On March 13 of this year, Phil Driscoll reported to a minimum security prison in Atlanta Georgia. He was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison. Today, Phil was released from prison to a halfway house and he should be completely free in just a few weeks.
For those of you who did not follow this case, it may read like just another Christian financial scandal. I did follow it closely, and read almost all of the federal court filings. In the end, it was undisputed that the amount of money in question was reportedly less than $50,000 in unpaid taxes that were allegedly owed over a several year period. What was at first supposed to be a multi-million dollar income tax evasion scheme, was reduced to likely $15,000 or less per year. It hardly constitutes fraud on a grand scale as was suggested. Lynne, Phil’s wife, was acquitted of all charges. Sadly, Lynne’s mom (Chris Blankenship) who was also implicated, died just before the trial. Based on Lynne’s acquittal, Mrs. Blankenship would have likely been acquitted as well.
It should also be noted that Driscoll’s attorneys attempted to provide evidence that would have offset the remaining tax liability if Driscoll was given income tax credit for his home being counted as the ministry’s parsonage. This evidence was not allowed by the judge. So, in reality this whole matter came down to probably just sloppy accounting. I believe that in the end if everything were properly accounted for, Phil Driscoll might have ended up with no unpaid tax liability at all.
The government has created a complicated tax code that most people simply can not comply with. If you attempt to operate a non-profit organization, you need a team of lawyers and accountants and are still likely to make legitimate mistakes. The real crime here is our complicated tax system. The IRS has hundreds of agents that are charged with investigating Christian organizations. No other group is under more scrutiny.
People in full time ministry have understandably a very difficult time separating personal and ministry expenses. Are your clothes personal expenses, or if you wear them while ministering are they a legitimate expense of the ministry? What about your vehicles, your home, etc…? The tax code allows for these “personal” items to be legally paid for with ministry funds. The rules are so murky though that most people don’t know where to draw the line, this seems to be where the Driscoll’s ran into trouble. The truth is that without more clear direction for ministries on these rules, who really knows if the next ministry check written will constitute a crime or just another legitimate ministry expense.
Phil will not be the last celebrity brought down by tax issues, but I truly believe that because he is a Christian this matter became criminal in nature. Anyone else with such minor tax issues would have paid a fine, but he went to prison.
I look around at all of the evil in the world. The people sexually abusing children getting 2 or 3 years in prison. The murderers who serve on average 7 years. The politicians caught with $200,000 in unexplained cash in their refrigerators that are still serving in Congress. A former Secretary of State caught stealing top secret documents from the National Archives paying only a fine. I ask, should Phil Driscoll have gone to prison at all?
Welcome home Phil and Merry Christmas.
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James L. Paris