1 billion is transferred to Ensign, which invests it.

Thanks to Ensign’s investments, the church’s portfolio has grown from $12 billion in 1997 to $100 billion today. David Nielsen’s complaint asserts that while Ensign has helped the church amass this great wealth, it has not funded any religious or charitable activities.

The Post retained Philip Hackney, a former IRS official who teaches tax law at the University of Pittsburgh, to review the complaint. Hackney concluded that it raised “legitimate concern” about whether Ensign should hold tax-exempt status.

“If you have a charity that simply amasses a war chest year after year and does not spend any money for charity purposes, that does not meet the requirements of tax law,” Hackney told the newspaper.

Church officials issued a statement saying that the Utah-based LDS church “complies with all applicable law governing our donations, investments, taxes and reserves.” It asserted that the whistleblower complaints are based on “a narrow perspective and limited information.”

The officials added that they “take seriously the responsibility to care for the tithes and donations received from members.”