Jim Bakker’s Fraud Convictions Upheld

His prison sentence, however, was vacated.

Church Law and Tax 1991-03-01 Recent Developments


A federal appeals court upheld the criminal fraud convictions of televangelist Jim Bakker, but vacated his 45-year prison sentence. In 1989, Bakker was convicted on 8 counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud, and 1 count of conspiracy. In addition to his prison sentence, Bakker was fined $500,000. These convictions were based on mail and television appeals to raise funds for “lifetime partnerships.” These partnerships promised lodging privileges for various amounts of time in facilities at “PTL.” Many of these “partners” drew on meager incomes to purchase their lodging benefits. Bakker raised at least $158 million through the sale of approximately 153,000 partnerships with lodging benefits. He promised television viewers that he would limit the sale of partnerships to ensure that each partner would be able to use the facilities annually. However, Bakker oversold the partnerships. For example, he promised to limit the sale of Grand Hotel partnerships to 25,000 but actually sold 66,683. In addition, Bakker used relatively few of the funds solicited from the partners to construct promised facilities. In fact, of 8 proposed lodging facilities only the Grand Hotel and one bunkhouse were actually completed. Instead, Bakker used partnership funds to pay operating expenses of PTL and to support a lavish lifestyle. This combination of overselling partnerships and diverting partnership proceeds meant that the overwhelming majority of the partners never received the lodging benefits Bakker promised them. Bakker challenged his criminal conviction on several grounds, including biased media coverage. The court rejected all of Bakker’s challenges, and upheld his criminal convictions on all 24 counts. However, the court concluded that the trial judge acted improperly in sentencing Bakker, and it accordingly vacated the 45-year sentence and ordered another federal judge to determine the appropriate sentence. The court noted that during sentencing the trial judge said of Bakker: “He had no thought whatever about his victims and those of us who do have a religion are ridiculed as being saps for money-grubbing preachers or priests.” In concluding that these remarks were sufficiently inappropriate to dictate a re-sentencing of Bakker, the court observed:

“We recognize that a sentencing court can consider the impact a defendant’s crimes have had on a community and can vindicate that community’s interests in justice. To a considerable extent a sentencing judge is the embodiment of public condemnation and social outrage. As the community’s spokesperson, a judge can lecture a defendant as a lesson to that defendant and as a deterrent to others. If that were all that occurred here, the court would have been properly exercising its discretion, and we would be loathe to disturb what surely is an integral part of the sentencing process. Sentencing discretion, however, must be exercised within the boundaries of due process. In this case, the trial judge exceeded those boundaries. Courts have held that sentences imposed on the basis of impermissible considerations, such as a defendant’s race or national origin, violate due process. While these cases focused on a defendant’s characteristics, we believe that similar principles apply when a judge impermissibly takes his own religious characteristics into account in sentencing. Our Constitution, of course, does not require a person to surrender his or her religious beliefs upon the assumption of judicial office. Courts, however, cannot sanction sentencing procedures that create the perception of the bench as a pulpit from which judges announce their personal sense of religiosity and simultaneously punish defendants for offending it. Whether or not the trial judge has a religion is irrelevant for purposes of sentencing. Regrettably, we are left with the apprehension that the imposition of a lengthy prison term here may have reflected the fact that the court’s own sense of religious propriety had somehow been betrayed. In this way, we believe that the trial court abused its discretion in sentencing Bakker. Consequently, the sentence is vacated and the case is remanded for resentencing. This resentencing will be carried out by a different district judge to ensure that the ends of due process are achieved. We remand this case with genuine reluctance because Bakker’s assignments of error at the trial phase only underscore a proceeding which was fairly conducted in the face of trying circumstances …. We recognize that a trial judge on occasion will misspeak during sentencing and that every ill-advised word will not be the basis for reversible error. In this case, however, our review of the sentencing transcript reveals comments that are, in the end, too intemperate to be ignored. Because an impermissible consideration was injected into the sentencing process, we must remand the case. United States v. Bakker, F.2d (4th Cir. Feb. 11, 1991).

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