Thursday, October 11, 2007

Family Business: Oral Roberts University School for Scandal

I'll admit it right up front: I am one of those big city, East Coast, capital-L-Liberal, secular humanist, sneer-down-their-bony-noses-at-the-rest-of-the-world, ay-leets  who like nothing better than to see some you're-going-to-hell-and-I'm-not, gay-bashing, flag-waving, Jesus was a Founding Father, fundamentalist brought low by scandal. (Of course, I'm such a bleeding heart capital-L-Liberal that by Day Two, I'm already feeling bad for them, but that's another story.)

But I really don't think that sort of do-as-I-say, demoralizing moralizing leading to "the fall," is entirely what's going on with the current brouhaha taking place in Tulsa at Oral Roberts University (ORU).

No, I think what's going on at ORU is a good, old-fashioned tale about what can happen when there's a family business, especially one where there's a powerful paterfamilias in the angel wings, a less powerful son who inherits the business without any particular qualification other than pedigree, and more than a bit of loose change in the collection plates.

For those who aren't up on this latest, three former faculty members are suing ORU, claiming they were shown the door after blowing the whistle on some financial improprieties, as well as illegal involvement in a local campaign.

ORU, which was founded by televangelist Oral Roberts some forty years ago, is now run by his son, Richard Roberts, who also presides over Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association (OREA).

Years ago, when watching televangelists was something of a hobby, I used to watch Oral Roberts' show regularly. Oral wasn't as flamboyant as some of the others, but the show was plenty entertaining, and I was in awe of the Roberts' ability to get folks out there to open their hearts and their pocketbooks to keep the show going. (My favorite televangelist was Leroy Jenkins. Jenkins, who was something of an Elvis look-alike, was a faith healer. My husband and I actually went to see him perform one time at Madison Square Garden. In person, we were able to witness how cannily the people with unlikely-to-be-cured-on-the-spot medical problems were seated off to the side in sections where Jenkins never got anywhere near during the times he was out in the audience "healing." Instead, he focused on getting old ladies with canes to toss their canes aside and jump up and down. I will never forget the distraught woman seated a section over from us trying to draw Jenkins' attention to her blind husband. As if.)

Oral Roberts' show regularly featured his son Richard, a boyishly handsome if oleaginous young man with an admittedly failed career as an entertainer. Richard had come home to daddy with his entertainer's tail somewhat between his legs. The trade-off at the time was that he got to entertain, but he had to sing religious songs. Apparently, Richard was - no doubt through hard work and native abilities - able to trade that career up into that of university president. (Gosh, I wonder who got to sit on that search committee. Along the way Richard also manage to get a PhD, from ORU, of course. Gosh, I wonder who got to sit on that disserationa committee. "Now, young man, can you explain how you decided to use Times Roman as your font.") 

In any case, while the claims of financial malfeasance do not involve anything like large scale embezzlement, they are nonetheless pretty wild. Among them is an allegation that Roberts-the-younger's wife spent a reimbursable $50K+ on clothing at Chico's, considered expensable if she wore it on TV. Now, Chico's is by no means Wal-Mart, but it's not exactly Nordstrom's or Nieman-Marcus, either. $50K is an awful lot of Chico's garments. Of course, since Chico's specializes in somewhat bright - some may say loud - clothing, it may be that once you wear something on TV, you can't wear it again because someone will remember it. (Lest I be accused of Chico-bashing, I do shop there occasionally. One of my favorite shirts is from Chico's. It's not that loud.)

Then there's the "evangelical" travel (a.k.a., senior trip) that one of his daughters and her friends took that involved a $29K private jet flight to Florida and the Bahamas. (Well, of course they're smart enough not to make an evangelizing trip to Bangor, Maine or Duluth, Minnesota in the dead of winter. They're college students, not morons.)

A slightly racier allegation has Richard's wife Lindsay using her ORU-paid for cell phone to text message "underage males" at 1 a.m. (The Roberts' make the easy-to-believe claim that their daughters were doing the underage texting, but whether they should have been letting the girls use the "company phone" for it is another matter. Shouldn't there have been some type of parental boom-lowering-down after they got that first monthly bill for $800. Maybe it doesn't matter so much if the expense is so easily reimbursed.)

Fancy cars. Private stables. Home redecorating.

All of this sounds like ORU had no corporate veil whatsoever to pierce. ORU/OREA = The Roberts Family.

But according to a statement from Richard Roberts on the ORU web site:

All charges incurred by the Roberts family are divided into two categories: ORU/OREA and personal. ORU/OREA related expenses are charged to the ORU/OREA, and personal charges are charged personally to me.

But it sounds like the expense categories have a tendency to spill over and blur, and that sometimes the Roberts may have a not-so-stringent definition of the personal. There are some controls in place, by the way: Roberts had to reimburse ORU for his daughter's trip to the Bahamas.

ORU is bringing in outside auditors to take a look at this mess. My guess is that they'll find more than a few questionable expenses that may have gotten through the current checks and balances. Easy to imagine a junior AP clerk asking their supervisor about a Chico's bill and being told, "Oh, just put it through." Easy to imagine lots of eye-rolling, lots of gossip, and lots of shoulder-shrugging acceptance that this is the way the world works. Also easy to imagine quite a bit of resentment of the 'wish I could afford a Lexus/private jet to the Bahamas/$1000 a week clothing allowance' variety. Easy to imagine the Roberts thinking they were above it all, entitled, just getting their due.

Also easy to imagine that when it comes time to appoint a new president, which may actually come sooner rather than later, ORU might look a little further than candidates with the last name Roberts.

My husband's Uncle Bill, a colorful and earthy character if ever there was one, used to say that people are well advised to "keep their pecker out of the cash register," which can be interpreted as 'don't mix business with pleasure.' It can also be interpreted as 'don't mix things personal with things business.'

Metaphorically speaking, Richard and LindsayRoberts do not seem to have kept their pecker out of the ORU cash register. My guess is that someone is about to extract it for them.


Background information used in this post came from an AP article (Oct 6) by Justin Juozapavicius, and from a CNN article.

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