Brett Shipp reports
FORT WORTH - The Tarrant County chief appraiser has issued an ultimatum to prominent televangelists Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, either tell us how much money you're making or start paying taxes on your newest private jet.
Kenneth and Gloria Copeland are widely regarded as two of the most successful televangelists in the world. Their television ministry spans the globe, and their brand new Cessna Citation X jet often gets them there.
But in 2007, News 8 was the first to raise questions as to the possible private use of their new jet, taking it to such places as Steamboat Springs during ski season and a wild game ranch in south Texas.
Despite concerns, Tarrant County chose to award a tax exempt status to that jet. In May of this year, Copeland came into possession of another jet. But this time, a new Tarrant County chief appraiser took a harder stand. The jet will only be tax exempt if the Copelands supply the county with a standard list of ministry salaries.
'We are going to require a list of salaries; and we do require that of every religious organization," said Chief Appraiser Diane Collins.
Monday in Fort Worth, Copeland's attorneys decided to fight the ruling. Once again, they refused to divulge the Copelands' earnings. So, the appeals panel denied a tax exempt status for the new jet.
Copeland's attorneys, David Middlebrook, said they have provided the county with a CPA's certification that none of the ministry resources are being used for personal reasons.
"So, we are not dragging our feet," Middlebrook said. "We are doing our job to make sure that people like you and me can go to a church and exercise our religious freedoms consistent with the Constitution that our founding fathers put in place. Are those planes being used for personal reasons?"
But a religious watchdog group, the Trinity Foundation, said it has obtained government records that show the new jet has also made what appear to be personal trips. Once again, the records say the Copelands' used a jet to travel to Steamboat Springs, Colorado and then back down to South Texas, which is where the Copelands have been photographed on several big game hunts.
The flight information used to be accessible by anyone over the Internet. But after News 8's last investigation, the Copelands were able to block their trip information.
However, none of that is apparently on the chief appraiser's radar. Collins simply said if the Copelands or any church wants tax exempt status, they have to comply with state law and supply salary information.
Copeland's attorneys said they will release nothing and are considering an appeal with the district court.
Copeland's salary is also the subject of a United States Senate Finance Committee investigation. He is one of six televangelists that have been asked by Sen. Charles Grassley to supply salary information.
Four of the six are cooperating with Grassley's investigation. Thus far, Copeland has refused. He said his salary is constitutionally protected from disclosure.