Celebrity pastor and author Joel Osteen is drawing ire online over a Ferrari. Twitter users are up in arms over the car’s hefty price tag, which some claim is a whopping $325,000 (Osteen reportedly owns a Ferrari 458 Italia, according to the Houston Chronicle).
It also ignited debate over the summer’s hottest topic: taxes. Following the Ferrari incident, #TaxTheChurches started trending, alongside claims that Osteen does not pay taxes. Turns out, these claims probably aren’t exactly true.
“Joel Osteen pays lots and lots of taxes because his book sells,” Ryan Burge, a pastor and an associate professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, told Insider.
Osteen, one of the country’s most famous pastors due to his wide-reaching broadcasts, books, and celebrity worshippers, hasn’t taken a salary from the Lakewood Church since 2005, according to the Houston Chronicle. Instead, royalties from his cadre of bestselling books likely pay for his lavish car and home, and experts told Insider that he likely pays taxes on them.
Rumors of his failure to pay taxes are likely conflated with the fact that his church – which reportedly can bring in upwards of $80 million in donations and has had $90 million in operating expenses – is largely exempt from paying taxes. The hullabaloo over Osteen’s car is another example of backlash, amidst historic inequality in the US, against the ultra-wealthy pastor, who is one of the most famous figures associated with “prosperity gospel” or the idea that financial success is the result of faith in God.
Joel Osteen Ministries did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Osteen makes a lot of money off books, and probably pays taxes on that income
The annual salary for Osteen’s role would be $200,000, according to the Indy Star, but he hasn’t drawn that in over a decade.
Osteen’s larger-than-life lifestyle is likely propped up by speaking engagements and royalties from his books, the first of which came out in 2004 and sold more than 8 million copies, according to Publisher’s Weekly. The Christian Post reported that the multi-million dollar deal for his second book was greater than the $8.5 million Pope John Paul II got.
In addition to his Ferrari, Osteen owns a $12 million home according to an extensive profile in the Houston Chronicle. He and his wife reportedly paid $247,000 in property taxes in 2017.
Churches pay little in taxes in the US
Churches like Texas’s Lakewood Church are largely tax exempt with the exception of paying payroll and social security taxes to their staff, according to Burge.
Jared Walczak, the vice president of State Projects at the Tax Foundation, said that clergy do pay taxes on their income. The only tax benefit open to clergy that most other people can’t take advantage of is a “parsonage allowance” – essentially a housing allowance.
“It is possible to exclude a certain amount from gross income if it is structured as either providing a parsonage for a pastor or providing an allowance for housing for a primary minister,” Walczak said. But he noted that that generally benefits ministers at smaller churches. According to the Chronicle, Osteen’s home is not designated as a parsonage.
The outcry over Osteen’s fortune is part of increased pressure on the wealthy to address widening gaps
While Osteen is probably paying taxes, the outrage over wealth inequality and unfair taxation comes during a moment of reckoning.
The pandemic revealed – and, in many cases, worsened – the gaps between the wealthiest and poorest members of American society. While millions of Americans lost their jobs (and, in some cases, the unemployment benefits keeping them afloat), it was revealed that the wealthiest taxpayers had been hiding billions from the IRS.
Osteen’s church saw its own finger-pointing amidst the debate over who, or what, merited government subsidies when it came under fire for receiving a $4.4 million loan from the Paycheck Protection Plan. The news inspired backlash, especially amidst Osteen’s accumulation of personal wealth and the church’s operating budget and donation apparatus.
In a statement to media outlets, David Iloff, a spokesperson for the church, said that the church hadn’t applied for assistance at first, but eventually sought it out as pandemic-induced closures dragged on. Iloff said that the church was able to pay out salaries and health benefits to employees with the loan.
Walczak points out that service organizations like religious institutions or nonprofits are often obvious targets of anger over “ostentatious wealth.”
“You will always have individuals, whether they are ministers or leaders of other organizations who attract negative attention for this, and that’s unsurprising. But that doesn’t mean that there is a tax issue.”
