The show 60 Minutes broadcast a segment about the Mormon Billions. Sharyn Alfonsi follows up with whistleblower David Nielsen who resigned from his position at Ensign Peak Advisors and wrote the whistleblower report in 2019. Since then, the Mormon church has been fined 5 million dollars by the SEC for illegal filing practices, but Nielsen believes the church’s tax-exempt status should be challenged further. The program also interviews a member of the Presiding Bishopric, Christopher Waddell for a perspective from the church. The church has already responded to the settlement with the SEC claiming “The matter is closed” with the clear position that they will not discuss these financial matters with the public or even with the church’s own membership.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its investment arm, Ensign Peak Advisors, were fined $5 million in February for using shell companies to hide the size of a $32 billion equity portfolio, according to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. A former Ensign Peak portfolio manager blew the whistle on the fund to the IRS in 2019, after working at the firm for nine years. He alleged that the church had accumulated $100 billion in assets and, instead of spending the money on good works, used the money to bail out business with church ties. He claimed that the church violated its religious tax exemption status.
Church leaders have denied the allegations.https://www.cbsnews.com/news/whistleblower-david-nielsen-speaks-out-after-reporting-mormon-church-to-irs-in-2019-60-minutes-2023-05-14/
The interview is conducted by Sharyn Alfonsi with David Nielsen, a former manager at the investment firm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), called Ensign Peak. Nielsen alleges that during his time at Ensign Peak, the value of the church’s investments exceeded $100 billion. However, instead of being used for charitable purposes as Nielsen expected, he claims the funds were used as a clandestine hedge fund.
Nielsen expresses his disillusionment with the church’s handling of the funds, stating that they were not used as they were intended to be. He mentions the practice of tithing, where church members are expected to contribute around 10 percent of their income, and explains that a portion of the tithing money is put into a reserve fund at Ensign Peak for investment purposes.
According to Nielsen, the reserve fund had grown to over $100 billion, which he believed could have been used to solve significant problems and make a positive impact. However, he alleges that the money was instead withheld and used in ways that violated the church’s tax-exempt status, such as bailing out a for-profit church-owned insurance company and investing in a mall.
In the interview, Bishop Christopher Waddell, one of the church leaders overseeing finances, disputes Nielsen’s claims and emphasizes that the funds are intended for the continued operation and future of the church. He defends the church’s actions, stating that the insurance company was owned by the church, and the mall was seen as an investment.
Nielsen filed a whistleblower complaint with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 2019, claiming that Ensign Peak violated its tax-exempt status by directing funds to for-profit businesses. Subsequently, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) launched its own investigation into Ensign Peak. The SEC found that the church had failed to accurately report $32 billion in securities over nearly 20 years, and it fined the church and Ensign Peak a total of $5 million. It included the church in the fine because it found these actions were under the approval and direction of the First Presidency and not as Waddell claims just following lawyer recommendations.
The interview raises questions about the lack of transparency surrounding the church’s financial activities and the appropriateness of using charitable funds for for-profit ventures. Nielsen expresses his disappointment and desire for the church to pay the taxes he believes are owed on the accumulated wealth. It also highlights the complexities and debates surrounding the management and use of funds within religious organizations, as well as the potential conflicts between financial practices and the core values of faith and charity.
This program may not be available globally, but here is the transcript. First up is the intro teaser clip at the beginning of the program:
Teaser Clip Transcript:
Every year, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints collects seven billion dollars in contributions from its 17 million members. The church has its own investment firm. But there are questions now about how millions of those dollars have been used by the famously private church.
What about, you know, the idea that secrecy builds mistrust?
Well, we don’t feel it’s being secret. We feel it’s been confidential.
What’s the difference?
Full 60 Minutes Program Transcript
Sharyn Alfonsi: Every religion has its mysteries. One of the closest guarded secrets of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been its wealth. Tonight, you will hear for the first time about its remarkable size from a former manager at the church’s investment firm. David Nielsen says that during his nine years managing money at the church firm, the value of its investments ballooned past 100 billion dollars. That would make it the largest treasure held by any religious fund in America. But instead of spending that money to do good, David Nielsen alleges it was used in ways that bent the law and broke his faith.
