How did a nonprofit with a tiny budget compile data on a nearly $16 billion empire of U.S. properties owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
The Truth & Transparency Foundation, formerly called MormonLeaks, is devoted to religious accountability, its co-founders say. Many of its past exposés, including stories based on internal church documents and videos, have been drawn from leaks.
On this one, Ryan McKnight and Ethan Dodge said they initiated research into the church’s landholdings themselves and worked for almost two years to obtain and refine their findings in public records.
It fit several of the foundation’s emphases on shining sunlight on church policymaking and finances as well as prior reporting they had done regarding the faith’s other investments, said McKnight, who is based in Las Vegas.
“For an organization like the Mormon church,” he said, “being open and honest about their fixed assets is an important component of transparency. In that vein, it was important for us to try and document their landholdings as best we could.”
Although the database is being made public for all, McKnight said, Latter-day Saints themselves are the most important audience.
“When somebody pulls out their checkbook to write a check to pay their tithing,” McKnight said, “I firmly believe they should be informed about where that money is going.”
Dodge, based in San Jose, Calif., added that church secrecy on its finances over concerns that public knowledge could affect tithing — as stated to “The Wall Street Journal” — seemed “somewhat deceptive, an abuse of power.
“Good journalism,” he said, “is all about holding power to account.”
Their church land database, released Tuesday, was put together through a private commercial provider called Reonomy, based in New York. McKnight and Dodge amassed raw data through queries under a basic subscription to the service in 2020. They searched millions of U.S. county properties records.
[Read more: The Truth & Transparency Foundation is shutting down]
Though undoubtedly an undercount of the Utah-based faith’s total U.S. holdings, the database pulled property records owned by church real estate companies and corporations such as Property Reserve, Suburban Land Reserve and Farmland Reserve, as well as the faith’s quirkily named Corporation of the Presiding Bishop.
The foundation then used Reonomy to correlate those with scads of other records, including tax information tying the properties back to Salt Lake City and networks of confirmed church administrators and real estate managers.
McKnight and Dodge said they were forced to set aside the research not long after the data came together in March 2020, amid pandemic disruptions and losing their day jobs.
Yet, they persisted. Portions of the data covering the most expensive properties and a randomly selected subset were subsequently audited and verified.
The Salt Lake Tribune also performed hundreds of spot checks of properties on the list, confirming ownership by church firms. Still, the newspaper found major omissions, which the foundation has acknowledged.
The faith’s Chicago Temple and several other U.S. temples are missing, for instance, as are other known sites not netted in the group’s queries. And roughly 15% of the parcels, totaling just under 25,000 acres, have no value attached.
The database also omits any ownership of single-family homes.
This information was not included in the original data pulled from Reonomy, McKnight said, though the church owns such properties.
The Truth & Transparency Foundation is confident of its findings, revealing 1.7 million acres and nearly 16,000 properties held by the church, spread across the country.
McKnight and Dodge said the foundation hopes online users will dive deeply into examining the registry’s finer details and that the database — with searchable maps — proves to be a resource for journalists, researchers and those with an interest in the church’s finances.