Walter Kinzie, the owner of Austin-based concert promoter Encore Live, was loading in for a 28-band festival at SXSW in Austin in early March 2020 when the pandemic hit. Kinzie has a Texan unflappability and an aura of capability, the kind of guy who can fly halfway across the world with two employees and orchestrate a multi-night event juggling dozens of contractors.
His company, based out of the rustic Stockyards neighborhood of Ft. Worth, was among the first to shut down. In the months that followed, the live music, theater, and venue industry would have to buckle down, and starve out a pandemic that made the very fundamentals of their business unworkable.
“I lost 92.5% of my business in four days,” Kinzie told Insider. “A business I built over a decade was gone in four days. I lost my house, I lost my cars, I lost my office building, I lost all of my investments and my savings account, just to keep my employees working. It cost me everything.”
“But it will be worth it.”
In December, Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed a bill allocating $16 billion in emergency relief grants to the venues and stages decimated by the pandemic. The bipartisan bill ensured that the money would be allocated by the Small Business Administration to venues that had lost a large amount of their business owing to the pandemic.
Seven months later, after what operators described as a fiasco of an implementation, only a fifth of that money has actually been awarded, and more than 10,000 applicants are still waiting for their money.
While other businesses like restaurants and office workers were able to adjust, by serving customers outside or having staff work from home, the live events industry was gutted nearly completely. The independent and fragmented nature of the live events business – where a single event can require the work of dozens of contractor companies, from ticketing to lighting to performers to catering to security and more – may make the industry a significant employer, but also made less able to seek out the aid it needed, compared to industries where just a few large corporations control a substantial amount of the business.
“Every penny makes a difference in how these venues will emerge from this, because the fact is we cannot rely on our government.”
Venues are going for broke
Ben Lillie, who owns Caveat, a New York venue for comedy and music that put on 60 shows a month pre-pandemic, was looking at the best month of business in March 2020. “I was talking to a bankruptcy lawyer six months ago just to see about our options if we did have to shut it down, but luckily we didn’t.”
At The Muse, Broadway shows would rehearse there before they hit the road, and if you’ve ever watched a television commercial with an acrobatic element, there’s a pretty solid chance The Muse had a hand in it. Prior to the pandemic, the space was bustling.
“You’d always find people flying through the air,” Butch said . “Now we’re a warehouse that mostly sits empty all the time, because we’re waiting on funding to come through.”
Jonathan Corbett, who owns performing arts venue Eris in Brooklyn, went so far as to build a kitchen in his nightclub, just to be able to reopen when outdoor dining came back.
“I never expected to find myself as a restaurateur, and there I was,” Corbett said.
The federal government rolled out three programs to help out venues. The first was PPP, the Paycheck Protection Program, which offered forgivable loans that, for venues bound to be closed for over a year, functioned mostly as a helpful stopgap. Next were Economic Impact Disaster Loans, or EIDL. Those were larger, but they weren’t forgivable, and for a typical venue were signed over to landlords or creditors pretty quickly.
That’s where SVOG, or the Shuttered Venue Operator Grant program, was supposed to come in.
“This was a business that was devastated by COVID,” said Rep. Roger Williams, the House GOP architect of the SVOG bill. “It was the first to shut down and the last to open. Thousands and thousands of jobs were affected.”
The lack of capital for the venues is stymieing the recovery of the US’s entire entertainment sector. Prior to the pandemic, The Muse had between 50 and 100 people on payroll each month.
“We’ve lost half our staff because we can’t put offers on the table,” Butch said. “It’s prevented us from doing realistic negotiations with the landlords to resolve back rent. It’s prevented a lot of things. We are aiming to re-open in September and we are just praying this funding comes through.”
“The truth is, we have a bankruptcy meeting next week because if it doesn’t come through, that is what we’re looking at.”
Following the passage of the bill in December, operators expected a speedy response on par with the PPP program.
“I was hopeful it would follow the PPP and the EIDL timeline, which was probably two months,” Corbett said. “I was expecting February, March. They didn’t even have the application out until the end of April.”
The venue operators, who had been desperate for the money in December, would have to wait months in order to even apply. By February, 1,500 small operators had flocked to a Facebook group Kinzie organized, sensing an issue.