David Nielsen: I thought I was going to work for a charity. I thought that’s what my skills were going to do: was help build the charity and do good with things. And the funds were never used for that. It was really a clandestine hedge fund.
Sharyn: A clandestine hedge fund?
Sharyn: How so?
David: Those funds weren’t used the way, they were appropriated to be used.
Sharyn: So, how were they being used?
David: Once the money went in, it didn’t go out.
Sharyn: David Nielsen was a senior portfolio manager for the investment arm of the church called Ensign Peak, advisors. In 2009, Nielsen, who says he was at about, Mormon, was recruited away from a lucrative job on Wall Street to work for the firm, I’ll block from church headquarters in Salt Lake City.
David: You know, on Wall Street, you spend your skills working to make really rich people a little bit more rich, but there is something different about the prospect of putting your skills to work for something that you think is really going to build the kingdom. It’s really going to make a difference.
Sharyn: But Nielsen says he grew troubled by what he saw and Ensign Peak. He says the firm used false records and statements to masquerade as a charity, stockpiling money and misleading church members.
Sharyn: Every year the church collects estimated seven billion dollars in contributions from its 17 million members. The church expects members to contribute about 10 percent of their income, a practice known as tithing. Explain how the tithe is supposed to be used.
David: Tithing is what’s used to build buildings, it’s what’s used to pay light bills, tithing is what’s used to Operate some of the church’s programs.
Sharyn: Whatever’s left over, about a billion dollars a year is put into a reserve fund at Ensign Peak and invested because Ensign Peak is registered as a non-profit it all grows tax-free. David Nielsen says, since it was created in 1997, the reserve fund has swelled beyond 100 billion dollars, twice the size of Harvard’s Endowment or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
David: You could solve big problems with 100 billion dollars.
Sharyn: Is that during the bothers you about all this?
David: I thought we’re gonna change the world. And we just… grew the bank account.
Sharyn: Did any of your former bosses explain how the money was going to be used one day?
David: The answer was always the second coming. It’s a bit tongue and cheek, but deep down, I think a lot of the employees really did believe that.
Sharyn: Publicly church leaders called it a rainy day fund but in 2013, Nielsen says, one of his bosses shared this document out of a meeting that showed 1.4 billion dollars from the fund, went to a mall being built on land owned by the church and 600 million dollars was used to prop up a for-profit church owned insurance company called beneficial life.
David: Well, I’m not an expert on charities, but I’ve been around the block enough to know that charitable organizations can’t bail out for-profit businesses and maintain their charitable status.
Sharyn: And so when they gave this money to bail out a for-profit venture, What was your reaction?
David: What are we doing? How is this okay?
Sharyn: David Nielsen says he hit his breaking point in 2018, after a website called Mormon-leaks linked church members to companies that existed only on paper, those cell companies held, billions of dollars in stocks and bonds. What nobody knew outside church leadership was that those assets were actually controlled by Ensign Peak. Nielsen says the firm called an emergency meeting.
Sharyn: What was the explanation?
David: These entities were to hide the assets from the members. The chief investment officer said that if we were to change and start recording these securities in our own name, it would bring undue attention to the firm. And that attention would be potentially damaging. And after the meeting, I went and confronted him. What do you mean by “potentially damaging”? He said, Dave, we’re going to lose our tax-exempt status. I knew in that moment that I was in the wrong place.
Sharyn: He resigned in 2019 and filed a 74-page whistleblower complaint with the internal revenue service alleging that ensigned peak violated its tax-exempt status by moving money to for-profit businesses.
Christopher Waddell: It’s not just incorrect. It’s flat-out wrong.
Sharyn: Christopher Waddell says David Nielsen didn’t have a full picture of Ensign Peak. Waddell is one of three church bishops, who oversees finances.
Waddell: As a Christian church, we believe that someday Jesus Christ will return, but that’s not why we have those resources. It’s for the continued operation and for the future.
Sharyn: David Nielsen alleged that Ensign Peak violated its tax-exempt status by directing money to church businesses, how would you characterize how that money was used?
