OCTOBER 11, 2009
WASHINGTON — A multimillionaire televangelist who is fighting a federal investigation will preach at Little Rock’s Agape Church today [October 11, 2009].
For the past two years, Senate Finance Committee investigators have tried to determine whether Believer’s Voice of Victory television star Kenneth Copeland has used his ministry to finance a jet-setter’s life of fancy cars, boats and planes — bankrolled by his followers’ donations.
Copeland’s Eagle Mountain International Church, based near Fort Worth, is one of six tax-exempt ministries under investigation by the committee. Aided by the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas group that investigates alleged misdeeds of televangelists, the committee is looking into whether Copeland and the other pastors illegally steered donations to their churches into their private bank accounts. Shielded by their nonprofit charitable status, churches are allowed to largely steer clear of the Internal Revenue Service.
“There’s more fraud committed in the name of God than anything else in America,” said Ole Anthony, founder of the Trinity Foundation. “This is a $2.5 billion industry that’s untaxed and unregulated.”
Copeland, who denies misusing ministry funds, says the Senate shouldn’t be interfering with spiritual matters.
In a February 2008 letter to donors, Kenneth Copeland Ministries suggested the government probe is an attack on religious freedom.
Insisting that the ministry is “pure sexually” and “pure financially,” the letter said: “The enemy is not going to steal what the Lord has won through this ministry, and he is not going to use this attack to bring harm to the rest of the churches and ministries in America!”
The Finance Committee, spurred by its ranking member, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, looked at 30 ministries investigated by the Trinity Foundation and chose to formally investigate six of them.
That was two years ago. The response, according to committee investigators, has, for the most part, been a stiff arm.
Committee investigators in November 2007 asked for Copeland and his wife, Gloria, to name the church’s board of directors, provide details on executive compensation, identify associated nonprofit and for-profit entities, turn over bank account and investment records, list their auto and jet fleets, and give an accounting for oil and gas wells and ranch properties owned by the Copeland family or their ministry.
So far, Copeland has been “unresponsive,” according to Theresa Pattara, a tax counsel for the Finance Committee.
“He pretty much told us to take a hike,” she said.
‘COOPERATING SINCE DAY 1’
Pattara said that of the six ministers targeted by Grassley, only Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church and the Joyce Meyer Ministries have complied in good faith.
“We have been cooperating since Day 1,” Hinn told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Tuesday.
“The Senate of the United States has the right to ask questions,” the popular faith healer said, rejecting claims that the Senate is persecuting televangelists. “As long as we are cooperating and transparent, there should be no problem.”
But with Copeland withholding information, Pattara said, the investigators would have to “go the subpoena route.”
Besides Copeland, Tampa, Fla.-based pastors Randy and Paula White, and Atlanta-area preachers Creflo Dollar and Eddie Long also have withheld information, according to Pattara.
To get subpoenas, investigators would need the approval of Grassley and the panel’s chairman, Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana. However, with deliberations over a major health-care overhaul taking center stage, it’s unlikely the matter will be pursued immediately.
James Tito, a spokesman for Copeland, said the investigation is “kind of dormant.”
“We’re just going on doing our ministry like we’re supposed to do,” he said.
That ministry includes an airport, a Texas-sized cattle ranch, and an oil and gas exploration company.
Asked why the church wouldn’t release the requested information if it was acting in accordance with the law, Tito pointed to a statement on Copeland’s Web site, www.kcm.org.
“That was our official response,” he said, declining further comment.
According to the ministry’s Web site, Copeland responded to 17 of the 42 questions Grassley posed regarding Eagle Mountain.
Copeland did not provide, among other things, the church’s audited financial statements or a detailed explanation of Copeland and his wife Gloria’s compensation.
He also declined to provide a list of the church’s overseas bank accounts and the names of the church’s board members, preferring to “describe generally the occupations or callings of the members,” which include “an Arkansas businessman.”
According to Copeland’s response, his airplanes are used for church business between 90 percent and 91 percent of the time. When used for personal reasons, the response says their use is reported as taxable income.
Separately, Shane Hamilton, a Washington lawyer who represents Copeland’s church, wrote to the IRS Office of Examinations of Tax-Exempt Entities indicating the church would cooperate with an IRS investigation of the ministry’s finances. Hamilton did not return calls.
Copeland is just stalling, according to Pete Evans, lead investigator at the Trinity Foundation.
