‘I thought we were going to change the world’ — ex-money manager explains why he blew the whistle on LDS finances

In his first public interview, David A. Nielsen calls Ensign Peak Advisors “a clandestine hedge fund,” stating that “to hide $100B, you can’t do it with just one lie.”

(CBS News) David Nielsen, a former senior portfolio manager with the LDS Church's investment wing who turned whistleblower, talks to correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi in Sunday's edition of "60 Minutes."

A former investment manager for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told “60 Minutes” on Sunday he joined the faith’s investment arm, Ensign Peak Advisors, inspired that he might help advance the global denomination’s charitable outreach around the world.

David A. Nielsen, the portfolio supervisor turned IRS whistleblower, said the Utah-based faith instead illegally relied on its tax-exempt status to stockpile upward of $100 billion in investments built from members’ tithing and that “the funds were never used” for those good works.

“It was really a clandestine hedge fund,” Nielsen told the newsmagazine show’s correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi. “Once the money went in, it didn’t go out.”

“I thought we were going to change the world,” said the Salt Lake City resident, who added that he left a lucrative job on Wall Street to join Ensign Peak in 2009 but resigned nine years later after becoming disillusioned. “We just grew the bank account.”

Sunday’s news segment, titled “The Church’s Firm,” marked the first public comments by Nielsen since his late 2019 complaint to tax authorities, accusing the church’s investment firm of dodging billions in taxes by using false records “to masquerade as a charity” and misleading the faith’s 17 million members.

The newsmagazine show said the church brings in an estimated $7 billion annually in tithing and that it has $1 billion left over at year’s end, excess that presumably funnels into the Ensign Peak Advisors account.

In additional video clips released after the broadcast, Nielsen said while Ensign Peak was run by “some of the best people I’ve ever known,” the firm’s penchant for secrecy turned its company culture “into something that was unhealthy.”

“In order to hide $100 billion, you can’t do it with just one lie,” Nielsen said. “It’s a lot to keep that going. And when you build a company on so much secrecy and a need to conceal, it creates a leadership tone from the top that we can do whatever we want as long as it’s to stay hidden.”

While not using funds for church activities, Nielsen has said, money managers spent nearly $2 billion from Ensign Peak for commercial purposes, namely, City Creek Center, the luxury mall the faith built near its headquarters campus in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City, and Beneficial Life, a church-owned insurance firm.

“I’m not an expert on charities,” Nielsen told Alfonsi, “but I’ve been around the block enough to know that charitable organizations can’t bail out for-profit businesses and maintain their charitable status.”

Church leader defends financial practices

W. Christopher Waddell, first counselor in the church’s Presiding Bishopric, the ecclesiastical overseers of its far-reaching financial, real estate, investment and charitable operations, countered that Nielsen did not have a full picture of Ensign Peak’s work.

“Flat-out wrong,” Waddell told the “60 Minutes” of Nielsen’s accusations, later saying Ensign Peak held asset reserves as an auxiliary of the church, “providing us with those resources that we need in order to operate as a church.

“It’s not an investment bank,” Waddell said. “It’s the church’s treasury.”

Sunday’s 13-minute story did not add substantial new detail to what Nielsen has shared with tax officials, the Department of Justice, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee and the Securities and Exchange Commission. He said he decided to come forward on national television after extending “all the professional courtesy” to the IRS and the SEC.

“It’s time,” he said. “This is just too important to fall through the cracks.”

The “60 Minutes” segment did not mention Nielsen’s call for Congress to investigate the church’s financial practices.

In an additional clip, Nielsen was asked what was at stake in filing his whistleblower complaint, which “60 Minutes” noted had a potential to bring him millions in government reward.

“Integrity is at stake,” he responded. “Mine. Ensign Peak’s. The church’s. We gotta go through a process, make the world better.”

“This is too big a deal,” Nielsen said at another point. “I couldn’t fix things from inside.”

Asked about accusations he was trying to cash in for any potential whistleblower reward, Nielsen quipped: “People said far worse things about me over the last several years.”

Phil Hackney, a former IRS official also interviewed in the segment, later called the odds that Nielsen’s complaints would be fully investigated “slim.”

“The political risk is so great that it comes with real danger,” Hackney said. “At the same time, there’s a real risk to the rule of law if the IRS doesn’t come in and enforce those rules.”

Church declines to declare its total assets

Nielsen’s interview did add a dimension of personal betrayal to his nearly 4-year-old narrative of claims.

“You could solve big problems with $100 billion,” he said at one point.

When evidence became public in 2018 of Ensign Peak’s efforts to hide church assets by reporting them under a series of shell companies, Nielsen said the firm worried that reporting the securities under the company’s own name “would bring undue attention and that attention would be potentially damaging.”

When Nielsen pressed for more answers, he said, he was told that potential damage could be losing the firm’s tax-exempt status.

“I knew at that moment,” Nielsen said, “I was in the wrong place.”

When he asked his superiors for an explanation of how Ensign Peak’s vast reserve funds — which he pegged at the time at $100 billion, exceeding Harvard University’s endowment or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “60 Minutes” noted — might one day be used, Nielsen said, “the answer was always the Second Coming.”

“And it’s a bit tongue in cheek,” he said, “but deep down I think a lot of the employees really did believe that.”

Waddell pointedly rebuffed that assertion, as other Latter-day Saint officials have in the past.

“We believe that someday Jesus Christ will return. But that’s not why we have those resources,” Waddell said. The funds, he added, were for the church’s continuing operations “and for the future.”

He declined to address claims the “rainy day” fund has reached as much as $150 billion. When asked at one point if that figure “was in the ballpark,” Waddell smiled and said only that the church had “significant resources.”

He turned away allegations that the fund had exceeded the church’s own principles of prudence and become excessive.

“I don’t know if it’s ever becoming excessive because it’s all going to be used at some point,” Waddell said in an additional clip. “We will double the humanitarian work again and then again. We will continue to build temples that require those resources.”

The Latter-day Saint leader also defended the church’s stance on not disclosing details about its finances.

In response to a question that a lack of transparency can breed mistrust, Waddell declared, “We don’t feel it’s being secret. We feel it’s being confidential,” though he added that the difference between the two was a matter of “point of view.”

“It’s confidential in order to maintain the focus on what our purpose is, rather than the church has X amount,” Waddell said. If the church assets were disclosed, he said, “then everyone will be telling us what they want us to do with the money.”