Racing The Washington Post on a $100 billion story

By Michelle Baker

A whistleblower in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reached out to a friend because he wanted media attention on a 74-page complaint his twin brother had filed with the IRS on Nov. 21, 2019.

The focus of the complaint: the church had secretly put members’ money into a set of investment funds, where it grew to $100 billion in just over 20 years.

That friend connected the whistleblower, Lars Nielsen, with Paul Glader, executive editor of Religion Unplugged, a non-profit online news magazine.

Paul Glader portrait“When I saw the findings, I knew it would be a big story,” Glader said.

Glader was a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal for 10 years and has written stories for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Christianity Today and Forbes.com.

Nielsen told Glader he had sent the complaint to The New York Times and The Washington Post, but he had not received a response from either. Frustrated, Nielsen agreed to an exclusive story with Religion Unplugged.

“He had this on his conscience,” Glader said. “He wanted it to appear in December for end-of-year giving and settling tithes with the church.”

Glader read the complaint and began investigating the laws related to Nielsen’s claims. He retained an attorney on behalf of Religion Unplugged.

The complaint stated that the church’s investment division, Ensign Peak Advisors, Inc. (EPA), had not met the requirements for operating as a tax-exempt organization. EPA is registered as a 509(a)3 and serves as an auxiliary to the church; however, according to the complaint, EPA has made no religious, educational, or charitable distributions in more than 20 years.

The complaint urged the IRS to strip EPA of its tax-exempt status. It also alleged that EPA could owe billions in taxes.

Story required extreme care

“There were elements in the report that were easily verifiable and other elements that were not,” Glader said. “I wanted to be extra careful about some of the assertions about non-profit structures and tax laws.”

Based on this careful reporting strategy, Glader bumped back his publishing deadline by one week and set a new deadline of Monday, Dec. 16.

“We considered every word, every sentence, every fact,” Glader said.

In early December, though, Nielsen told Glader he had heard from The Washington Post.

At that point, Nielsen was faced with leveraging his promise of an exclusive to Glader against greater media exposure in The Post.

“He was trying to be as honest as he could with both sides,” Glader said. “He informed me that The Post was working on something.”

The Washington Post had created a Rapid Response Investigative Team to cover the story and hired a reporter from The Guardian. It also put an IRS specialist on retainer.

And Nielsen told The Washington Post when Glader planned to publish his story.

Religion Unplugged, The Post in a race

“I was hoping they would let me go first,” said Glader, who wanted to push the publication date back one more day to Tuesday, Dec. 17, to contact EPA and the church for comment. “But I realized they might try to publish the story on Monday.”

Glader did reach EPA Managing Director Roger Clark by phone–something The Post did not do. Clark’s response before hanging up was straightforward: “We don’t really answer questions with the public press. So, thanks.”

An email from church spokesman Eric D. Hawkins indicated that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not give information about its financial decisions beyond what it provides on its website.

Glader made both contacts before Tuesday.

On the evening of Monday, Dec. 16, The Post published its story.

Glader published 20 minutes later.

On Tuesday, the story appeared on page one of The Post’s print edition.

“We broke the story at the same time,” Glader said. “It was essentially the same story with some differences between them.”

To name the whistleblower, or not?

Perhaps the biggest difference in their coverage was that The Washington Post named the whistleblower who filed the complaint–Nielsen’s brother David A. Nielsen–and Glader did not.

“We felt there was an ethical issue there,” Glader said. “Federal code doesn’t look favorably on naming whistleblowers, and it was not worth a possible lawsuit.”

Glader said Religion Unplugged named David in its second story, since The Washington Post had already made his identity public.

The Washington Post also published allegations that, as a 509(a)3, Ensign Peak Advisors, Inc., was committing fraud and violating tax laws. Glader’s expert analyst said it was unknown if EPA’s actions were fraudulent.

“It’s a gray area of the law and unclear,” Glader said. “And we don’t know what kind of 509(a)3 Ensign is, and that makes a difference.”

Though the two news outlets broke the story minutes apart, The Washington Post began Tweeting that its story was exclusive. After Glader spoke out via Twitter about the disingenuous nature of this claim, The Post removed the exclusive label from its headline on the web and made no more similar claims on Twitter.

As a result of the story, Glader said Religion Unplugged’s web traffic in December was its best since its February launch.

He also allowed other news outlets, including Zero Hedge and Newsweek, to republish his story.

“I don’t have hard feelings toward anyone,” Glader said. “We did things right, and I even thought we were fair to the church in our follow-up stories that week.”

Practicing what he teaches

Since this story broke, close to 30 more stories have been published related to the complaint. This reporting has put pressure on the church to intensify its response to its members, which included three YouTube videos from church leaders. Glader said he is confident the reporting will pressure the government to act.

“I don’t know what’s happening in the IRS related to this story,” he said. “but if it’s on the front page of The Post and other sites, we should see some action in state legislatures or Washington.”

Glader is unsure if the news coverage has impacted church attendance, membership, or tithing.

“The church may already be struggling a bit on some of those fronts,” he said. “Transparency is good for religion. It’s good for the members, the same way it’s good for governments.”

Glader is an associate professor of Journalism, Media and Entrepreneurship at The King’s College in New York City, where he directs the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute. He is also professional freedom & responsibility chair for AEJMC’s Religion and Media Interest Group.

He said he did not talk with his students about the story while he was working on it, but he is glad to see his students talking and Tweeting about it. He intends to use this story as a case study in classes.

“I think it’s good for our students to see us practicing what we teach,” he said.

Religion Unplugged is funded by The Media Project, a global network of journalists that provides worldwide training for journalists in the area of religion. Glader is executive director of The Media Project.

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