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There Are No Tickets to Heaven

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - San Francisco's CBS affiliate defamed church leaders by accusing them of "bilking" parishioners and "selling tickets to heaven," the leaders claim in two lawsuits.

Michael Parker sued CBS, three of its reporters and a producer in one complaint; pastor Lacy Hawkins and the General Assembly Church of Alameda County sued the same defendants in a separate complaint in the same court, Alameda County Superior.

The church has branches in Union City and Vallejo. It claims the defendants defamed it in a series of investigative reports that were published by KPIX channel 5 and online.

The news reports referred to investments offered by Parker's companies, Daystar Investments and Stellar Enterprises, and to "the California Department of Corporation's desist and refrain order that portrayed Michael Parker and Pastor Lacy Hawkins and their church and its pastors and congregants in a false light as engaging in crimes, real estate fraud, theft, bilking parishioners, selling tickets to heaven and other criminal or fraudulent activities that maligned their reputations, occupations, professions and businesses and caused them and others distress," the complaints state.

The church people claim that the KPIX 5 reporters "knew or should have known" that the Department of Corporations did not issue such an order and that the church "was not a party to the proceedings or the subject of any criminal proceedings," the complaints state.

Parker claims that he "acted on the advice of legal counsel in offering investments and securities" and that none of the plaintiffs "ever personally profited from the investment programs offered" by Parker's companies.

Contrary to the allegedly defamatory reports, the plaintiffs say, an administrative law judge found that Parker did not tell church members "that if they did not invest with Daystar Investments or Stellar Enterprises, they could no longer be members of the church or would not have eternal life."

The individual defendants in both cases are KPIX reporter Linda Yee, producer Abigail Sterling, and broadcasters Ken Batista and Elizabeth Cooke.

The church people claim that the Sterling "secretly videotaped the sanctuary of the church and its pastors and congregants during a religious service." They claim the defendants used to footage in TV broadcasts and online articles that "mislead the public ... suggesting that the video showed the church and its pastors selling tickets to heaven."

KPIX 5 reported in 2013 that a California state judge found that Parker and Hawkins had operated a real estate investment company without a license.

"Hundreds of parishioners mortgaged their homes and drained retirement accounts on the promise of investment returns as high as 30 percent. Some said they were even promised salvation," one article stated.

Parker told KPIX 5 that the money was used to purchase land in Louisiana. But the Army Corps of Engineers told the news station that some of the land was a swamp.

Plaintiffs are represented by Sharonrose Cannistraci of Los Gatos.

They seek punitive damages for defamation, false light, negligent infliction of emotional distress and negligent interference with prospective economic advantage.

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