The Mormon Church had an opportunity to respond to claims that it’s hoarding well over $100 billion (!) in donations meant to go to charity on the most-watched news show in the country… but failed to do so in spectacular fashion.
On Sunday night, 60 Minutes aired a story about Ensign Peak Advisors, the investment firm that works with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the whistleblower who realized how much money was coming in… but never going out for the intended purpose.
Most of the segment simply rehashed what we already knew from reporting. But a lot of people don’t read, and putting faces to the claims made the Mormon Church look pretty damn awful.
Here’s the backstory in case you missed it: In 2019, David A. Nielsen, a Mormon who worked for Ensign Peak as a senior portfolio manager, blew the whistle on what was happening:
The confidential document, received by the IRS on Nov. 21 [of 2019], accuses church leaders of misleading members — and possibly breaching federal tax rules — by stockpiling their surplus donations instead of using them for charitable works. It also accuses church leaders of using the tax-exempt donations to prop up a pair of businesses.
Nielsen and his brother Lars P. Nielsen allow the Washington Post to use their real names in an article and they provided supporting documentation to back up their claims. Their concern was that the tithe money taken in by the Church was designated for charity—and therefore exempt from taxes—but it was being used for radically different reasons, not “religious, educational or charitable activities.”
Only twice was that money spent anywhere, they said. Once, to bail out a “church-run insurance company,” and another time, for a church-owned shopping mall.
The allegation was so damning that the richest man in Utah, Jeff T. Green (a tech mogul worth about $5 billion), later submitted his resignation to the Mormon Church, specifically citing the drama with Ensign Peak in his letter.
This past February, we learned that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) conducted an investigation looking at 20 years’ worth of filings made by Ensign Peak. While investment managers who hold over $100 million in assets are supposed to report their stockholdings every quarter (via a formed called 13F), the firm did it via “13 shell corporations with addresses located throughout the U.S.” That allowed the true wealth of the Mormon Church to remain hidden from its most devout members.
[Former Ensign Peak president Roger] Clarke said he believed church leaders were concerned that public knowledge of the fund’s wealth might discourage tithing, which is the requirement that church members give 10% of their income to the church. Other former Ensign Peak employees have said the church was concerned that members might view the firm’s holdings as endorsements and try to buy stocks the church owned. … The church was aware of Ensign Peak’s misleading disclosures, the SEC said. Church officials wanted to avoid disclosure of the amount and nature of their financial assets, the SEC found.
How do we know the Mormon Church knew about this? They approved the creation of one of the shell companies while others were managed, on paper, by “church members with common names and little social-media presence,” so that the wealth remained obscured.
All of this was first brought to light by the website MormonLeaks in 2018.
What was incredibly frustrating about that bombshell report was that the SEC and Ensign Peak settled the case for a paltry $5,000,000 fine. Ensign Peak had to pay $4 million while the LDS Church agreed to pay a $1 million penalty. It was pocket change for the Mormon Church but a symbolic reminder that the institution was as corrupt as any other large religious group.
The truth is if Ensign Peak managed $32 billion in assets (and it was likely much more), $5 million represented 0.015625% of the account, a tiny fraction of a single percentage. It was nothing. It was a large penalty for a filing failure, but it wasn’t even a slap on the wrist for the Mormon Church.
The Church, at the time, passed the buck by blaming everything on its attorneys, saying in a statement:
The Church’s senior leadership received and relied upon legal counsel when it approved of the use of the external companies to make the filings. Ensign Peak handled the mechanics of the filing process. The Church’s senior leadership never prepared or filed the specific reports at issue. … We have worked with the SEC for years to come to this settlement. We reached resolution and chose not to prolong the matter… With the announcement of the order, the matter is closed.
Just because the senior leadership didn’t prepare the tax filings, though, didn’t mean they were oblivious to what was happening. That said, the Church did not have to admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the Mormon Church seemed to be doing just fine financially even after that minor hit:
The latest SEC filing valued Ensign Peak’s public fund at $44.4 billion at the end of 2022. (These reports show investments that must be disclosed to the SEC and thus do not reflect the portfolio’s total holdings.) Topping Ensign Peak’s list of public holdings were stakes worth more than $1 billion each in Apple and Microsoft. The fund also carried more than $1 billion in two types of shares in Alphabet Inc., parent company of search engine giant Google.
All of this was obviously frustrating in part because there are still practicing Mormons who willfully give their money to the Church. They didn’t care about these reports. They weren’t paying attention to the SEC investigation. They didn’t believe Church leaders had anything to do with the fraud. Even if they did, they would inevitably find a reason to dismiss it all.
That’s why 60 Minutes’ piece on the matter was so important.
Reporter Sharyn Alfonsi spoke directly with David Nielsen, who was sympathetic and deeply concerned about what the Church was doing. He never came across as a guy with a grudge, but rather as a practicing Mormon worried that Church leaders were straying from their stated mission.
