Twenty Questions: Ken Smith Talks Back

Date: Friday, April 22, 1994 11:26am

Over the last few months, I've told you quite a bit about the inner workings of Bob Larson Ministries. And as more and more readers have inquired as to what we do, why we do it, and how we go about it (and, more to the point, associates have asked that I do it), time has come to answer the more commonly-asked questions publicly.

How did you get involved in the Bob Larson mess?

Quite by accident ... or divine intervention, as my colleagues have at times insisted. It began innocuously enough: I had recently moved back to Colorado to attend law school -- and in a letter to Christian attorney and talk-show host John Stewart, I casually mentioned that I missed his show. John and I had corresponded for three or four years on a variety of topics ranging from apologetics to national politics, and had become friendly adversaries, so it wasn't anything out of the ordinary.

In the course of the discussion, I observed that Denver's Christian programming was an intellectual wasteland, featuring the ever-erudite (sarcasm oozing from my laser printer) Bob Larson. In his response, John compared Larson to Bakker and his ilk, backing it up with perti nent excerpts from Larson's 1991 divorce file.

My curiosity piqued, I went over to the Jefferson County courthouse in the hope of learning more. But the divorce files were sealed, and that suggested that there probably was more to the story than met the eye. And where there's smoke, there's usually fire....

How did you satisfy yourself that the documents were authentic?
By the book. Domestic public documents under seal are regarded as self-authenticating [Fed.R.Evid. 902(1)]; a copy may be substituted for an original, if the latter is unobtainable [Fed.R.Evid. 1004(2)]. As far as I was concerned, the documents John sent me were as good as a signed affidavit. The fact that the documents came from John gave me additional comfort, inasmuch as he is a practicing attorney, and the California Supreme Court takes an understandably dim view toward attorneys falsifying court documents. And it didn't help Bob's case that he cut me off the air when I asked about them ... and sic'd his attorney on me the very next morning.

What happened after he cut you off the air?

Not a lot, to be perfectly honest. I wrote Larson, indicating that I intended to use the documents in question in a book. I got a nasty little letter from his attorney in return, threatening me with liti gation if I reprinted material from the documents at issue. And that was pretty much the end of it ... until Lori called.

In June, 1992, on a Saturday night at about 11:00 PM, I got a call from an anonymous woman. "Is this Ken Smith?" she inquired. I ans wered yes -- and after what seemed to be an interminably long pause, she let the cat out of the bag: "You're not going to believe this: I wrote Dead Air." (As all who are familiar with the Larson story now know, that woman was Lori Boespflug, a BLM vice-president and corpo rate officer.)

I didn't know what to say. Frankly, outside of what I was able to glean from the court documents in connection with Larson's divorce, I didn't know squat. But I bluffed my way along the best I could.

Why did you get involved?
Before Lori contacted me, my only aim was to document an allegation I made in my first book, The Curse of Thomas: how the media ministers made their million$$$. Any Bakker protegE would have done, but court documents have the kind of persuasiveness that an abstract philosophical discussion tends to lack. Bob's just happened to be available. I was shocked by Lori's story; I promised to do what little I could to see that it was told. I checked out her claims to the extent that I could, and contacted some of my old pen-pals in the apologetic com munity for advice. They put me in touch with Fred Wheeler, who in turn referred me to Joe Maxwell of Christianity Today.

Assuming that CT would be able to handle it from there, I gave Max well what we had. But when it became obvious that they weren't going to move on the story, I even offered to write it. And when it became clear that leaders in the Christian community wanted one of their own to tell this tale, I gave it to Jay Grelen, and attempted to bow out. Gracefully. Yet, in hiring a private investigator to uncover black mail fodder, Bob Larson made it self-evident that he wasn't going to let me.

As might have been expected, I stayed on the story in an attempt to counter Larson's malicious efforts to brand me as a criminal. Now, I have come to realize that the Bob Larson story is worth a book, and I am the most qualified man in the world to write it. But I don't know how the story will end....

