Jury Holds Bakker Liable for Nearly $130 Million in Damages
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ Jim Bakker was found liable by a jury today for nearly $130 million in damages in a lawsuit filed by former PTL religious contributors. His fellow defendants were found to be not at fault.
The federal jury deliberated for close to 28 hours over five days before reaching its decision. The trial lasted six weeks.
The lawsuit’s other defendants - Big 8 accounting firm Deloitte, Haskins & Sells; David Taggart, Bakker’s former personal aide; and Aimee Cortese, a minister from New York who served on PTL’s board of directors - were not liable, the jury ruled.
″I just have gratitude the jury focused on the issues and not the innuendo,″ said Guy Forcucci, a partner at Deloitte, Haskins & Sells.
The civil suit, which totaled $757 million when it was filed in 1987, alleged that Bakker conspired with other PTL officials and accountants to set up secret bank accounts to give Bakker; his wife, Tammy; and other ministry leaders huge bonuses. Bakker has already been convicted on criminal counts related to the scandal.
Plaintiffs in the class-action suit were some 145,000 PTL lifetime partners, major contributors who were told their donations would buy them lifetime time-share rights at Bakker’s Heritage USA religious theme park.
The jury said Bakker should pay $129,618,000 in actual damages and $129,618 in punitive damages. Jurors held that Bakker, who earns 12 cents an hour working at a prison hospital, would be required to pay punitive damages because he committed common law fraud.
Jury forewoman Denise Elsner, a social worker, said jurors knew that any damages levied against Bakker would be virtually uncollectable.
Mrs. Elsner said the panel spent most of its time on allegations by plaintiffs that Bakker violated federal racketeering laws.
″We worked long and very carefully and tried not to look at the case on an emotional basis,″ she said. ″We tried very hard not to let the (previous) criminal indictment sway our opinion in any way.″
Jurors agreed that Bakker defrauded his flock but ″we didn’t feel he was a racketeer,″ she said. If the jury had decided that Bakker violated federal racketeering laws, damages would have automatically been tripled.
Another large accounting firm, Philadelphia-based Laventhol & Horwath, was named in the lawsuit, but the proceeding against the firm was halted in midtrial when it filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy law last month.
During their deliberations, the jurors had asked to see several items, including a video of Bakker hawking lifetime partnerships, Bakker’s criminal indictments, various brochures about lifetime partnership programs and a bill sent by former PTL builder Roe Messner on a payment of $265,000 to Jessica Hahn.
Bakker resigned from his Fort Mill, S.C., ministry on March 19, 1987, amid a sex and money scandal involving Ms. Hahn, a former New York church secretary.
On Sept. 25, 1989, a bankruptcy trustee closed Heritage USA and the Heritage Grand Hotel.
Less than one month later, Bakker was found guilty on 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy. U.S. District Judge Robert Potter sentenced Bakker to 45 years in prison and fined him $500,000.
Bakker, who didn’t appear at the civil trial, is serving his sentence in a federal prison in Rochester, Minn.