A best-selling Christian author and radio evangelist known as the "Bible Answer Man" has filed a defamation lawsuit against a longtime critic who had accused him of being under investigation for mail fraud.
Controversy surrounding Hank Hanegraaff's Rancho Santa Margarita-based Christian Research Institute arose earlier this year after he sent out an urgent fundraising letter, saying that a "bizarre error" by postal workers caused donations to be thrown away.
Critic and former Christian Research Institute employee Bill Alnor, a journalism professor at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, posted a story on his online magazine, the Christian Sentinel, saying that Hanegraaff was the focus of a federal mail-fraud investigation.
According to Hanegraaff, that was never true. Citing Alnor's "escalating personal attacks," he filed suit this week in Orange County Superior Court because, he said, Alnor's allegations have "crossed the line." He is seeking unspecified damages.
"The statement he made is patently false," Hanegraaff said. "There's no truth to it whatsoever."
Alnor said he recently spoke to a postal inspector who told him the case remains under continual review.
U.S. Postal Inspector Randy DeGasperin, who did not speak to Alnor, said a formal investigation was never opened, but added that "those conditions can change as more information comes in." Postal officials did review Alnor's complaint about the Christian Research Institute, but did not find enough evidence to file charges, DeGasperin said.
"I've always said that if there's anything wrong with my story, I would correct it," Alnor said. He stands by his original story, but will update the language on his website to say that the case is under continual review. The lawsuit, he said, was an attempt to keep him quiet.
"I'm the whistle-blower," Alnor said. "They're trying to shut me up. I have no hate in my heart against them, but I do think there are things that are gravely wrong."
The fundraising letter said the Christian Research Institute may have lost "hundreds of thousands of dollars" over a three-month period, and that the U.S. Postal Service had accepted full responsibility. At the time, however, postal officials said they knew of no delivery problems and had not spoken to ministry officials.
The Christian Research Institute has faced criticism for more than a decade that it misused donor money. In 2003, the industry watchdog group, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, conducted an audit that resulted in a "significant reimbursement" to Christian Research Institute.
Employees had accused Hanegraaff of using donations to pay for personal expenses, including a new Lexus, as well as repairs to his children's computers and birthday flowers for his mother.
Since then, Hanegraaff said, the organization has improved its bookkeeping practices and has been given high marks by the Evangelical Council.
"To the credit of CRI, we've monitored them, and we're satisfied that they brought themselves back into compliance," said Paul Nelson, president of the council. "That was a tough period for them, but they did what they needed to do."
Nelson said he also investigated the mail-fraud issue, but was satisfied that the Christian Research Institute did not violate laws or dishonestly solicit money.
The solicitation letter citing lost mail might be "offensive to some, but it was not dishonest," Nelson said. "It wasn't a fabricated piece of correspondence."
Alnor said the Evangelical Council never called him as part of its investigation, and he questions its impartiality.