My Christian colleagues have gotten involved out of purely altruis tic motives, insofar as they recognize the fact that covetous charla tans like Bob Larson visit untold embarrassment upon the Church. As Fred Wheeler explained it to me, a Christian is like 'the watchman on the wall' in Ezekiel 33. If he rouses his brethren, he is blameless, but, if he sits and does nothing while the enemy passes, the blood of the entire community is on his hands. He would then, in his opinion, be as guilty as Bob Larson.

Our informants are Christians who believe that what Larson is doing is terribly wrong. They know what a mean, vindictive, and little man Bob has become, and they don't like the thought of having their lives and reputations ground into dust. They also know that Larson has not been able to intimidate us. So, we have become their voice. How do you get your information?
Since it is a foregone conclusion that Bob Larson will read this, I am not at liberty to reveal any of our trade secrets. Suffice it to say that we have a multitude of sources -- Larson friends, employees, business associates, and the like -- who continually feed us informa tion. When we need to know something, we find out about it; frankly, I have neither the time nor the inclination to put Bob under surveil lance.

One reason we have been so successful in building our 'intelligence network' is that our informants know that we go to extreme lengths to protect them. We'd sit on our information rather than expose them to Bob's vindictive reprisals. As such, word gets around that we can be trusted. On balance, that policy has been wise, but it does make our task a lot more complicated.

We don't solicit informants simply because we don't want them to be construed as our agents. Likewise, if there is even a question as to whether a given activity would violate the law, we invariably refrain from engaging in it. For example, an associate has obtained a fairly substantial donor list; we decided against a direct mailing to Larson supporters because wholesale use of the list might be interpreted as a violation of trade secret laws.

We have stayed on the straight-and-narrow as a matter of choice; in addition, we'd like to believe it enhances our credibility. Besides, Bob is so inept that we haven't had to think about cheating.

How do you ensure the information you have is accurate?
We have two general rules of thumb: (1) if we could get it admitted into evidence in a court of law, it is 'fair game' for reporting pur poses, and, (2) when in doubt, we leave it out. We do our level best to err on the side of caution; major mistakes could seriously under mine our credibility.

A representative example of our approach toward reporting Larson's often questionable activities is the case of his purportedly intimate relationship with former Compassion Connection director Margo Hamil ton. In previous articles, I have studiously avoided any mention of this, despite the fact that I had for some time been aware that it was quite likely that the two had indulged in extramarital relations. However, once it was reported by Jay Grelen in World magazine that Ms. Hamilton's new husband had signed a confidentiality agreement -- where about the only confidential information he could realistically have had access to was that Bob was one of Margo's former lovers -- the evi dence was sufficiently compelling to justify reporting such a charge. As a practical matter, direct evidence of Larson's dalliances would not be forthcoming. Even if Margo did come forward and confirm alle gations regarding sexual improprieties, Larson could always resort to Bill Clinton's copyrighted "Liar, liar, pants on fire!" defense.

There has never been a shortage of sordid rumors regarding the evil exploits of Bobby E. Larson. Clearly, by far the most scandalous one came from Horizon Broadcasting Co. owner Garyl Gibson -- who reported to a colleague that Larson was involved in pedophilia, and had a fet ish for pornography. Gibson -- at one time a client of former Larson attorney William T. Abbott -- has been a reliable source1 of informa tion in the past, so we can't dismiss his report out of hand. Still, it should also go without saying that we're not about to make allega tions of such gravity without having the equivalent of the proverbial smoking gun. When you start accusing people of criminal acts, you'd better be sure of your facts.

What is Bob Larson's response to your articles?
As has been confirmed by a number of Internet readers, the official response from BLM is that I have somehow doctored court documents, in order to make it appear as if Bob is raping and looting his ministry. Of course, as is the case with the decided majority of Larson's lies, this one is capable of quick and easy refutation.

