Two former Mars Hill Church leaders, including pastor Mark Driscoll, are hit with a racketeering lawsuit, accusing them of fraudulently using thousands if not millions of dollars of donor money.
Mark Driscoll may have moved on to a new city and a new church, but he faces the sharpest demand yet to account for his actions at Mars Hill Church.
On Monday, four former Mars Hill members filed a civil racketeering lawsuit against Driscoll, charging that the once swaggering pastor fraudulently used thousands if not millions of dollars raised by the church, which once boasted 15 branches in five states with 13,000 visitors on Sundays.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for Western Washington, also names former Mars Hill executive elder John Sutton Turner as a defendant.
A 42-page complaint accuses the two men of raising money for specific purposes and then using the money for other things, including a “scam” designed to make Driscoll a best-selling author.
The racketeering activity was “so deeply embedded, pervasive and continuous, that it was effectively institutionalized as a business practice,” reads the complaint. “A deadly toxin was injected,” it goes on, “ending in the complete destruction of the church.”
That happened in late 2014, when accusations not only of financial improprieties but misogyny, plagiarism and emotional abusiveness led Driscoll to resign and the once mighty church to implode.
Neither Driscoll nor Turner could be reached for comment Monday.
The lawsuit could set an interesting precedent. Brian Fahling, an attorney representing plaintiffs Brian and Connie Jacobsen and Ryan and Arica Kildea, two married couples, said he knew of only one other lawsuit involving racketeering allegations against religious figures.
“I think megachurches do have to be careful,” said Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania’s Grove City College and avid blogger about the Mars Hill saga. Other wealthy churches could face similar questions about who, exactly, is benefiting from moneys raised, he said.
A deadly toxin was injected, ending in the complete destruction of the church.” - complaint filed in lawsuit against Mark Driscoll
To prove racketeering, the plaintiffs in the Mars Hill suit need to show an ongoing pattern of wrongful acts during a four-year period specified. Fahling claimed that won’t be a problem. “We’ve got hundred or thousands of activities,” he said, including “every time an email was sent to a donor or something was posted to the website.”
The time period starts in 2011 when, the lawsuit says, Driscoll and Turner used church funds to prop up the pastor’s book “Real Marriage.” The suit cites a contract signed by Turner with a marketing company, which was to arrange for the purchase of 11,000 books so that “Real Marriage” would make the best-seller lists of The New York Times and other newspapers.
The company was to buy the books at their retail price of between $18 and $20, rather than the discounted price, $7, available to Driscoll. In all, the books cost $210,000, and the fee to the marketing company another $25,000, according to the lawsuit.
Around the same time, Mars Hill embarked on a major fundraising effort to support its “global fund,” which was supposed to be used for international missions. By 2014, the fund was taking in $300,000 a month. Yet only a small percentage of the money raised was used internationally, according to the suit.
The complaint quotes an internal memo outlining the strategy of designating a percentage of the global fund for a few “highly visible” projects overseas. “This percentage should be flexible,” the memo said, “and not communicated to the public.”
In addition to Driscoll and Turner, the suit names several alleged co-conspirators not listed as defendants. These include the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) and its president, Dan Busby. The Virginia-based group, which accredits Christian groups according to its standards of financial accountability and transparency, gave Mars Hill its blessing, even after questions started surfacing about the global fund.
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“ECFA’s accreditation of churches is, at best, a rubber stamp,” the suit alleges. It quotes an internal Mars Hill memo showing that Busby had a 2½-hour meeting with church leaders, during which he said that the church’s response to questions had “100 percent solved the current issue.” (The ECFA referred a reporter to a public-relations representative, who did not return a phone call seeking comment.)
That memo came from Throckmorton, who published portions of it on his blog the morning the suit was filed, showing that new information continues to trickle out despite Mars Hill’s well-chronicled downfall.
The complaint asks for unspecified damages, which would be tripled under racketeering law if the plaintiffs are successful. The Jacobsens, former Mars Hill deacons, contributed more than $90,000 to the church. The Kildeas gave more than $2,700.
What remains to be seen is how all this will affect Driscoll. On Feb. 1, Driscoll announced that he was starting The Trinity Church in Phoenix. He boasted a high-powered group of religious leaders behind him, despite his past in Seattle. It’s a past he refrained from elaborating upon in his announcement video or on his new website, neither of which mention Mars Hill.