Former parishioners say they're poised to file a RICO lawsuit, invoking the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act—typically associated with organized-crime cases—to find out what happened to the millions of dollars that were donated to the church over the years.
Here's an explanation of what they're planning:
Though Mars Hill regularly released financial statements, they aren't verifiable. The US does not require churches to be as financially transparent as other nonprofit organizations.
The plaintiffs are particularly interested in the fate of Mars Hill's Global Fund: In the summer of last year, Mars Hill admitted in a letter that millions of dollars had been raised, ostensibly for projects in Ethiopia and India, that were quietly deposited in the church's general coffers.
Parishioners protested at the time, but the church said it was just a misunderstanding. Whatever might have happened, an internal church memo, which was leaked to reporters, paints a bleak and cynical picture of the church's motives to shunt Global Fund money toward "highly visible, marketable projects" that would "deflect criticism” for a low cost.
If you're one of Driscoll's many, many detractors, you can contribute to the new lawsuit at this fundraiser page. "Think 'evangelical mafia,'" former parishioner Rob Sluys says in the video above, explaining the lawsuit. "It's racketeering and corruption when you conspire with specific intent to deceive or defraud. It's racketeering and corruption when you take funds designated by donors for specific uses and redirect them to the general fund, where they end up being a part of your high, six-figure income."
Former parishioner Rob Smith, who is not a plaintiff but became an early and strong leader of anti-Mars Hill dissent, says the lawsuit will get filed unless the church leadership voluntarily opens up its books and is transparent about where its money went. "You've got a multimillion dollar organization, paid for by donors, being dissolved in the dark," he says.
Nobody, according to him, is in it for the money. "There's little money to be had," Smith says, adding that as far as he knows, none of the church's biggest donors—who'd stand the most to gain financially—have jumped into the suit. "It's more for the exposure and for accountability."
Smith says lead attorney Brian Fahling was "even more furious than we were" as he pored through the data to see if the former parishioners had a case. "If I were a megachurch leader, I'd be calling up Mark [Driscoll] telling him to settle out of court," Smith says. Sluys says in the video above that a lawsuit like this is unprecedented. If the RICO suit is successful, it could set a precedent for other congregations who feel duped.
"If we file," Smith says, "we're going to win."
Mars Hill leaders stopped responding to requests for comment from The Stranger in 2014, when I was working on this story.