Waddell: The church actually owned beneficial life and, fortunately, the church had the resources to bail out beneficial life during the financial crisis, 2008-2009.
Sharyn: And the mall?
Waddell: The Mall is not a bailout. The mall is an investment and…
Sharyn: You are receiving returns?
Waddell: Oh, absolutely. It was an investment.
Sharyn: Waddell says the insurance company has paid back most of the bailout money, but the church would not disclose the details of that deal or the mall investment. Unlike other non-profits, religious organizations don’t have to fully disclose all financial information to the IRS.
Sharyn: 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 been reports on approximates and that kind of thing, and that’s as far as we can go, right?
Sharyn: It’s been estimated at 50 billion dollars. Does that sound correct?
Waddell: Um, that’s an estimate that some have made.
Sharyn: Are we in the ballpark? or no?
Waddell: Um, We have significant resources.
Sharyn: Give us a sense of what percentage is going out the door of the money under management.
Waddell: To be honest, we 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 or financial crisis, to make sure that we can continue church operations. We just want to make sure that that is sufficient.
Sharyn: David Nielsen says he did not intend for his complaint to the IRS to become public but in 2019, his brother shared it with the Washington Post. Nielsen, who, in his free time, races motorcycles says, he was shunned by some of his friends and neighbors in Salt Lake City. It wasn’t until 2021, two years later, that David Nielsen heard from investigators, not from the IRS, but the Securities and Exchange Commission which launched its own probe into Ensign Peak after that website story linked the church to shell companies.
Sharyn: What information did you give to the SEC?
David: Everything, to help them see the big picture.
Sharyn: To protect market fairness and transparency any firm with more than 100 million dollars in security must file accurate reports on its holdings with the SEC. But in February, the SEC announced the Church of Latter-day Saints and Ensign Peak failed to do that. SEC investigators found the church went to great lengths, to hide 32 billion dollars in securities over nearly 20 years, it created 13 shell companies that were assigned a local phone number that would go directly to voicemail in case regulators checked in.
David: Here they had these back office accounts, who’d never bought a bond or sold stock a day in their life, signing signatory pages for a portfolio that didn’t exist.
Sharyn: The SEC fined the church and Ensign Peak a total of five million dollars. Bishop Christopher Waddell told us it was the church’s lawyers who advised them to create the shell companies.
Sharyn: 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.
Sharyn: What’s the difference?
Waddell: The difference is, uh… I 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.
Sharyn: But don’t you agree? This would be a non-issue if there was more transparency.
Waddell: No, because then everyone will be telling us what they wanted to do with the money.
Sharyn: Last year, the church says, it spent over a billion dollars on humanitarian aid, including food production.
Waddell: In any given month, you may have an average of nine transfers going from Ensign Peak back to the church to fund all church operations, all humanitarian work, education work–all the work of the church.
David: Money’s going in and out of the cash accounts all the time, but Ensign Peak funds were never used for any charitable purpose, to my knowledge, the whole time I was there. So there’s a bit of a distinction here that’s important.
Sharyn: Explain that to me.
David: Well, it’s a difference between your checking account and maybe your retirement account. They’re used for different purposes and you don’t get to pretend that one is affecting the other.
Phil Hackney: The fundamental claim to me is that Ensign Peak brings money in, and it’s the “Hotel California” – it never comes out.
Sharyn: Phil Hackney worked in the Office of Chief Council of the IRS and teaches tax law. He concedes it’s complex and the case falls into a gray area.
Sharyn: The Church would say we give millions of dollars out every year in humanitarian, work how much is enough by the standards of the IRS?
Hackney: We know within private foundations, it’s five percent of assets. There’s no clarity when it comes to public charities, and certainly not with churches, but I would expect to see something like two or three percent of assets being spent out to justify that status.
Sharyn: But how do you know if they’re spending two or three percent of assets if we don’t know what the assets are?
Hackney: We have to rely on them behaving well.
Sharyn: They said they bailed out this insurance company. That’s the word they used. Is that a problem?