As I've said publicly, I didn't get my copy of the divorce trans cripts from the Jefferson County District Court. In fact, I couldn't have ... the files had been sealed. Besides, Larson personally auth- enticated the documents by alleging that John Stewart had "trafficked in my divorce proceedings transcripts."2 It goes without saying that if Stewart had provided me with bogus information, Larson would have called him on it. Moreover, Ministry general counsel Chris Johnson authenticated Bob's income figures before I even became a meaningful player in this affair.3

Knowing as I did when I obtained them that the documents at issue were in the hands of at least three other parties (Westword, Chris tianity Today, and the individual who provided them to me), to do as Larson alleges would be the height of folly. And Bob doesn't take me for a fool. He knows better.

The unofficial response is a little more difficult to confirm, but I'm willing to bet that, if you mentioned my name in an unguarded moment, Bob will unleash a stream of invective capable of making How ard Stern blush. Suffice it to say that I'm not on his Xmas card list....

As avid Talk-Back listeners have undoubtedly noticed, Larson's pub lic response is to reach for his "panic button." This is unquestion ably deliberate: Larson doesn't want people asking obvious questions, like "If these charges are totally fabricated, then why did you with draw your Ministry's application to the ECFA (Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability)?" It is a matter of record that Larson did apply; they raised questions (based primarily upon our material), and he withdrew the application. Clearly his is an admission by conduct: it's not like Bob suddenly changed his mind as to the benefits of NRB membership -- which he has enjoyed for some 20 years.

When Bob Larson loses his temper, he sounds scary. Do you ever worry that he might retaliate against you?
In fact, I do. As such, we have taken steps which should discour age Bob from taking matters into his own hands. For instance, copies of sensitive information are distributed to every associate, and the bulk of our originals are kept in others' hands. Hence, even if per chance Bobby decided to play with fire, we wouldn't miss a beat.

There is something to be said for clean living. My list of enemies is exceedingly short, and if anything untoward was to happen to me or my family, the appropriate law enforcement agencies would be all over Larson like a cheap suit.

What can you tell us about you and your associates?
My Christian associates have impeccable credentials. For instance, John Stewart, as well as being an attorney, talk-show host and Chris tian Research Institute alum, played a pivotal role in exposing Jim Bakker. Self-effacing to a fault, Fred Wheeler has asked that I not recount his accomplishments -- but I can tell you that he was one of the original staff members of the Dallas branch of Watchman Fellow ship.

As for myself, I am a law student at the University of Denver, and a former Big-6 C.P.A. with a master's degree in taxation. Unlike the Christian colleagues I can publicly acknowledge, I'm new to this kind of endeavor -- although my experience in litigation support work has, in a sense, trained me for it.

How is your organization structured?
Our operation is strictly ad hoc: no one takes orders, no one gives them. We share information and ideas, and on occasion coordinate our efforts. We agree that anything we do has to be strictly legal. But outside of those parameters, everyone is free to do what they wish. We don't solicit donations. In fact, we won't even take them. The money for expenses comes out of our own pockets. [In the interest of full disclosure, it is a fact that, on occasion, people have given me token amounts to offset copying and mailing costs ($50 in total), but the related mailings cost me several times that.]

We will openly share the fruits of our research with anyone -- from the Sons and Daughters of America to the LDS Church, from American Atheists to the Christian Research Institute, and from Cornerstone to the Washington Post. However, we will not disseminate sensitive per sonal information (e.g., an unlisted telephone number) that does not have any bearing on Bob Larson's fitness to function as a minister.

On his January 29, 1993 show, Larson implicated you in arson threats, threats against his family, and computer theft. How do you respond? Bob has thrown as much mud at as many people as he could manage, in hopes that a bit of it might stick. It may be that he truly believes that everyone is just as sleazy and unprincipled as he is, but I hon estly doubt that he has reached that level of paranoia quite yet.

