SEC Fines LDS Church For Hiding $32 Billion In Assets: Timeline

Today, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announces it is fining the Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints and its investment arm, Ensign Peak Advisors, $1 million and $4 million, respectively, for a scheme to conceal the value of the church’s assets. The SEC order shows that the LDS Church’s investment firm, with the knowledge of its First Presidency, used shell companies to obscure the church’s investment wealth. Based on the order, the motivation appears to be saving face, over fear that public knowledge of the church’s wealth would lead to negative consequences in light of the size of the church’s portfolio. 

The LDS Church responded with a statement claiming these “mistakes” have been addressed and that they have been in compliance with federal disclosure laws since June 2019. This newfound compliance with the law came shortly after an IRS whistleblower complaint revealed the church’s holdings are valued around $100 billion. 

So, how did we get here? Here’s a timeline outlining the events leading up to the SEC’s investigation and eventual penalty for the LDS Church’s illegal financial reporting practices. 

1997

The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints creates Ensign Peak to manage the church’s investment assets. At its inception, Ensign Peak initially managed approximately $7 billion of church assets, according to the SEC order, a significant percentage of which consisted of Section 13F Securities. The portion of 13F Securities in the portfolio grew to approximately $37.8 billion by 2020. Investment managers who oversee a portfolio of public equities above a certain threshold are required to file Forms 13F with the SEC quarterly. These forms disclose the names of the securities and their values.

1998

Senior management at Ensign Peak are made aware of Ensign Peak’s requirement to file Forms 13F and communicate this requirement to senior leadership of the church, according to the SEC. 

The SEC order states: “Throughout its history, at least once each year, Ensign Peak’s Managing Director met with the senior leadership of the Church to discuss Ensign Peak’s activities, including the LLC Structure. Unanimous approval from the senior leadership of the Church was required before Ensign could deviate from the LLC Structure and file Forms 13F in Ensign Peak’s own name.”

2000s

With approval from The First Presidency of the LDS Church, Ensign Peak establishes the first of its shell companies (LLCs) that each file Forms 13F instead of a single aggregated filing. The SEC order states this is because “The Church was concerned that disclosure of the assets in the name of Ensign Peak, a known Church affiliate, would lead to negative consequences in light of the size of the Church’s portfolio.”

Church leaders, including then-president Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, continue to tell members and the public that all of the church’s assets are “money-consuming and not money-producing assets.”

April 2003

After the church earmarks the money for the City Creek shopping center, President Hinckley tells members at the LDS General Conference, “We have felt it imperative to do something to revitalize this area. But I wish to give the entire Church the assurance that tithing funds have not and will not be used to acquire this property. Nor will they be used in developing it for commercial purposes.”

March 2005

According to the SEC order, the LDS Church becomes aware that the public might link this first LLC to the church because the person signing the Forms 13F is listed in a public directory as a Church employee. To address this issue, the senior leadership of the Church approves a new shell company to be created with “better care being taken to ensure that neither the ‘Street’ nor the media [could] connect the new entity to Ensign Peak.” 

May 2011

The church’s senior leadership approves Ensign Peak’s recommendation to “clone” the second LLC to create new Form 13F filers, after Ensign Peak expresses concern that its portfolio was so large that the filings under the name of the second shell company might attract unwanted attention. The order outlines that the church’s investment firm creates five new entities under which to make 13F filings. 

2014

The Church Audit Department (CAD) conducts the first of two internal audits of Ensign Peak (the second audit in 2017). In discussions with senior management, CAD highlights the risk that the SEC might disagree with the approach of the LLC Structure.

November 2015

Ensign Peak forms six additional clone LLCs, bringing the total to 12 shell companies, after Ensign Peak became aware that a third party appeared to have connected the holdings of various LLCs back to Ensign Peak. The order states that the senior leadership of the Church approves a plan to “gradually and carefully adapt Ensign Peak’s corporate structure to strengthen the portfolio’s confidentiality.”

May 2018

The Truth and Transparency website links various entities to the Church, their filings revealing holdings of approximately $32 billion. Following the report, two Ensign Peak business managers resign, voicing concerns about what they had been asked to do. 

The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints issues a press release, Church Finances and a Growing Global Faith, claiming that the Church uses it resources for religious and charitable causes and those resources come principally from the tithing donations of Church members with a small portion of funds from businesses maintained by the Church. It goes on to say that the church sets aside money for its reserves, which include “stocks and bonds, taxable businesses, agricultural interests and commercial and residential property,” and those reserves are overseen by Church leaders and managed by professional advisers. 

November 2019

David A. Nielsen, a former money manager at Ensign Peak, the investment management branch of the Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints, files a whistleblower complaint with the IRS. First reported by The Washington Post, Nielsen claims that Ensign Peak had a $100 billion reserve portfolio from stockpiling charitable donations rather than using them for charitable purposes—possibly breaching federal tax rules. The whistleblower complaint accuses LDS church leaders of misleading members about how their donations are spent. (Members are encouraged to donate 10% of their earnings as tithings to the church to remain in good standing and participate in religious ceremonies and services in its temples.) The complaint also accuses the church of using the tax-exempt donations for business ventures like the City Creek shopping center. 

December 2019  

After the whistleblower complaint makes headlines, The First Presidency of the LDS Church responds to the with a statement

“We take seriously the responsibility to care for the tithes and donations received from members. The vast majority of these funds are used immediately to meet the needs of the growing Church including more meetinghouses, temples, education, humanitarian work and missionary efforts throughout the world. Over many years, a portion is methodically safeguarded through wise financial management and the building of a prudent reserve for the future. This is a sound doctrinal and financial principle taught by the Savior in the Parable of the Talents and lived by the Church and its members. All Church funds exist for no other reason than to support the Church’s divinely appointed mission. 

Claims being currently circulated are based on a narrow perspective and limited information. The Church complies with all applicable law governing our donations, investments, taxes, and reserves. We continue to welcome the opportunity to work with officials to address questions they may have.”

February 2020

Roger Clarke, the head of Ensign Peak, tells The Wall Street Journal that LDS leaders wanted to keep the church’s $100 billion reserve a secret because they were afraid, upon seeing the church’s amassed wealth, some members might stop paying tithing. “[Paying tithing] is more of a sense of commitment than it is the church needing the money,” said Clarke “So they never wanted to be in a position where people felt like, you know, they shouldn’t make a contribution.”

March 2020

For the first time, Ensign Peak publicly discloses the earnings and investments of the LDS Church’s largest stock portfolio, filing a consolidated Form 13F for the quarter ended in December 31, 2019, rather than under the names of separate LLCs. The 13F Securities are valued at approximately $37.8 billion

November 2022

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s “The Fifth Estate” reveals, since 2007, the LDS church has raised in Canada more than $1 billion (CAD) and sent it from the Canadian church to BYU. That’s about 70% of the tithing money collected from Canadian members.

January 2023

Whistleblower David A. Nielsen calls on the Senate to investigate the LDS Church and Ensign Peak Advisors for tax fraud. He files a 90-page memorandum with the Senate Finance Committee, obtained by Religion Unplugged, which shows “evidence of false statements, systematic accounting fraud” and violations of tax laws. It goes on to say, “For at least 22 years, [Ensign Peak] and certain senior executives have perpetrated an unlawful scheme that relies on willfully and materially false statements to the IRS and the SEC, so this for-profit, securities investment business that unfairly competes with large hedge funds can masquerade as a tax-exempt, charitable organization.” 

February 2023

The Wall Street Journal reports that the SEC is investigating Ensign Peak for allegedly concealing its multibillion-dollar portfolio for years.

Two weeks later, the SEC files an order and sends out a press release, announcing charges against the Church for these violations. To settle the charges, Ensign Peak agrees to pay a $4 million penalty and the LDS Church agrees to pay a $1 million penalty.

Gurbir S. Grewal, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, says, “We allege that the LDS Church’s investment manager, with the Church’s knowledge, went to great lengths to avoid disclosing the Church’s investments, depriving the Commission and the investing public of accurate market information. The requirement to file timely and accurate information on Forms 13F applies to all institutional investment managers, including non-profit and charitable organizations.”

The church issues a statement in response to the settlement with the SEC, saying in part: 

“In June 2019, the SEC first expressed concern about Ensign Peak’s reporting approach. Ensign Peak adjusted its approach and began filing a single aggregated report. Since that time, 13 quarterly reports have been filed in full accordance with SEC requirements.

This settlement relates to how the forms were filed previously. Ensign Peak and the Church have cooperated with the government over a period of time as we sought resolution.

We affirm our commitment to comply with the law, regret mistakes made, and now consider this matter closed.”


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Christie Porter
Christie Porterhttps://christieporter.com/
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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