Hackney: It is a problem, in my opinion, if they have moved money from a non-profit to a for-profit.
Sharyn: So how likely do you think it would be that the IRS would ever investigate this?
Hackney: Slim. The political risk is so great that it comes with real danger. At the same time, there’s a real risk to the rule of law if the IRS doesn’t come in and enforce those rules.
Sharyn: David Nielsen says honesty is a tenant of the faith he wants and Ensign Peak Advisors to pay the taxes he says it owes on the 100 billion dollar fortune built from tithing. If the IRS decides Nielsen is right, he could be rewarded with up to 30 percent of what’s collected. The IRS does not comment on whistleblower complaints.
Sharyn: Why are you speaking now?
David: It’s time, Sharon. We gave the IRS and the SEC all the professional courtesy, this is just too important to fall through the cracks.
Sharyn: Is it possible that you were dead wrong?
David: No. I know what I saw. I know what I know.https://www.cbsnews.com/news/mormon-church-ensign-peak-whistleblower-david-nielsen-allegations-60-minutes-2023-05-14/
60 Minutes Overtime Transcripts
Besides the main program there are additional clips and interviews included in the story dubbed as 60 minutes overtime, here are the transcripts for those. Some of these are the longer segments and discussions which are included in the main program. It is interesting to have these full discussions rather than only the smaller soundbites from the main program in some cases.
Nielsen on working for the Mormon church
Sharyn: This week on 60 minutes, we spoke to David Nielsen, a former senior portfolio manager at Ensign Peak Advisors, the firm is the investment arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2019, David Nielsen filed a whistleblower complaint with the IRS that alleged Ensign Peak had violated its tax exemption from the IRS. The IRS does not comment on whistleblower complaints. We met Nielsen in Salt Lake City. This is the first time he has spoken publicly about his whistleblower complaint and why he came forward.
Sharyn: So you’re doing well on Wall Street, you go to business school, surely, you could have stayed at Wall Street and made a fortune. Why did you decide to come to Utah?
David: Because they asked. I was in business school in 2009, and the chief investment officer said, please come in, we want you to work here. And over the next year or so, I was recruited into Ensign Peak.
Sharyn: And what did you know about the firm, the size of it?
David: Almost, I mean really almost nothing, it’s very secretive. I had no idea the size of the assets when I was even hired. It wasn’t until the very first day that I knew. They asked me to guess, how much money do you think we have? I guessed 30 billion. A little more than that at the time but we just didn’t know.
Sharyn: What was the culture like at Ensign Peak?
David: There’s a difference between the people and the culture. Some of the people there are the best people I’ve ever known, really! And I love a lot of them and I know this is hard for them. But the culture grew into something that was unhealthy.
Sharyn: What do you mean unhealthy?
David: In order to hide 100 billion dollars, you can’t do it with just one lie. It’s a lot to keep that going. When you build a company on so much secrecy and a need to conceal, it creates a leadership tone, from the top, that we can do whatever we want, as long as it’s to stay hidden.
Sharyn: How important was it for assets to stay in?
David: It was. Mission one.60 Minutes Overtime, Nielsen on working for the Mormon church
David Nielsen Explains Where Funds from Tithing go and What is Tithing?
Sharyn: Explain how the tithe is supposed to be used.
David: It’s swept into Ensign Peak accounts every week. Eventually, the cash builds until it becomes a substantial amount. Then that tithing will get allocated to Ensign Peak’s funds. Tithing from the church’s perspective is to do the work of building the Kingdom of God. Tithing is what’s used to build buildings, it’s what’s used to pay light bills. Tithing is what’s used to operate some of the church’s programs. But tithing is also used for saving. The church has made it clear a significant portion of their tithing is saved on a regular basis, probably around 20 percent. That seems like a reasonable use of tithing–to save for a rainy day.
Sharyn: They say that the money’s tithe with no strings to it that it’s a matter of trust and that you have to trust that it’s going to be invested in the right way, and that’s what we’re here for.