On April 7, an Inspector General report sounded the alarm on the SVOG program: “Currently, the program office has one designated official and its staff are on temporary detail. At this time, SBA has not formalized a plan for staffing this office relative to the volume of applications expected.”
“To put it simply, it has just been a complete mishandling of the program by SBA,” said a congressional aide familiar with the program. “They were able to roll out PPP on a timeline, but were vastly underprepared for this even though they had the resources.”
SVOG was turning into a disaster. “The restaurant revitalization fund was passed later and paid out earlier,” Corbett said.
“They kept on changing these manuals and what they were going to ask for and how to present things,” Butch said. “They made it clear if you made any mistakes on your application it would be dismissed right away.”
When the portal to apply opened on April 8, the system was taken down within an hour due to fundamental problems in the construction of the application form. According to an aide familiar with the program, SBA didn’t conduct appropriate stress tests for the portal.
Operators cited a document upload field as a key bug. When applicants attempted to upload a floor plan or other mandatory document, the system would crash and send the applicant to a Salesforce landing page. Later reports would identify contractor Salesforce as a source of the trouble, and the bug was related to an unregistered license. That, among other issues, delayed the portal launch two weeks, to April 24.
Neither the Small Business Administration nor the Office of Disaster assistance replied to a request for comment. A Salesforce spokesperson referred questions to the SBA.
A perfect storm
The first thing that operators heard was silence, often for a month. When the SBA did reach out, it was often with problems with the applications.
“It required some IRS forms that had to be filled out in a pretty specific manner, in a manner that was inconsistent with the SBA’s instructions,” Corbett said. “There were people who were told they were dead. Not just a couple – that was a problem that was pretty broad. There were other people who were told they were on some kind of government do-not-pay list.”
The complex nature of the live events business, where 20 different independent contractors can have skin in the game on a single live event, made it all the more difficult for the federal government to actually understand who should qualify.
“The industry had limited resources to begin with, inadequate folks to advise the federal government, and a change in administration, I think it created this perfect storm,” Kinzie said.
The boiling point
When the first decisions went out on June 1, just 31 grants out of 13,619 were awarded. A week later, on June 9, that rose to a mere 90 grants out of the then-14,020 submitted, or 0.64% of grants.
“I don’t think there was any urgency created with the Biden administration to get this money out, and that was a big problem,” said Rep. Williams. “Like I was telling everybody at the SBA – this isn’t political, it doesn’t matter if I’m a Democrat or a Republican, this is a job creator, it’s a law, we need to get it going.”
The venue operators then began pushing the SBA publicly. Following scrutiny from the House and Senate architects of SVOG, which included Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the administrator overseeing the program was swapped out, and Katie Frost, who had worked to implement the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, was placed in charge. Venue operators said the pace of decisions increased substantially thereafter.
“This legislation’s got Roger Williams and Chuck Schumer on it for crying out loud, we ought to be doing better than this,” Williams said. “We’re going to keep fighting to get this money, because each day these venues don’t get their money they’re going out of business. Jobs are being lost. I want to get these people paid rather than infighting with the agency.”
The current status
Now, the money is starting to flow.
As of Tuesday, $3.2 billion of the $11.7 billion requested has been awarded. While just 28% of applicants have received their money, another 43% have had their application reach a decision.
But thousands of applicants are still in a state of limbo, unable to plan.
“Does it hamper the recovery? Absolutely,” Corbett said. “I would love to put money into a lot of different things.”
When Insider spoke to Kinzie, he was in Barcelona at the Mobile World Congress, a conference for the digital communications industry that usually attracts more than 100,000 attendees. A few hours earlier, the band Bon Jovi exited the stage following a performance Kinzie had organized. It’s his first live in-person event since March of 2020.
“Frick, it feels good,” Kinzie said. “I’m kind of emotional thinking about it. It feels good to be working again.”
Butch, who had been meeting with a bankruptcy attorney as recently as two weeks ago, got notified that The Muse had their grant application approved last Friday.
“We do not have a sense of when the funding will come through but have been awarded,” she said in an email. “We know of many others who have had trouble receiving the money so we are waiting to make sure it hits the account before we cheer too much.”
A Mississippi man was arrested on Thursday, accused of spending COVID-19 small business loans on a variety of luxury items, including a $100,000 Tesla and a $1 million home, federal prosecutors said.