A look at the police report prepared in connection with the alleged arson threat is instructive. The reporting officer classified it as misdemeanor harassment -- and the 'threat' itself has the flavor of a high-school prank: "Inside the gray or white envelope was a photograph featuring two masked subjects. The words, 'This Bud's for you Sh**head! Happy Halloween! P.S. Love your house $441,000', appear on the photograph. Also featured in the photograph is Bob Larson's home. One subject appears to be holding a flaming bottle of beer...."4

Larson implicated fully half of his former executive staff in this juvenile plot ... and, of course, he fingered me as the alleged ring- leader. He referred to John Stewart in the police report, and added the Passentinos -- for good measure -- in the January 29th show.

Two observations are worth making here. First, if this is what Bob construes as a serious arson threat, you have to wonder about some of the death threats he allegedly receives. Second, it is peculiar that he would finger former employees -- who, collectively, know enough to destroy his ministry -- while ignoring the various satanic covens and skinhead groups that he claims pose a credible threat to his life and limb. Lori Boespflug observed that behind the scenes, Larson laughed off what were reported on the air as serious threats, for what should be obvious reasons.

Larson has also charged that you are trying to destroy his ministry. How do you respond?
We will not deny that the Ministry is his ministry -- its' ultimate purpose is to minister to the extravagant financial needs of Bob Lar son. The kids are just an alibi.

It is a matter of record that we have given Larson a full and fair opportunity -- behind the scenes -- to make amends for the transgres sions we allege have been committed. We followed Matthew 18:15-17 to the extent possible: We couldn't take it to his denominational lead ership because he wouldn't reveal the outfit which ordained him, and we couldn't take it to his pastor because he doesn't, to the best of our knowledge, even attend church. We did, however, take it to board members, EFICOM, and key radio station owners. I spoke with him per sonally (in an accidental meeting). Others have tried, to no avail.

When those behind-the-scenes efforts failed, we acted as the Scrip tures command: We took our case to the people ("Those [elders] who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning" -- 1 Tim. 5:20). And while that action is likely to have the effect of destroying Bob Larson Ministries, that doesn't mean we have to be happy about it.

Although our efforts over past months have been an unqualified suc cess, the outcome of this campaign is not what we have hoped for. If we had had our druthers, Bob Larson would have recanted his malicious statements, repented of his sins, and reimbursed those he has injured in his rampages. If he had done so at the appropriate time, he would have received our unequivocal support -- and he could have gone about the 'business' of ministry for which Talk-Back is uniquely qualified. If his ministry does in fact go under, and he ends up wearing prison grey, he has only himself to blame. But knowing Bob, he will somehow find a way to lay it on someone else.

Larson has further described you as an "avowed atheist." Are you?
In a word, no. The American Heritage Dictionary defines an atheist as "one who denies the existence of God," and an avowal as "an admis sion or acknowledgement." And I have never made such an admission -- in fact, I don't even reach the question. As I see it, the question of God's existence becomes relevant if and only if He actively inter venes in our lives. If you decide that there is no credible evidence of divine intervention, the question itself becomes nothing more than a matter for intellectual curiosity. On the other hand, if you find that divine intervention is an undeniable fact, God's existence is by implication proven. Under this analysis, you never get to atheism -- by definition.

The simple and unfortunate fact is that, while many Christians are able to tolerate Mormons, Muslims, and Moonies, they harbor an almost visceral hatred toward atheists. They become a palette for Christian doubts and fears. A cold reminder of their insecurities. Larson has played this prejudice like a violin -- he knew that if he could paint me as an atheist, his audience would tune me out almost instantly.

My present philosophical position can best be described as a vari ant of Deism. While I have no difficulty with the notion of an omni potent and omniscient God, the concept that God is afflicted with the sin of jealousy is totally incomprehensible to me. After all, if you know that you're all-powerful, you wouldn't have much of a need to be jealous of anything.

Bob Larson has further accused you of wanting to destroy him because he somehow represented Christianity in your eyes. Comments?
After crossing swords with men of the caliber of John Stewart, Gary Habermas, and CRI's research staff, literary jousts with Larson would have been little more than comic relief. His theology is unsophisti cated, almost crude; his command of the language, no better. If Bob Larson is what Christianity 'is all about', then most of my Christian friends will turn in their resignations. Immediately.

