Lawyers in Georgia battled over access to the financial records of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) on Monday.
In the first hearing of a proposed class-action suit, representatives for donors Derek and Dora Carrier argued they needed “expedited discovery” to allow them access to the hundreds of thousands of financial documents they say will prove that “RZIM allowed donated funds to be diverted for use in Zacharias’s schemes to perpetrate sexual abuse.”
The federal judge denied the motion to expedite the process, but the legal team is expected to make their case for access again after proving the grounds for the suit.
The Carriers’ attorneys are asking for records of all donations made to RZIM since 2004, when Zacharias became part owner of Touch of Eden, a massage therapy spa located in a shopping center near RZIM headquarters. They also want documentation of how those donations were used, particularly if they went to payments made to defend Zacharias against allegations of sexual abuse, to pay off accusers and hush up allegations, or to hire public relations and crisis management professionals to protect RZIM’s reputation.
“RZIM is sitting on a pile of money, and no one knows how RZIM is spending that money,” Drew Ashby, of the firm Ashby Thelen Lowry, told CT. “Our clients view this as God’s money, not their money, and they want that money back to invest in legitimate ministry purposes to build the kingdom of God.”
In a brief filed ahead of the hearing at the federal courthouse in Atlanta Monday, the Carriers’ attorneys urged the court to remember that RZIM leaders have “shown themselves to be deceitful.”
“They defended Zacharias in the face of accusations of sexual abuse, failed to investigate those accusations, used donated funds to finance sexual misconduct, and continue to use donated funds for personal and other purposes that fall outside of their stated missions,” wrote attorneys Michael McGlamry, Brad Sohn, and Graham and MaryBeth LippSmith. Four firms are representing the Carriers and other potential members of the class.
RZIM has acknowledged Zacharias sexually harassed women in multiple countries. The RZIM board took some responsibility in a public statement in February.
“We were trusted by our staff, our donors, and the public to mentor, oversee, and ensure the accountability of Ravi Zacharias, and in this we have failed,” the statement said. “We regret that we allowed our misplaced trust in Ravi to result in him having less oversight and accountability than would have been wise and loving.”
The lawsuit, however, alleges that RZIM didn’t just fail to keep its famous founder in check, but gave him the resources necessary to cover up sexual abuse and continue abusing women.
According to the investigation paid for by RZIM, Zacharias used money designated for “humanitarian effort” to pay four massage therapists. He paid for their school and living expenses and provided one with an apartment near his writing retreat in Bangkok. One therapist told investigators that after Zacharias arranged for her financial support, he demanded sex, and she felt obligated to comply because she had accepted the money.
The report did not find any evidence that anyone within RZIM or on its board knew about sexual misconduct. It was not, however, an exhaustive investigation and did not focus on corporate complicity.
RZIM hired Guidepost Solutions, a management consulting firm that has specialized in sexual abuse cases, to evaluate “structures, culture, policies, processes, finances, and practices” and to propose reforms. The evaluation appears to be ongoing.
On Monday, the Carriers’ attorneys asked for quick access to records of “payments and/or transfers” to Guidepost, “and/or any other consultant, victim-advocate, or person who is engaged in public relations, crisis management, marketing, or rebranding.”
Sarah Davis, who replaced her father Zacharias as CEO of RZIM in 2019, told the court it would likely cost more than $100,000 to give the Carriers’ attorneys everything they’re asking for. She estimates the process would take 45 days and require her, her executive team, and some of RZIM’s downsized staff to devote their full attention to the requests. (Earlier this year, RZIM laid off more than 60 percent of staff.) The ministry would probably have to bring in additional accountants as well.
Davis also argued that some of the information the Carriers’ lawyers want to see is confidential and donors have no legal right to know what RZIM does with their money. Each donor, when thanked and given a receipt for their tax-deductible donation, is told that “contributions are solicited with the understanding that RZIM has complete control over the use of donated funds.”
After listening to the arguments from both sides for about an hour, Judge Thomas Thrash denied the motion for expedited discovery. The Carriers’ attorneys will be allowed to ask for access to RZIM’s financial records again, but first they have to prove there are grounds to go forward with the lawsuit and convince the court to certify a class of plaintiffs represented by the Carriers.
“We were asking for leeway, but the judge chose to stick with the rules,” Ashby told CT. “We are going to get to those books. The question is how long can … RZIM keep us from looking behind the curtain.”
RZIM’s lawyers, from the firm Watson Spence LLP, did not return calls requesting comment.
RZIM has filed a motion seeking to have the case dismissed. The ministry’s representatives say the Carriers and other donors who gave to RZIM were not harmed by Zacharias’s abuse.
“Their claims are based upon the faulty premise that Mr. Zacharias’ misconduct transformed the Carriers’ gift into an injury, Mr. Zacharias’ life into a nullity, and RZIM into a fraud,” the lawyers argue. “This is not reality and the deficiencies in the Carriers’complaint are fatal, open, and obvious.”
The Carriers gave RZIM $30,000 in 2020. Derek Carrier plays professional football for the Las Vegas Raiders, and he and his wife, Dora, were regular listeners to RZIM podcasts.
RZIM’s attorneys also say that even if the Carriers or other donors were harmed, the federal court has no jurisdiction over the matter because RZIM is registered as a church and thus protected from government interference by the First Amendment. RZIM’s lawyers say the dispute is over “purely ecclesiastical assertions” and the court is not entitled to rule on whether Zacharias conformed to the “moral standards of ‘real’ Christian leaders” or RZIM exercised “appropriate ecclesiastical discipline.”
The court will rule on the motion to dismiss next.