Big tragedy, big money in Big Apple

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Back in April, I weighed in on a claim that my former employer, The Associated Press, is “desperately seeking Pulitzers” and relaxing its news standards.

I defended AP against such criticism, although I questioned my position just a little soon afterward.

But today, I come to praise AP, not to bury it …

In recent days, AP published a 3,700-word investigative piece — in the wire service world, 3,700 words is akin to an expanded edition of “War and Peace” — on a New York City minister who made big money off the Sept. 11 tragedy and later disasters.

The top of the story:

NEW YORK (AP) — Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Rev. Carl Keyes was a little-known pastor of a small New York City congregation searching for members and money.

When the twin towers fell, his fortunes changed.

Donors poured $2.5 million into the minister’s charity to help 9/11 victims. More opportunities to raise relief money would come later, with at least another $2.3 million collected for efforts along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, in the poorest corners of West Virginia and Tennessee, and even in remote African villages.

Tens of millions more flowed through his fingers from the sale of church properties.

But Keyes, a one-time construction worker, did more than help the needy with the millions donated — he helped himself.

This is an intricately reported exposé — a journalistic freight train piled high with crucial goods such as “financial records, internal correspondence and interviews with former employees,” as AP characterizes its sourcing up high.

At the same time, AP puts the story in a bigger context — another trait of the best journalism:

Relatively few people know of Keyes’ charities — Urban Life Ministries and Aid for the World. But his story offers a disturbing glimpse into how some nonprofits manage to largely avoid scrutiny and keep finances secret, even while raising substantial amounts of money in the name of tragedy. It’s also a story about what can happen to the money of well-meaning donors eager to open their hearts and wallets in the wake of devastation.

It’s a far from flattering portrayal of the pastor involved. In so many ways, this a case of the facts truly speaking for themselves.

But at the same time, AP goes out of its way to be fair — to allow the pastor and his supporters space to defend themselves, even when their statements only lend to the incredulity.

Keyes and his lawyer say all payments by his church and charities were proper.

“Sorry that you don’t have a real ‘story’ here, but the truth is actually quite boring since no one did anything wrong,” his lawyer, Jennifer Polovetsky, said in an email to the AP on Aug. 22.

“It must be underscored that Carl Keyes is an internationally recognized humanitarian who has spent the past 30 years helping others in crisis,” she wrote in an earlier letter. “He has worked with many presidents and prime ministers around the world to help ease the suffering of their people.”

From a GetReligion standpoint, we certainly could nitpick over whether the story could benefit from slightly more attention to Keyes’ theological background and how that background informs, if at all, the handling of financial matters scrutinized in the AP investigation.

Readers do learn that accusations of wrongdoing have followed Keyes since his early days as an Assemblies of God minister. Is the prosperity gospel at play in any way here? Do Pentecostals approach finances at all differently than other Christians?

After all the dollar figures and public records, the story ends where it started — with Keyes the pastor:

Keyes says disaster and devastation have taken their toll. He’s no longer a full-time pastor of Glad Tidings. His wife leads the church.

He and some volunteers recently helped build a home in Pennsylvania for victims of sex trafficking.

On his website, Keyes said he is “working with struggling towns and cities to write a screenplay and shoot a film in order to lift them out of poverty.” He wrote that movie stars would be involved, and that the “lofty venture” would “result in the actual turnaround” of the yet-to-be-selected town.

Also, within the last year, Keyes has been on eBay selling a special coffee from Africa named after his Aid for the World charity. In its most recent financial disclosure report, that charity stated it owed $1 million to Glad Tidings and $300,000 to Keyes.

Keyes insists he’s done with disasters, mostly because he says 9/11 and Katrina cost him, physically and emotionally. He was once lean and athletic. Now he struggles with his weight, at one point last year topping 400 pounds.

“I would never go back to relief work again, even if you pay me,” he says. “It was a circus.”

It’s a long story. But by all means, read it all and tell me what I missed.

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

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  • geoconger

    Bobbie, I agree with you that this is a well written, well researched story — it stands out amongst the crowd. But (and here I am moving away from the particular to the general) is there a market for this sort of story anymore? I’ve no studies in front of me in support of my point, but my sense is that the glory days of investigative journalism have passed. This story stands out because there is little with which to compare it.

    Will the cost to write this story be recouped by the AP, when they could knock out a dozen or so quickies that take little more than a press release and a phone call in preparation?


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