Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie has used leaked documents to allege Hillsong Church broke financial laws in Australia and around the world, while accusing founder Brian Houston of spending lavishly on private jets, luxury retreats, designer goods and custom skateboards.
Wilkie used parliamentary privilege on Thursday to make the allegations regarding the church’s finances, which he claims were leaked to him by a whistleblower, including that the church earned $80 million more income in Australia than it reported publicly.
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie has accused Hillsong of financial impropriety.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen.
The claims about lavish spending and misuse of funds are detailed in tens of thousands of documents including credit card statements, details of first class and business flights, the use of private jets, entertainment and designer gifts.
The 17 binders full of documents, tabled in parliament and seen by this masthead, are the basis for Wilkie’s claims. They include a 42-page whistleblower disclosure statement that highlights further examples of the alleged spending.
Wilkie also claimed the documents were offered to the Australian Tax Office, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission and the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission last year under whistleblower legislation.
“Not one of those agencies acted and that is a failure of regulatory oversight every bit as alarming as Hillsong’s criminality,” Wilkie said, claiming that he had verified the documents.
Brian Houston Credit:Brook Mitchell
The Tasmanian MP said the documents showed Hillsong was “breaking numerous laws in Australia and around the world relating to fraud, money laundering and tax evasion”.
Wilkie said church money was used “to do the kind of shopping that would embarrass a Kardashian”.
“For example, this document shows how in 2021 four members of the Houston family and their friends enjoyed a three-day luxury retreat in Cancun, Mexico using $150,000 of church money,” he said, holding up a piece of paper in parliament.
“A $6500 Cartier watch for Bobbie Houston, $2500 for Louis Vuitton luggage, a $2500 watch for Phil Dooley, two watches worth $15,000 for Joel and Julia A’Bell, shopping sprees for designer clothes at Saks Fifth Avenue and even $16,000 for custom skateboards.”
The documents tabled state that in 2020, when returning from a trip to the United States the Houstons “failed to disclose it was the tithes incomes from the Hillsong congregation that paid for their upgrade at a cost of $5389 in addition to the mandatory government quarantine fee of $4016”.
Claims about Hillsong spending made in the documents include $82,000 on allowances for pastors and executive staff to purchase meals, $26,000 on entertainment, $37,000 on flowers, $171,000 on gifts, $288,000 on honorariums to guest speakers, $13,000 on high tea and more.
“Conversely, the amount spent on helping ‘people in need’ included just $2900 for pastoral care direct costs, and $1500 on pastoral care visitations,” the whistleblower’s documents allege.
Brian Houston “treated private jets like Ubers”
The document also alleges the church employs celebrity songwriters and designates them as pastors so they receive a portion of their salary tax-free.
Wilkie said the documents showed former church leader Houston “treated private jets like Ubers, again all with church money. For example, in one three-month period, Brian Houston’s trips cost $55,000, $52,000, $30,000, $22,000 and $2000.”
Comment was sought from Brian Houston’s lawyer Peter Hodges and his barrister Philip Boulton.
Wilkie alleged that Hillsong money had been improperly used to pay music royalties to Houston’s son and to buy the Festival Hall in Melbourne for $15.7 million. The whistleblower documents allege that “it appears that Jobkeeper funds were used by Hillsong” to fund the purchase of the hall.
A spokesman for Hillsong Church said it had been “open and transparent with our congregation about past governance failures, and over the past twelve months we have engaged independent, professional assistance to overhaul our governance and accountability procedures”.
“The claims made in federal parliament by Mr Andrew Wilkie are out of context and relate to untested allegations made by an employee in an ongoing legal case. These allegations, made under parliamentary privilege, are in many respects wrong, and it is disappointing he made no effort to contact us first. If he did so we would have answered his questions and provided him with financial records to address his concerns.”
“Hillsong has sought independent legal and accounting advice on these matters since the employee involved in the legal case made these claims, and we believe that we have complied with all legal and compliance requirements. We have filed our defence and will provide evidence at the appropriate time. We cannot do so at this stage due to the ongoing legal case… We are fully cooperating with regulatory authorities as part of their enquiries.”
Wilkie also alleged the new head of Hillsong, Phil Dooley, misled the congregation about his spending.
“[He] has told church followers he only flies economy. But these documents show him clocking up $58,000 in business class flights for him and his daughter to Guatemala, $42,000 in business class flights to Mexico, $32,000 in business class flights from Cape Town to Sydney via the US.”
The Hillsong spokesman said those figures “have been misrepresented”.
“Part of these fares are being paid by him personally and a large portion was reimbursed by a church Pastor Phil visited that is unrelated to Hillsong. Hillsong is a global church and it is the role of our global senior pastor to visit Hillsong churches around the world.”
Wilkie also alleged that hundreds of thousands of dollars in honorariums were paid to US pastors overseas.
“Sending millions of dollars of Australian charitable donations overseas is illegal in some circumstances,” Wilkie said.
Assistant Minister for Charities Andrew Leigh, who oversees the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, said Wilkie “has raised a number of serious issues, and I understand the ACNC will review the allegations and documents”.
Assistant Minister for Charities Andrew Leigh, who oversees the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, said it will review the allegations and documents.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
A spokesperson for the tax office said it could not comment on the tax affairs of any individual or entity.
“We can assure the community that we take whistleblowers and their tip-offs very seriously, and analyse every tip-off. As above, due to taxpayer secrecy, we cannot inform a whistleblower about any action that is being taken or has been taken as a result of a tip-off.”
Comment was also sought from ASIC.
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