David: Well, it’s easy to manage if you don’t have to be accountable, right? If you just say, trust us and we won’t tell you. Then sure! It’s easier to manage. You can move money around however you want. Anyone who asks a question isn’t gonna get an answer. I don’t think that’s healthy.60 Minutes Overtime, What is Tithing?
Why Nielsen Reported the Church’s Fund
Sharyn: Why’d you file the complaint with the IRS?
David: This is too big a deal. This is important. This is not an example for how we should be. I couldn’t fix things from inside. At some point, I knew I had to do something outside. I didn’t know at the time, when I left, what to do.
Sharyn: If they say, he’s just trying to cash in, what do you say?
David: People have said, far worse things about being over the last several years. And, you know, I think people will say whatever they’re going to say. The congress set up the whistleblower program the way that they did, I don’t profess to understand it. I tell you I’m grateful for it. I really am.
Sharyn: This has been difficult on you, obviously: personally, on your family, and professionally. Any regrets?
Sharyn: I try so hard not to live my life with regrets, but I think we all have some. I did my best. Sometimes your best isn’t good enough. That’s okay. We just move forward.
Sharyn: What’s at stake?
David: Integrity. Integrity is at stake: Mine, Ensign Peak’s, and the Church’s. We gotta go through a process and make the world better.60 Minutes Overtime, Why Nielsen reported the church’s fund
Bishop Waddell Defends the Church’s Handling of it’s Investment Fund
Sharyn: There are Critics who say this sounds an awful lot like an investment bank and they’re not paying taxes.
Waddell: It’s not an investment bank. It’s the church’s treasury. It’s the church’s cash management. It’s the church’s bank. They’re just holding the assets and reserves on behalf of the church as an auxiliary of the church and providing us with those resources that we need in order to operate as a church.
Sharyn: Church leaders in the past have spoken about prudence savings. When does prudent become excessive?
Waddell: For the Church? Um, I don’t know if it’s ever becoming excessive because it’s all going to be used at some point. We’re learning how to use those resources. Again, the totality of the resources right now, again, hasn’t always been there. We continue to save and put money aside and we use it. We will double the humanitarian work again, and then again. We will continue to build temples that require those resources and the maintenance of those temples.
Sharyn: Church members we spoke to have talked about an erosion of trust because of the secrecy. Is there any discussion about regular disclosure of what’s happening with church finances?
Waddell: No. There’s no more discussion about disclosing the value of the totality of the resource of Ensign Peak.
Waddell: Because it’s confidential. Um, and we do disclose and announce the building of temples. We do announce missionary work. We do share what we’re doing with the humanitarian work. I think part of the lack of trust, or lack of confidence comes from statements or comments from a whistleblower who doesn’t have all the information, who doesn’t understand, that were incorrect. And that’s not how it works.
Sharyn: We’re talking to church members, and what they’re saying to us is that they’re blown away by this, that you know, there’s reportedly, we don’t know, right, hundreds of millions of dollars under management and it’s sitting there and it should be used.
Waddell: Well, there are 17 million members of the church and so of 17 million all over the world, you’re going to have many people with varying opinions. So, I’m sure there are some members of the church that are saying that. There are many members of the church who aren’t saying that.60 Minutes Overtime, Bishop defends the Church’s investment fund
How did this news story hit you? How did you feel about the statements from David Nielsen about integrity? What about those from First Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, Christopher Waddell about how the church finances are strictly confidential? Are you among the church members who are blown away by the hundreds of billions of dollars under management by the church’s auxiliary Investment Firm, Ensign Peak? Tell your story on wasmormon.org.
- LDS Church’s Misstated Filings to SEC Approved by First Presidency
- Why the Mormon Church Hid Billions of Dollars of Investments?
- Mixing Tithing Funds and Investments Maybe Legal But Doesn’t Mean Its Right
- Stop Paying Tithing and Challenge the Tax Exemption Status of the Mormon Church
- Whistleblowing On the Mormon 100 Billion “Rainy-Day Fund”
- Development of Mormon Tithing – From Meager Origins to Ensign Peak Billions
- The Tithing … Ellipsis
- Elder M Russell Ballard’s Colorful History With the SEC
- Church Finances: Follow the Prophet, He has the Money