Bombshell crime claims about Hillsong finances rock Parliament

Hillsong Church accused of money laundering

The leader of one of Australia’s largest Pentecostal churches, and the former friend and confidant of ex-PM Scott Morrison, has been accused of money laundering and tax evasion on the floor of Parliament.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie used Parliamentary privilege Thursday to release more than 1000 leaked documents relating to the financials of Hillsong and its founding pastor, Brian C Houston, who recently quit the church.

Mr Houston resigned from the church in March 2022 after an internal investigation found he engaged in inappropriate conduct of “serious concern” with two women.

Mr Wilkie claims the leaked documents show “criminality” on the part of the church, but in an extraordinary development the long-time Tasmanian MP and former intelligence analyst declared that the tax office had declined to act on documentary evidence proving financial crime.

Mr Houston, he alleged, has a private jet habit that drives him to charter planes even for short distances, while he says members of the family that founded the church lived the high life and spent church funds on a $150,000 holiday in Cancun.

Church members’ money had been “used to do the kind of shopping that would embarrass a Kardashian,” the MP alleged.

Tax-free sums

Mr Wilkie’s central claim is that the church under-reported its income by some tens of millions of dollars in an alleged tax fraud.

“Hillsong earns $80 million more in Australian annual income than it reports publicly,” he said.

He also alleged that Hillsong made a $15.7 million loan to its community venues company, which was used for commercial purposes and investment.

“At face value this appears unremarkable, except that this is a commercial venture run by Hillsong’s community venues company and is ineligible to benefit from tax-deductible church donations,” he said.

Filings show that Hillsong had 10 charities registered with the Australian Charities and Not for Profit Commission in 2020, and that they forecast revenue of up to $150 million between them.

Many of the church’s other active charitable concerns have not been included in that estimate.

Claims piling up

Hillsong, meanwhile, denies Mr Wilkie’s claims, but says it is committed to reform since the exit of Mr Houston in awkward circumstances.

But the MP’s allegations concord with those made by a former accountant at the church who claimed the church’s finance department was making transfers to corporate entities around the world in ways she feared were illegal.

Natalie Moses also claims that some members of the church’s leadership group simply gave large tax-free sums to Mr Houston.

Ms Moses said money was routed via church entities in the US and Kyiv who could use their status as charitable entities to make sure “moneys to be sent to Ukraine so as to avoid compliance with the external conduct standards”.

Mr Houston did not respond to The New Daily’s attempts to contact him.

A church spokesman said it had been “open and transparent with our congregation about past governance failures”, and was overhauling its policies and procedures.

“The claims made in federal Parliament by Mr Andrew Wilkie are out of context and relate to untested allegations made by an employee,” the spokesman said.

Church and politics

The influence of the church on politics and government became the subject of intense scrutiny during the leadership of former PM Scott Morrison, who in 2019 failed in an attempt to bring Mr Houston to an official state dinner at the White House after the request was vetoed.

Mr Morrison’s political ally and fellow Pentecostal church member, Stuart Robert presided over another department as it significantly increased the earning potential of one of Hillsong’s education businesses when it became “Australia’s first Pentecostal university“.

The upgrade would allow Alphacrucis to be eligible for different schemes for receiving payments and subsidies such as HECS while completing their Christian-themed courses.

The university has not yet filed accounts showing the company already has $50 million in its assets on its books and revenue of $28 million.

The university currently charges just over $40,000 to international students seeking to complete an eight-subject degree and receives an $11,000 payment at its conclusion.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by Mr Robert or that he would favour one denomination over another or was involved at all in the accreditation change. The Administrative Appeals Tribunal upheld Alphacrucis’ upgraded status after the Pentecostal university appealed against an education regulator’s decision trying to cancel it.

But there is a live debate about whether ministerial rules on disclosure of interests should be widened to include perceived conflicts.

The university had also been writing to Mr Robert outlining the case for awarding it an $11 million grantTND understands it was not successful but did win a state government contract worth over $2.5 million.

Another close friend of Mr Morrison’s from Hillsong was found in 2020 to be running a consulting business that had won tens of millions in government contracts.

Alphacrucis is owned by Australian Christian Churches, or a peak body for evangelical organisations in Australia.

Nick Jensen, an executive at the school, declined to comment about the university’s finances on the record on Thursday.

with AAP

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