He said IRS investigations take years, and include a step-by-step appeals process that allow targets to fight off requests for information “until the investigating agents retire or die, whichever comes first.”
He added that it is likely an IRS inquiry would go to settlement and include terms that seal the investigation. “It would never see the light of day,” he said.
MORE THAN $1 BILLION
Copeland, a former pop singer, says he was told by God to start his ministry in 1967, as he was strolling the dry bed of the Arkansas River in Tulsa.
Since then, he claims, more than 60 million people have responded to his ministry, pushing total revenue — over the past four decades — above $1 billion. In addition to his headquarters near Fort Worth, Copeland’s ministry has offices in Australia, Canada, England and Ukraine.
According to the Trinity Foundation, which examined real estate records, airplane flight logs, church videos and interviews with former employees, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland have built an empire with the help of tax-deductible donations.
When he wakes each morning, Copeland can watch television on the 8-foot screen that retracts into his bedroom ceiling, according to interviews Trinity conducted with two informants. He can walk into his roughly 600-square-foot closet and select a suit to wear from three tiers of rotating racks.
His watches and jewelry are kept on an island in the middle of the closet.
If he and Gloria decide not to use the weight room or the media room, with its movie-theater-sized screen, they can head over to one of the parsonage’s two garages, where some of the 21 cars and motorcycles registered to the couple are stored, Trinity says.
They may decide against the Cadillac, Mercedes, Lexus or Corvette and decide to leave the compound via a helicopter or boat, or by using one of several ministry planes — including a $20 million Cessna Citation X jet, Trinity says.
In January 2007, other evangelists gathered for Copeland’s 70th birthday.
To show their appreciation, according to Happy Caldwell, the pastor of Little Rock’s Agape Church, where Copeland will speak today, they pooled their cash and gave Copeland a $2.1 million gift.
Copeland has declined to answer detailed Finance Committee questions about the birthday money. The actual size of the gift was “less than $2 million,” the church told investigators.
‘I TRUST THE COPELANDS’
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who appeared on the ministry’s television broadcasts and used one of the ministry’s planes during his failed 2008 presidential bid, defends the Texas pastor.
Huckabee, who held a campaign fundraiser inside Copeland’s church in January 2008, said he didn’t “know the specifics of the inquiry. But I do know Congress and the Copelands, and I trust the Copelands a great deal more. Congress ought to work on their own issues, with members like Charlie Rangel not paying taxes or reporting his income.”
Huckabee referred to Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Last week, the House Ethics Committee announced that it was expanding an ongoing investigation into allegations that Rangel did not report all of his assets in his financial-disclosure forms, underpaid taxes and abused his chairmanship to solicit funding for projects in his district.
The people who send in donations to Copeland are in the best position to determine whether Copeland is living “high on the hog,” said Douglas Napier, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal network of Christian attorneys in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Napier noted that Copeland preaches an ideology of prosperity, that suggests good works, faith and prayer will be rewarded with riches.
The Copelands’ wealth “would seem to be consistent with their own theology,” Napier said. “Is it the IRS’ role or the Senate Finance Committee’s role to second-guess the wisdom or accuracy of that theology?”
The Trinity Foundation disagrees.
“Pastors are violating a trust with their congregations when they’re not being open and transparent, said Evans, the group’s lead investigator. “And they’re violating the public trust if they receive a tax exemption that takes money away from the U.S. government.”
Critics have accused Grassley of persecuting televangelists because he disagrees with their religious beliefs, a charge Grassley — a longtime Baptist — denies.
For the past several years, Grassley, the Finance Committee’s ranking Republican, has put a number of other nonprofits in his cross hairs. He targeted the Nature Conservancy, the Red Cross and the Smithsonian Institution, for example, along with nonprofit hospitals and university endowments.
Grassley’s hearings have led to changes at several major charitable organizations.
Though a health overhaul has been taking the time of the committee’s chairman and ranking member, Pattara insists that the panel’s investigators are still compiling information.
She noted that the results of an inquiry into ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, were just released in September.
They launched that investigation in 2006, a year before the ministries inquiry began.
Other investigations have also taken years to complete.
Just because the investigators haven’t issued a report yet on the ministers “doesn’t mean we’ve given up working on it,” Pattara said.
Kenneth Copeland is scheduled to preach at Agape Church, 701 Napa Valley Drive in Little Rock, at 10 a.m. on Oct. 11, 2009. Copeland also has a Web site, www.believersstandunited.com, focusing on religious freedom and the Senate investigation.