The most damning aspect of the segment came when the show interviewed Christopher Waddell, “one of three church bishops who oversees finances.” (Technically, his title is “First Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric.&rdquo
He was given multiple chances to offer an explanation for what the Church is doing… and failed every time.
What about the money spent on the church-run insurance company and shopping mall? He admitted those allegations were accurate.
WADDELL: The Church actually owned Beneficial Life. And—and fortunately the church had the resources to bail out Beneficial Life during the Financial Crisis, 2008, 2009. ALFONSI: And the mall? WADDELL: The mall was not a bailout. The mall was an investment. ALFONSI: And you are receiving returns on that investment? WADDELL: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. It was an investment.…
How much tithe money did Ensign Peak hold on behalf of the Church? Waddell gabe no official answer… but also, yeah, it’s a shitload.
ALFONSI: What is the value right now of Ensign Peak's assets? WADDELL: Yeah… that's something I can't share with you right now. I know there've been—there've been reports on—on approximates and that kind of thing, and—and that's as far as we can go right now. ALFONSI: It's been estimated at $150 billion. Does that sound correct? WADDELL: That's an estimate that some have made. ALFONSI: Are we in the ballpark or no? WADDELL: We have significant resources.
That almost makes it sound like $150 billion is an underestimate. The fact that he couldn’t just say “No, that’s inaccurate, of course we aren’t hoarding that much” says a lot—especially since he could’ve given that response even if they were sitting on $149 billion.
How much of the money is being used for charity, as intended? Waddell tried to side-step that question, too:
ALFONSI: Give us a sense of what percentage is going out the door of the money under management. WADDELL: To be honest, we—we've never looked at it as a percentage. We looked at it based on needs to make sure that we're comfortable with how many years worth we have in case of financial difficulties, in case of financial crisis to make sure we can continue church operations. We just want to make sure that that is sufficient.
Here’s how you know you’re more moral than the Mormon Church: If you won $100 billion in the lottery, you wouldn’t even blink at the thought of giving tens of billions of dollars to charity because you wouldn’t even notice it’s gone.
No one needs that kind of money because no reasonable person could ever spend even a fraction of that kind of money. That becomes even more true when all the cash in the account is meant to be used for charity!
Waddell made it sound like the Church was just saving up for a rainy day. Or, given the amount we’re talking here, a few rainy millennia.
Finally, Alfonsi asked Waddell if the secrecy was damaging the Church’s reputation. He couldn’t even bring himself to admit it looks bad.
ALFONSI: What about, you know, the idea that secrecy builds mistrust? WADDELL: Well, we don't feel it's being secret. We feel it's being confidential. ALFONSI: What's the difference? WADDELL: The difference is— guess it's a point of view… it's confidential in order to maintain the focus on what our purpose is and what the mission of the church is, rather than the church has X amount of money. ALFONSI: But don't you agree this would be a non-issue if there was more transparency? WADDELL: No, because then everyone would be telling us what they wanted us to do with the money.
There’s no real difference here between secrecy and confidentiality. The Church doesn’t want its own members to know how much money it’s sitting on because it wants to take even more money from its members.
The Mormon Church is nothing more than a business that uses religion as a tool to extract cash from people gullible enough to believe it’s what Heavenly Father wants them to do. Religion isn’t the business; it’s the product.
The excuse that people would have their own ideas of how to use the money—as if that’s a bad thing—just shows you how much contempt Church leaders have for their own members. People like Waddell believe they’re the only ones capable of making decisions—like investing in a mall—while the people who want to help the poor are apparently too dumb to understand how money works.
As one commenter on the Ex-Mormon subreddit put it, “The church asked us throughout our most vulnerable years if we masturbated. We have every right to ask them how they spent our money.”
At no point did Waddell say anything that cast the Church’s financial decisions in a positive light. How could he? There’s no justification for what they’re doing.
On Monday, the LDS Church released a short statement pushing back against the segment without actually denying anything that was reported:
It’s unfortunate ‘60 Minutes’ sought to elevate a story based on unfounded allegations by a former employee who has a different view on how the church should manage its resources.
His “different view,” to be clear, is that the money should go to charity as intended. And if the allegations are “unfounded,” the Church has had repeated opportunities to set the record straight, but they’re sticking with the “confidential” argument.
It should be noted that Nielsen stands to gain a lot of money—tens of billions of dollars—if the IRS believes Ensign Peak must pay taxes on the money it’s hoarding. But even if money was an incentive for him to speak out, Nielsen wouldn’t be getting any of it unless his allegations were true.
As I’ve said before, though, the most important thing that could come out of this segment is more Mormons becoming outraged by their own religious leaders lying to them, refusing to hand over any more money, and leaving the LDS Church entirely.
But if they haven’t been upset up to this point, there’s no reason to believe they’ll come to their senses now.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)