Christopher Paul Lick, of Starkville, got $6 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds by filing false and fraudulent loan applications with banks, according to court documents cited in a news release by the US Attorney’s Office of Northern Mississippi on Friday.
Lick lied about the number of people his businesses employed, and his expenses, the documents said.
As well as the Tesla and million-dollar home, Lick invested some of the money in the stock market, the documents said.
He had been indicted by a federal grand jury before his arrest, the Department of Justice (DoJ) said.
The 45-year-old is charged with four counts of wire fraud, one count of false statements to a financial institution, and eleven counts of money laundering, according to the DoJ. He faces up to 30 years in federal prison if he’s convicted.
On Saturday, Lick pleaded not guilty to the 16 counts.
PPP loans were designed to help small businesses pay their staff, rent, and mortgage costs to help keep them afloat during the pandemic. Insider previously reported that the majority of borrowers can receive up to 2.5 times their average monthly payroll costs, but that loans can’t exceed $2 million.
The White House initially launched the program in April 2020, but the $349 billion funding ran out in two weeks. Congress approved another $320 billion in May, and the program stopped in August with around $130 billion in unused funds.
Dozens of startups took government-backed loans for small businesses during the pandemic and then went public, new data show.
The data, provided to Insider by PitchBook, showed about 30 startups went public with a special purpose acquisition company, better known as a SPAC, in the months after receiving a Paycheck Protection Program loan, a forgivable loan aimed at helping business owners harmed by the pandemic.
Another 16 companies, ranging in valuation from $187 million to $8.5 billion, joined the public markets with an initial public offering after they received the loan.
The Wall Street Journal, which first reported on the data, said the dichotomy of receiving a government-backed loan followed by raising millions with a SPAC or public offering has sparked debate as to whether the companies should pay back the PPP loans, even if they meet the qualifications for forgiveness.
Through interviews with executives and analysis of public documents, the Journal found a third of the 15 highest-valued startups that took a PPP loan ahead of a SPAC deal already repaid the money or have said they’ll do so.
The government doled out 5.2 million PPP loans, totaling $782.2 billion as of May. The businesses who got a loan can receive forgiveness if it was used for qualified expenses, like rent or worker pay.
Some companies were scrutinized for taking a PPP loan meant for small business-owners. Shake Shack, for example, received a $10 million loan and later paid it back after people criticized the company for receiving one as program funds dried up, leaving other businesses without any aid.
One CEO told the Journal the $3 million loan was an “invaluable tool” at the time the pandemic hit, and he was happy to repay it after raising $600 million in a SPAC deal. The executive, Scott Mercer, founded Volta Industries Inc., and merged with Tortoise Acquisition Corp II in a deal that valued the electric-vehicle-charging company at $2 billion, Reuters reported.
SPACs took off in a big way during the pandemic. The blank-check companies merge with private businesses and take them public, without the target having to go through an initial public offering. In 2020 alone, SPACs raised a record $73 billion, which was a 462% jump over the previous year.
So far this year, the number of SPAC deals has already beaten that record. But the SPAC boom may be slowing down, Insider reported previously. Regulators have been monitoring the SPAC craze, and in March, the Securities and Exchange Commission warned investors of the risk in SPACs not living up to the hype.
The IPO market also took off during the pandemic, with 430 new companies listing in 2020, which is the most since 2000, according to Dealogic.
A man from Irvine, California, was arrested on Friday over charges that include illegally obtaining $5 million in COVID-19 relief and spending it on sports cars, according to the Department of Justice.
Mustafa Qadiri, 38, is accused of fraudulently receiving money through the Payment Protection Program by applying for the loan under the guise of “sham businesses.” His charges include bank fraud, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, and money laundering.
According to the indictment, Qadiri applied for the PPP loans in May and June of 2020. He submitted falsified documents to three different banks, claiming to operate four businesses in Orange County, none of which are currently in operation. He provided the banks with false employee records, tampered bank account balances, and fake tax returns.
The Justice Department said he allegedly used the “fraudulently obtained” loans “for his own personal benefit, including for expenses prohibited under the requirements of the PPP program, such as the purchase of luxury vehicles, lavish vacations, and the payment of his personal expenses.”
