By GILLIAN FLACCUS
COSTA MESA, Calif. (AP) - Televangelists Paul and Jan Crouch have faced plenty of mountains building their religious broadcast empire _ among them allegations of a homosexual tryst and a prolonged battle with the Federal Communications Commission _ but the most recent attack on the founders of Trinity Broadcasting Network comes from their own flesh and blood.
Their granddaughter, Brittany Koper, recently filed court papers that include allegations of $50 million in financial shenanigans at the world's largest Christian broadcasting network. Her suit was followed by another from a Koper in-law, who detailed opulent spending at the network on items such as private jets, mansions in California, Tennessee and Florida and a $100,000 mobile home for Jan Crouch's dogs.
The lawsuits came after Koper's husband was accused by a debt collection company of embezzling more than $1 million from TBN. The debt collection company that filed the lawsuit later added the Crouches' granddaughter and two of her in-laws as defendants.
The outbreak of legal skirmish offers a rare window into the secretive world of the sprawling religious non-profit and exposes a family feud that could draw more outside scrutiny of TBN. Attorneys from both sides say they have contacted police and the Internal Revenue Service.
The Crouches founded TBN in 1973 and grew it into an international Christian empire that beams prosperity gospel programming _ which promises that if the faithful sacrifice for their belief, God will reward them with material wealth _ to every continent but Antarctica 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It has 78 satellites and more than 18,000 television and cable affiliates and owns seven other networks, as well as its headquarters in Costa Mesa in Orange County, an estate outside Nashville called Trinity Music City, USA and the Holy Land Experience, a Christian amusement park in Orlando.
On any given day _ or night _ viewers from the United States to India can watch Christian-inspired news updates, documentaries, movies, talk shows and sermons by preachers such as Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes and Dr. Creflo Dollar without leaving their armchairs.
The lawsuit attention comes at a bad time for TBN, which has seen viewer donations drop steeply. TBN raked in $92 million in donations in 2010 and cleared $175 million in tax-free revenue, but its net income plummeted from nearly $60 million in 2006 to a loss of $18 million in 2010, the most recent year available. Donations fell by nearly $30 million in the same period _ a hit the network blames on the bad economy.
At the same time, Koper's father _ the eldest Crouch son _ resigned abruptly as vice president and chief-of-staff late last year. The unexplained departure of Paul Crouch Jr. roughly coincided with his daughter's legal battle and came just months after he launched iTBN, a project to expand the network's online and mobile reach.
TBN places a premium on privacy and it's almost impossible to divine what is going on behind the scenes. Yet televangelist empires built largely on charisma often encounter choppy waters as their founding personalities age.
"It's true that in these large ministries, they do become family enterprises ... and in many ways that can be a most precarious problem for them," said David E. Harrell, a professor emeritus of American religion at Auburn University, who has written about well-known televangelists. "Business squabbles, if they're complicated with family squabbles, can get nasty indeed."
TBN referred requests for comment to its attorney, Colby M. May. Crouch Jr. did not return a call.
May dismissed the idea of family turmoil and said the reason behind the legal fight was simple: Koper and her husband stole from the network.
"They're attempting to create a diversion and to create as much public spectacle as they can in the vain hope that this will all get resolved and that's simply not going to happen," he said.
TBN's reach and programming are expansive, but what is more impressive is the amount of money it receives from viewers _ even in a downturn.
During TBN's Praise-A-Thon earlier this month, a preacher exhorted viewers to bellow "Fear not!" three times, count down from 10 and then rush to the phone with donations. In exchange, he said, they would receive a miracle from God "about this time tomorrow." Within seconds, all 200 phone lines were busy.
Ministry watchdogs have long questioned how TBN _ which declared more than $800 million in net assets in 2010 _ spends that wealth.