From the Senate in the 1970s to the presidential campaign trail in 2020, Joe Biden has a long record of going where political pressures push him—and right now they’re pushing him aggressively leftward
ORANGE COUNTY, Calif.—Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson peers down from his walnut-paneled bench, bald pate glinting in the institutional light. At the plaintiff’s table on April 7, a female lawyer in a mousey blazer fumbles through the reasons her client—a water tank repairman who fell after trying to balance on a 4-inch-wide wall instead of using a taller ladder—should get paid a lot of money.
“Counselor, you argued that before,” Wilson admonishes in cultivated South African English. He ticks off contradictory case law. The lawyer regroups and tries again, now stuttering. But at the bench, Wilson is already closing his folder of notes.
The lawyer collects her things and slinks out.
Then the A-Team walks in. Two attorneys, tall and imposing, head for the defense table. Two more take their places on the plaintiffs’ side, one bespectacled and learned-looking, the other compact and formidable, like a bullmastiff wearing a suit. The proceeding, a status conference in the matter of Carra Crouch v. Trinity Christian Center of Santa Ana, begins.
And these lawyers don’t stutter.
Crouch v. Trinity is just one case in a four-year litigation storm that has torn a family apart. Carra Crouch is a granddaughter of Trinity Broadcasting Network founders Paul and Jan Crouch. In 2011, Carra’s sister, Brittany Koper, was first to cross swords with TBN’s founders—the women’s grandparents—over allegations of financial impropriety (see “Sex, Lies, and Television,” Sept. 8, 2012).
Koper, then TBN’s chief financial officer and corporate treasurer, sent a memo to her grandfather, Paul Crouch, listing questionable financial practices—from mansions listed as “parsonages” to illegitimate shell corporations to the $50 million the Crouches allegedly paid to the film company owned by their son, televangelist Matthew Crouch, but did not properly report to the IRS.
Within a few weeks, TBN fired Brittany and her husband, Michael Koper. Since then, Trinity has, under various plaintiff appellations, filed more than a dozen lawsuits against the Kopers and various relatives in at least six jurisdictions across three states. Among the allegations: stolen funds, stolen documents, and default on a cash loan.
The Kopers have responded by bringing actions with allegations that include malicious prosecution.
The legal blitzkrieg has cost Brittany two jobs, her Orange County home, and all her money. It stressed her marriage: In 2014, she and Michael divorced. Separately, both filed for bankruptcy.
The case now before Judge Wilson, Crouch v. Trinity, did not grow out of the others but is tightly entwined with them. Carra Crouch alleges that in 2006, when she was 13 years old, a TBN employee sexually assaulted her in an Atlanta hotel room during TBN’s Praise-a-thon, a massive annual ministry event. Carra claims that TBN quietly fired the employee, Steve Smith, then tried to cover up the incident, even having her sign a confidentiality agreement though she was a minor.
Here’s what happened with Smith, according to Carra, who is now 23:
Smith followed Carra and her cousin, Nathan, also a minor, from the hotel pool to Carra’s room and gave them alcohol. Later, Carra lay down on the bed. Smith got into bed with Carra and asked if he could “spoon” her. She said, “Get away,” and asked him to sleep on the couch or go to his own room.
Smith did not, but instead moved closer. Carra slid to the mattress edge and stuck out limbs to keep him away. Finally, she exited the bed and tried to sleep on the floor. Later, Smith brought her a glass of water.
Then she fell asleep. When she woke the next morning, she felt sick—she now suspects Smith drugged her—and Smith was still in the room.
Carra says she felt “sore” all over, and that blood was on her underwear and bed sheets. Carra reported the alleged incident to her mother, Tawny Crouch, the next day, April 24, 2006. The day after that, TBN general counsel John Casoria terminated Smith by phone, documenting the call in typewritten notes.
“TBN has gathered sufficient evidence to terminate you with cause,” Casoria told Smith, according to the notes. “If this evidence was given to law enforcement authorities, it would most probably be sufficient to bring criminal charges against you, which, if convicted, could put you in jail.”
Casoria fired Smith without cause, however, and warned him that if he attempted to file a wrongful termination claim, TBN would use the evidence it had collected “to defend itself,” which would likely result in criminal charges against Smith.
In her lawsuit, Carra asserts that as a church-based ministry, TBN was a “mandatory reporter,” legally required to report to authorities any allegations of child sexual abuse. She is seeking money from Trinity to help pay for therapy related to the incident.
Before TBN fired Brittany Koper, she obtained documents buttressing at least part of Carra’s claims. These include an account of the Smith incident handwritten by Tawny Crouch the day after the alleged assault; a typewritten account of events prepared by Dorothy Casoria, a TBN employee; John Casoria’s record of his conversation with Smith; and the confidentiality agreement, signed in Carra’s then-childish hand.
But some corroborating information is missing from these contemporaneous documents: Carra’s claims of “soreness,” as well as the blood on her underwear and on the sheets. Tawny Crouch’s report, written by hand and corrected in pen-and-ink by Carra, omits those details—points that would seem to increase exponentially the seriousness of the allegations.
Carra’s attorney David Keesling (the bullmastiff in the suit) told me in Judge Wilson’s courtroom what he said is the reason for the omissions: Carra’s grandmother—the pink-wigged televangelist Jan Crouch known to TBN viewers as “Mama”—was furious when Carra told her about the alleged assault. In a tirade, she told Carra it was her fault, Keesling said, and this caused Carra to whitewash the account of events she gave to her mother. Carra was not available for comment, but her sister Brittany told me the same thing.
