A $3.6 million jet owned by Kenneth Copeland Ministries will remain taxable property after a Tarrant Appraisal District review board on Monday denied a protest filed by Copeland's attorneys, who were seeking to make it tax-free.
The district had denied the jet's tax-exempt status because Copeland's ministry refused to disclose salaries of its directors and employees, including Copeland, his wife and other ministers. The ministry has also refused a U.S. senator's request for compensation information.
David Middlebrook, an attorney for Copeland, said the ministry, also known as Eagle Mountain International Church, will consider its legal options but declined to elaborate on what those may be. The jet in question is a 1998 Cessna Bravo 550, which seats nine people. Taxes on the jet would be about $75,000, a district official said. The ministry is based in Newark, northwest of Fort Worth.
Rick Duncan, another attorney for Copeland, said that revealing ministers' salaries should be a concern to all churches in Tarrant County and that the request for salaries was unprecedented in his experience.
At Monday's appraisal review board hearing, Duncan said that the ministry has not been given any reason why the information is necessary and that such information was "universally ignored" in the past.
"That information, if provided, is going to be public information and anyone can walk in off the street and get that," he said during the hearing. "And we think that has all kinds of privacy concerns, not just for Eagle Mountain but every church in Tarrant County."
Duncan also said the church has provided an audit to the district. District officials said it had an affidavit from the church's accountant but not an audit.
The affidavit was accepted in lieu of a salary list on previous Copeland ministry aircraft exemptions, district officials said. But this year the district, under new leadership, started enforcing the salary disclosures.
"We do receive this information from all churches," said Ruby Bressman, the district's senior exemption specialist. "Before, some of them used to send [the district] audits, but as of 2008 that's not accepted."
The request for a salary list is standard on a form provided by the state comptroller's office and used by the district.
Pete Evans, chief investigator of the televangelist watchdog group Trinity Foundation of Dallas, who attended the review board hearing, said donors have a right to know how their money is being spent.
"I think that there's a total lack of transparency. They're hiding behind their church designation," Evans said. "They claim that it's an issue of privacy rather than of secrecy, but the net result is the same. They get away with whatever they want and use the church as their own piggy bank."
The ministry owns at least four aircraft, including a $17.5 million Citation X. Other Copeland aircraft that are already tax-exempt are not expected to be affected, officials said. Exemptions are reviewed every 10 years unless someone files a complaint, officials said.
The aircraft are used for disaster relief, prison outreach, church meetings, worldwide conventions and other church activities about 90 percent of the time, the church has said.
The rest of the time they are used for personal trips, and "individuals are all charged for personal use of planes ... These are all legal activities," the ministry said last year.
But unclear are layovers of ministry jets in Honolulu and Maui, Hawaii, and the Fiji Islands, according to a letter sent last year to the ministry by U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. Grassley has asked for financial details from several televangelists after reports of lavish lifestyles enjoyed by the ministers. So far, the Copelands have refused, but they said they would cooperate with an IRS inquiry.
Source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram