In 1966, the Bakkers began working at Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, which at the time barely reached an audience of thousands. .... By the early 1980s, the Bakkers had built Heritage USA in Fort Mill, South Carolina (south of Charlotte), then the third most successful theme park in the U.S., and a satellite system to distribute their network 24 hours a day across the country. Contributions requested from viewers were estimated to exceed $1,000,000 a week, with proceeds to go to expanding the theme park and mission of PTL. In justifying his use of the mass media, Bakker responded to inquiries by likening his use of television to Jesus's use of the amphitheater of the time. "I believe that if Jesus were alive today, he would be on TV," Bakker said.
In their success, the Bakkers took conspicuous consumption to an unusual level for a nonprofit organization. In an April 23, 1990 New Yorker article, Frances FitzGerald quoted Dave Barry, who wrote "they personified the most characteristic excesses of the nineteen-eighties—the greed, the love of glitz, and the shamelessness—which in their case were so pure as to almost amount to a kind of innocence."
Jim Bakker was dismissed as a minister of the Assemblies of God on May 6, 1987.
The PTL Club's fundraising activities between 1984–1987 were scrutinised by The Charlotte Observer newspaper, eventually leading to criminal charges against Jim Bakker. From 1984 to 1987, Bakker and his PTL associates sold $1,000 "lifetime memberships," which entitled buyers to a three-night stay annually at a luxury hotel at Heritage USA. According to the prosecution at Bakker's later fraud trial, tens of thousands of memberships had been sold, but only one 500-room hotel was ever completed. Bakker sold more "exclusive partnerships" than could be accommodated, while raising more than twice the money needed to build the actual hotel. A good deal of the money went into Heritage USA's operating expenses, and Bakker kept $3.4 million in bonuses for himself.
A $279,000 pay-off for the silence of Jessica Hahn who claims Bakker and Fletcher drugged and raped her was paid with PTL's funds to Hahn through Bakker associate Roe Messner. Bakker, who made all of the financial decisions for the PTL organization, allegedly kept two sets of books to conceal the accounting irregularities. Reporters from The Charlotte Observer, led by Charles Shepard, investigated and published a series of articles regarding the PTL organization's finances.
On March 19, 1987, following the revelation of a pay-off to Hahn, Bakker resigned from PTL. Bakker acknowledged he met Hahn at a hotel room in Clearwater, Florida, but denied raping her. Following Bakker's resignation as PTL head, he was succeeded in late March 1987, by Jerry Falwell. Later that summer, as donations sharply declined in the wake of Bakker's resignation and the end of the Bakkers' popular PTL Club TV show, Falwell raised $20 million to help keep the Heritage USA Theme Park solvent, including a well-publicized waterslide plunge there. Falwell called Bakker a liar, an embezzler, a sexual deviant, and "the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history." In 1988, Falwell said that the Bakker scandal had "strengthened broadcast evangelism and made Christianity stronger, more mature and more committed."
The same year Jim Bakker left PTL, Rev. Edward J. Brown ...made national news when it got out to the media that he had met with Jim Bakker to inform him that he and some other men had the ability to come up with the millions it would take to purchase PTL back, get rid of Jerry, hold it, and keep it going for Jim and Tammy. They agreed. Rev. Brown flew out of the US to get the funds needed and returned only to be told by Falwell that the price was now double. Rev. Brown made another trip and came back with the money, only to be told that it doubled again. Jerry Falwell had no intentions of taking money for what he saw as his keys to the TV network that could give him an unlimited stream of income. Bakker's son, Jay, wrote in 2001 that the Bakkers felt betrayed by Falwell, whom they thought, at the time of Bakker's resignation, intended to help in Bakker's eventual restoration as head of the PTL ministry organization.
Fraud conviction and incarceration
Following a 16-month Federal grand jury probe, Bakker was indicted in 1988 on eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy. In 1989, after a five-week trial which began on August 28 in Charlotte, the jury found him guilty on all 24 counts, and Judge Robert Daniel Potter sentenced him to 45 years in federal prison and a $500,000 fine. He served time in the Federal Medical Center, Rochester, in Rochester, Minnesota, sharing a cell with activist Lyndon LaRouche and skydiver Roger Nelson.
In February 1991, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld Bakker's conviction on the fraud and conspiracy charges, but voided Bakker's 45-year sentence, as well as the $500,000 fine, and ordered that a new sentencing hearing be held. The court held that Potter's statement at sentencing that Bakker's actions resulted in "those of us who do have a religion" being lampooned as "saps from money-grubbing preachers or priests" was evidence that he had injected his own religious beliefs into considering Bakker's sentence.
On November 16, 1992, a sentence reduction hearing was held. Bakker's sentence was reduced to eight years. In August 1993, Bakker was transferred to a minimum security federal prison in Jesup, Georgia, and then he was granted parole in July 1994, after serving almost five years of his sentence. Bakker's son, Jay, spearheaded a letter-writing campaign to the parole board on his father's behalf, urging leniency. He was released from Federal Bureau of Prisons custody on December 1, 1994.