But after the status conference concluded, another of Carra Crouch’s attorneys, Joe Deems, said Tawny Crouch’s account of events was written before Carra’s grandmother dressed her down. Also, when deposed on July 19, 2012, by Trinity attorney Doug Mahaffey, Carra seemed confused about the bloody underwear.
Mahaffey: No blood on your underwear?
Carra Crouch: I don’t recall ever looking at my underwear or seeing my underwear.
Mahaffey: You didn’t look at your underwear when you took it off that morning?
Crouch: I don’t recall these little facts.
Mahaffey: Well, did you ever show your underwear to anybody that had blood on them?
Crouch: No. I believe I threw them away. …
Mahaffey: When did you do that?
Crouch: Probably the next morning.
Mahaffey: Why did you throw your underwear away? …
Crouch: Because I didn’t want to have—I wanted to get rid of anything that would remind me or have any kind of—and I felt that they were ruined because there was blood on them.
Mahaffey: Oh, there was blood on your underwear?
Mahaffey: There was? Where did you see it at?
Crouch: I mean I don’t recall, sir. …
Mahaffey: Well, are you sure you saw blood on your underwear, or could you be mistaken about it?
Crouch: I could be mistaken.
Keesling points out that Carra was 13 and traumatized. Recounting such events would be difficult even for an adult six years later, he said.
When I first caught up with Keesling by phone in mid-March, he was in New York City, sheltering in place outside an Ann Taylor store while his wife did a little shopping. Wry and articulate, he is passionate in defense of his client, and equally so about what he says is TBN’s moral turpitude where she is concerned.
“They are willing to sell the purity of a child to keep their image intact,” he said. “Carra Crouch has never come to me and said, ‘I want to destroy Trinity,’ or, ‘I want millions.’ She wants realistic remuneration to help her develop coping methods, and develop relationships going forward. She just asks that Trinity take care of at this point what they should have taken care of when she was 13 years old.”
On Trinity’s side of the case is Mike King—one of the tall, imposing attorneys who marched in with the A-Team. At least 6-foot-3, he wears his brown hair ruffled, his suit jacket cut long, and his dress-shirt cuffs monogrammed in tiny script: MJK.
During the status conference before Judge Wilson, his courtroom manner is conciliatory. “I don’t mean to argue with you, your honor,” King says as he proceeds to argue, albeit genially. He stands respectfully at the defense table as Wilson takes him to task for an over-broad attempt at discovery.
Trinity, Wilson says, is casting a document dragnet so immense that it would haul in both privileged attorney-client communications as well as material irrelevant to the case.
“How is this appropriate?” Wilson asks in his South African lilt.
“I concede that it was perhaps inartfully drafted, your honor,” King says.
At the plaintiff’s table, Keesling sits back in his chair and allows himself a small smile. Wilson has in the past shown impatience with what he has called delaying tactics by Trinity—funded, Keesling believes, with a functionally unlimited war chest lined with millions in tax-free contributions to TBN.
But King isn’t finished. “We believe we can prove they have not been truthful with the court.”
By “they” he means Carra Crouch and the Kopers. TBN claims Brittany stole from Trinity the documents related to the Steve Smith incident, and that Michael Koper defrauded the court by falsifying others.
On Oct. 30, 2015, New York Judge Louis Scarcella wrote that “in conjunction with his agent, Brittany Koper,” Michael Koper manipulated the computer clock on his Sony VAIO to fabricate documents, including loan authorizations and emails, then used special software to scrub the VAIO, rendering its contents unrecoverable. Judge Scarcella wrote that Michael Koper “acted willfully, maliciously and with intent to defraud this Court and Plaintiffs, and acted intentionally in destroying material evidence.”
By the time Scarcella wrote that order, the Kopers had been battling Trinity for four years. Not only were they racking up catastrophic legal bills by dispatching lawyers to defend them in three states, but mysterious vehicles lurked outside their homes and workplaces, they say. Strangers walked by snapping pictures and followed the Kopers by car and on foot.
Meanwhile, they say, thieves broke into a home where Michael was staying and twice into the office of a Koper attorney. The only items they say were missing in all three burglaries: documents related to the Trinity cases.
By October 2015, Michael was physically, emotionally, and financially exhausted, he told me. So he signed a stipulation agreement conceding to Trinity’s allegations of document fabrication, among others. In addition, he provided to Trinity carefully worded public and private statements that the ministry could use to manage any fallout of the Kopers’ allegations of financial impropriety.
In return, Michael says Trinity agreed to stanch the litigation flood and accept “pocket judgments” against claims of Michael’s financial liability to Trinity. (A pocket judgment is, essentially, a private agreement to defray a debt.)
Michael says he did not actually commit any of the acts to which he stipulated: “I was ready to sign anything they wanted if they’d just leave me alone.”
Very quickly, though, he changed his mind. In January 2016, Keesling—who also represents Michael Koper and opposed the stipulation from the beginning—filed a motion to have Michael’s stipulation expunged from court records. Keesling argued that Trinity had extracted the stipulation agreement from Michael but had not held up its end of the deal. Judge Scarcella denied the motion.
Now, of course, there is a public record implicating both Kopers in fraud. Trinity’s attorneys have introduced it into many cases still pending.
Lost in the flurry of court cases are TBN’s Jan and Matthew Crouch. Paul Crouch died in 2013. His son, Matthew, is now president of TBN. Nobody is talking much about those Crouches anymore—maybe not even the government entities that once were very interested in the Kopers’ knowledge of how TBN, a nonprofit, uses tens of millions in donor money.
In July 2012, Brittany met in New York with a flock of federal agents. With twin tape recorders rolling, she delivered her eyewitness account. That was nearly four years ago. So far, there has been only silence.