I did have the occasion to listen to Talk-Back when I lived in the L.A. basin, where I quickly came to the conclusion that Larson was a less-than-worthy opponent. A garden-variety street preacher ... with an attitude. There's no sense in going into a battle of wits with an unarmed man.

You don't like Bob Larson very much, don't you?
As a practical matter, it isn't easy to like a man who consciously, deliberately, and intentionally tries to injure you and your family. A man who rapes and sodomizes your reputation on continent-wide radio broadcasts. A minister who hires private investigators in an effort to discover intimate information suitable for blackmail. Suffice it to say that he isn't on my Xmas card list....

On the other hand, it is hard to dislike a man who may, in fact, be suffering from mental illness. The running joke around the office is that Bob is 'MPD' (afflicted with multiple personality disorder), and others have obliquely confirmed that. For example, long-time Larson friend Ed Decker related a tale where one minute, Bob and former wife Kathy were acting like lovebirds and the next, he was reading her the riot act. Similar instances of erratic and capricious behavior have been reported by Larson's staffers; Lori Boespflug recounted a litany of bizarre idiosyncrasies. It's strictly one layman's opinion, but I don't think Bob has both of his oars in the water....

And from what I understand, Jim Bakker was the same way.

What, if anything, has surprised you?
First and foremost, we have been dismayed as to the extent to which Christian media moguls have disregarded their Scriptures in order to preserve their own pocketbooks. "The truth shall set you free," but don't expect to read about it in Christianity Today. Verily, verily, I say unto you, "There is honor among thieves."

It is truly astounding as to how many times Larson would have been stopped in his tracks -- had only one Christian leader taken a stand. Yet, in every instance, that individual put his pocketbook before the truth. That is why I say that the Larson story is bigger than PTL: I can indict everyone from the largest publisher of religious materials in the world to Christendom's flagship publication, and from individ ual Christian radio station owners to some of America's most promi nent ministries. There is enough blame -- and plenty of shame -- to go around.

Just last week, I was informed by a Christian talk-show host that I could not be invited onto his program as a scheduled guest. It seems that the station also carries Larson, and the general manager "didn't want to offend him." Let's put this into perspective: Can you imag ine what Rush Limbaugh would say if that station was the NBC network, and the person they didn't want to offend was Bill Clinton?

We were also taken aback by the sheer vindictiveness with which Bob Larson has countered our efforts. One of my associates exposed Troy Snowdon -- who was eventually convicted under the Mann Act (for those who have led sheltered lives, that has to do with transporting women across state lines for the purposes of prostitution) -- and even that sorry excuse for a 'man of the cloth' never attempted to stoop as low as Larson has. I expected to be vilified as one of Satan's henchmen, but his bizarre allegations of criminal behavior went beyond the pale of common sense. Bob Larson must harbor a contempt for the Christian intellect that even Maddy O'Hair couldn't muster in her glory days.

In general, we have been astonished by the staggering ineptitude of Larson's defensive campaign. Bob has had literally a score of oppor tunities to leave us in the dust, and not only has he blown them, his antics have only served to make matters worse. For example, in soph isticated circles, Larson's abrupt withdrawal of his ECFA application was seen as a tacit admission of guilt; at that point, smelling scan dal in the air, Thomas Nelson bailed on him. And I find it difficult to imagine that he couldn't have cut a deal with Brandt Gustavson....

Bob's Achilles heel has always been his obsession with winning. It is not enough, in his mind, that he should succeed; his opponent must fail utterly. If he had possessed a more mature mindset, we wouldn't have happened across his trail, much less be nipping at his heels.

If Bob hadn't divorced his wife of 23 years, he would still be on the Salem stations. If he hadn't shamelessly exploited a young woman who came to his ministry for help, we wouldn't have obtained his div- orce transcripts. If he hadn't tried to exact every last penny from the marital estate in his divorce, the damaging admissions he made in the divorce proceedings never would have made it into print. And if he had reached fair and equitable settlements with Muriel Olson and Lori Boespflug at appropriate times, he would have been on his way to his real goal: making $50 million. From day one, Bob Larson has been his own worst enemy.

