Judge flags preacher's use of donations

Miami, USA - Testimony in divorce court about the tangled finances of controversial preacher Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda has prompted a judge to alert the feds about his ministry's operations.

The Miami-based preacher who has basked in international attention since declaring himself the second coming of Jesus Christ has used charitable donations to his ministry for personal expenses -- paying $144,000 a year in alimony to his first wife and buying property in his and his relatives' names.

Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda disclosed details of the previously secret financial workings of his church through sworn testimony last month in an increasingly nasty divorce from his second wife.

The revelations from the witness stand, which experts say suggest violations of federal law, prompted a Miami-Dade circuit judge to send a transcript to federal prosecutors this month with a letter saying he was ''ethically compelled'' to bring it to their attention. The U.S. attorney in Miami has confirmed opening an investigation.

To add to his earthly tribulations, De Jesus received a letter from the IRS earlier this month informing him that his personal taxes for the past three years will be audited, said JoAnn De Jesus, the preacher's daughter and ministry's finance manager.

''We're not doing anything wrong,'' said JoAnn, 36. ``My father loves this ministry and would never do anything against it.''

De Jesus, 61, declined to be interviewed for this article. Instead, JoAnn and two of the ministry's board members answered questions. All three said the ministry has done nothing wrong.

''We have been growing so fast. If we made mistakes in the past . . . they were honest mistakes,'' said Alvaro Albarracin, 38, a board member.

Testimony and depositions in the divorce case show that De Jesus has routinely used donations to his ministry's 300 churches worldwide -- from small sums collected from followers in Latin America to $5.5 million from a Colombian benefactor -- to bankroll his personal life.

''I really don't know where the personal property starts and where the church property ends,'' Judge Roberto M. Pineiro said from the bench, according to a transcript of a May 16 hearing.

The once-inconspicuous sect called Growing in Grace, which De Jesus founded 20 years ago, proclaims sin doesn't exist and declared him the Antichrist. Church leaders say it's gaining followers, and that 2007 donations have already exceeded the $2 million raised in 2006.


The details that disturbed Pineiro came to light during the May 16 hearing to set a temporary alimony for De Jesus' second wife, Josefina De Jesus Torres. Among the ''problems'' cited by the judge and gleaned from testimony by De Jesus and JoAnn:

• A Bogotá bank account in De Jesus' name is fed by tithes to the Colombia branch of the church but has paid $4,000 a month in personal living expenses for Torres and her four children from two previous relationships. De Jesus testified he also recently used the account to give Torres $4,800 to furnish an apartment in her native Baranquilla, to buy her a $17,000 Renault and to put up $60,000 for her 12-story condo project in Colombia.

• An apartment in Bogotá was purchased with $117,000 of the ministry's cash but lists De Jesus as the owner.

• A $365,000 house near Houston that De Jesus lives in is titled in his daughter's name, but the $80,000 down payment came from church funds and a gift from a church employee. The church pays the $2,200 monthly mortgage.

• The ministry put a $100,000 deposit on a preconstruction contract for a five-bedroom, $600,000 house in Miramar where De Jesus will live when he's in South Florida. The deal is in JoAnn's name.

• In 2003 and 2004, De Jesus, who also calls himself the Apostle, claimed total losses of $380,699 from a restaurant venture with two church members. But JoAnn testified that her father didn't invest any money in Apo's Cafe in Virginia Gardens, and that his 65 percent share was a gift from his partners.

The business went bust and the church bought the land for $2.9 million from the company from which the cafe's partners had leased it, according to records. The ministry now has a deal to sell the land for $3.8 million, according to testimony and interviews.

''Well, the Apostle takes the loss, but the church takes the profit,'' Pineiro said from the bench. He set temporary support for Torres at $15,000 per month, upping De Jesus' monthly alimony obligations to $27,000.

Growing in Grace vaulted into the international media spotlight during the past two years after De Jesus declared himself the second coming of Jesus. Later, he added the title Antichrist to his portfolio. He and some followers got ''666'' tattoos -- the biblical ``mark of the beast.''

De Jesus has said his teachings supersede the teachings of the historical Jesus. Several countries, including Guatemala, have banned De Jesus.

Donations have increased with the media attention -- which has included segments on CNN and ABC News as well as articles in Newsweek, The Miami Herald and The New York Times.

But the divorce case, which names the ministry as a co-respondent, could bring a different shade of limelight.

De Jesus has yet to turn over most of the tax returns and bank statements requested by Torres' lawyer, Oscar E. Sanchez. But testimony and the few records filed show that the preacher is accustomed to such perks as a BMW, a Mercedes, gambling trips and Rolexes, all paid for or donated by his followers.

Until this year, De Jesus never drew a salary from the church, according to JoAnn's deposition. Instead, he deposited donations made directly to him into a personal bank account. In 2005, money earmarked for De Jesus flowed in faster than before, JoAnn testified, bloating his income to $541,605.

JoAnn told the court the resulting income taxes were ''obscene,'' but De Jesus has not provided the court with an exact amount paid.

To limit his income the following year, De Jesus and JoAnn both said that De Jesus, acting in his role as church president, placed himself on a $120,000 annual salary. Around the same time, he told his flock to make donations directly to the church or payable to JoAnn. But the church was still paying De Jesus' $144,000 annual alimony to his first wife, Nydia, an arrangement that began after their split in 2001.

A bank audit done this year when the ministry applied for a $2.5 million loan to buy the Virgina Gardens property said it was a mistake for the church to pay the alimony because it could run afoul of tax laws, De Jesus said in a deposition.

The solution: The church increased De Jesus' taxable salary by $9,000 a month, to $228,000 a year, JoAnn testified. He will pay that to Nydia directly. The church will pay the $3,000 monthly balance of the alimony to De Jesus' 24-year-old daughter, Jennifer, who will work as a clerk in the ministry's finance department, JoAnn testified.


Pineiro also questioned De Jesus' practice of titling real estate holdings paid for by the church in his name or family members' names.

Properties are purchased that way because banks are uneasy lending to churches, which are difficult to foreclose on, De Jesus testified.

JoAnn said in a deposition that investing in real estate has been the ''modus operandi'' for the ministry. ``The profits have always been favorable.''

In an interview, she said there were agreements with the ministry that the assets in her name are ''considered'' church property. She declined to provide them to The Miami Herald and stopped short of saying they were formal contracts.

Once a property is in an individual's name, an organization has no claim to it, said Frances R. Hill, a law professor at the University of Miami and author of a book on tax-exempt organizations. Any side agreement to ''consider'' the property a church asset would not be binding, she said. Buying real estate for individuals with a charitable organization's money is such a serious violation of IRS rules, Hill said, that a group could lose its tax-exempt status.

''This goes beyond any line,'' she said.

JoAnn said she would never take what belongs to the ministry and that she is hurt by the interest of the judge and prosecutors.

''We're growing and learning,'' she said in an interview. ``We're trying to do all the right things.''