Ferrari, Bentley, and Lamborghini sports cars that Qadiri allegedly bought with the loans were seized by federal agents.
PPP loans were implemented as a coronavirus relief measure and were intended to encourage small businesses to keep their employees on payroll during the economic fallout of the pandemic. The loans did not have to be paid back as long as they met certain spending criteria.
“Businesses must use PPP loan proceeds for payroll costs, interest on mortgages, rent, and utilities,” the Justice Department said.
Charges have been brought against multiple people related to fraudulently obtaining PPP loans.
In a similar case, the Justice Department said Friday a man from Connecticut was arrested over charges that allege he fraudulently obtained $2.9 million in PPP loans and spent them on expensive cars, including to pay off a Porsche Panamera Turbo and to purchase both a Mercedes and BMW.
“Congress authorized the Paycheck Protection Program to help small businesses and their employees withstand a devastating pandemic, not so individual recipients can illegally reap a financial windfall,” Acting U.S. Attorney Leonard C Boyle said.
Top anti-vaccine advocacy groups received PPP funding from the Trump administration, The Washington Post reported.
American distrust in the safety of COVID-19 vaccinations continues to pose a threat to public health.
K. “Vish” Viswanath, a professor of health communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Insider that anti-vaccine groups are “likely to perpetuate the adverse impacts of the pandemic.”
Five top anti-vaccine advocacy organizations that have spread medical misinformation throughout the COVID-19 pandemic received funding from the Trump administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), The Washington Post reported Monday.
The loans from the Small Business Administration totaled more than $850,000, according to the report.
K. “Vish” Viswanath, a professor of health communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Insider that to call the loans ironic “doesn’t do justice to my feelings.” He said anti-vaccine groups are “likely to perpetuate the adverse impacts of the pandemic.”
The groups that reportedly received PPP funding were the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), Mercola Com Health Resources LLC, Informed Consent Action Network, Children’s Health Defense Co., and the Tenpenny Integrative Medical Center, The Post reported, citing an exclusive report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a UK-based advocacy group that fights hate and misinformation online.
“Lending money to these organizations so they can prosper is a sickening use of taxpayer money,” Countering Digital Hate CEO Imran Ahmed told The Washington Post. “These groups are actively working to undermine the national COVID vaccination drive, which will create long-term health problems that are felt most acutely in minority communities and low-income neighborhoods.”
The largest loan – $335,000 – was given to Mercola, a website published by the anti-vaccine activist Joseph Mercola. NewsGuard, a nonprofit that tracks misinformation, reported that the site has “published false claims about standard medical practices such as vaccinations.”
Mercola, a businessman and doctor of osteopathic medicine, is himself a major donor of the NVIC. The Washington Post reported in 2019 that Mercola gave the NVIC $2.9 million, making up roughly 40% of the group’s funding. Mercola has millions of followers on Facebook.
The Pew Research Center said in a December report that about 39% of Americans said they would definitely not, or probably not, get the vaccine. 21% of American adults surveyed said they were “pretty certain” that new information about COVID-19 vaccination would not change their minds.
Anti-vaccine advocacy groups have played a major role in propagating that distrust, Viswanath said.
Even if these groups qualified for the loans legally – as the Small Business Administration told The Washington Post – it’s a question of whether the loans are “morally” correct, Viswanath said, as they are providing the country with “additional ammunition” to question medical professionals “by exploiting the tremendous scientific achievement of developing the vaccines.”
For millions of small business owners still struggling to pay rent and employ workers, the federal government’s forgivable loan program is a lifeline. This round looks a little different than the original that launched in the spring. It’s aimed at even smaller businesses, and provides special funding for the service sector, nonprofits, and under-represented entrepreneurs.
On Tuesday, January 5, Insider hosted a webinar detailing what the $325 billion in funding means for business owners and answered questions live from more than 200 attendees.
Insider’s entrepreneurship editor Bartie Scott and small business reporter Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins discussed:
What’s different between this round of PPP and the first one in the spring
Special provisions for service industry companies and under-represented entrepreneurs