Bob is still on the air. What have you accomplished?
As a leader of one of America's premier 'cult-watch' ministries put it, "the wheels of justice turn slowly, but they do turn." If we had any illusions that this was going to be some kind of six-day war, the only people we would have been fooling would have been ourselves.

When you reflect upon what has happened in the last year or so, the damage we have inflicted has been substantial. One year ago, Bob was one of publishing giant Thomas Nelson's premier authors; today, even tiny Huntington House has become skittish. Bob's career as an author has been all but destroyed, and his once-sterling professional repu tation has been tarnished beyond repair. Bob can no longer claim the moral high ground, insofar as everyone from the LDS Church to the gay rights movement has been briefed on his weaknesses. After all, if he can't live up to moral and ethical standards enunciated in Scripture, how can he justify berating others for their transgressions?

At this point, it's all downhill. Despite a serious lack of media power, we have gotten the word out. Prominent Christian leaders are starting to publicly express outrage, and the number of ports Bob can run to during this storm is dwindling rapidly. During recent months, Bob has started to look more and more like a general whose armies are being routed. He's gone deep into his playbook, and nothing seems to work. He's becoming shorter and more abrasive with critical callers; his dwindling donor base can only dig so deep. And the biggest waves are yet to come.

Where do you go from here?
Personally, I fully intend to ride off into the sunset. There are a few loose ends to be tied up, but I'm basically winding down my end of the operation. We've done the hard work, and it appears as if the Christian media finally is getting ready to mop the story up.

There is little doubt in my mind that Fred will ride again; that is his calling, and his burden. And there is a lot left to do. But the Evangelical community has spoken clearly: They don't want me involved in their lives, in their churches, in their dirty laundry. And per haps, that is as it should be.

Are there any more articles planned?
That depends upon whether I have time to write them, and whether my audience has any interest in reading them. It's not like I'm running out of material....

If you had it to do all over again -- would you?
I have to preface this answer by stating that I didn't exactly come looking for this job; the pay is lousy, and the benefits, even worse. And if Bob hadn't insisted upon making me his scapegoat, I would have melted into the background 16 months ago. But that simply was not to be.

I feel like the fellow who stops at the scene of an accident, pulls a man out of his burning car ... and ends up getting sued. If I knew what I know now, I think that I would have tried harder to figure out some way not to get involved. The personal cost has been staggering; the personal satisfaction, minimal.

At times, I can understand how Abraham must have felt while walking the streets of Sodom and Gomorrah. Just ten righteous men.... It is all the more ironic that some of the people who refused to talk to me and otherwise treated me as a third-class citizen can have the auda city to proclaim to me how Jesus has changed their lives. But just when I am ready to write off evangelical Christianity as a giant tax- exempt Amway distributorship, someone surprises me.

Christianity is in crisis ... but it is not beyond hope.

1  For example, Gibson revealed Lori Boespflug's 'involvement' in Dead
Air to Fred Wheeler long before she talked to me.  How Gibson got his
information is not exactly clear, but the information he has provided
has -- in the instances where we have been able to confirm it -- been
entirely accurate.
 While we have furnished this lead to Christian journalists, we've
not investigated these allegations, and accordingly expressed no
opinion as to their validity.

2  Bob Larson, Letter (to John Stewart), 10 Feb. 1993, p. 1.

3  Michael Roberts, "The Evil that Men Do," Westword, May 27-Jun. 2,
1992, p. 12.

4  Offense report (misdemeanor harassment), Lakewood (CO) Police Dept.
(Officer Ponczek, reporting), Case Report #92-105772, 3 Nov. 1992, p.
2. (The entire report was in capital letters; I added punctuation and
capitalization as appropriate.)

Copyright 1994 Kenneth L. Smith. All rights reserved; reproduction permitted for non-commercial uses only. Please direct your questions to the author at P.O. Box 280305, Lakewood, CO 80228.