Dinosaur Adventure Land owner, wife face 58 counts of tax fraud
Defense attorneys said it’s a case of a Pensacola couple’s ignorance of the law and their religious beliefs.
A federal prosecutor said it’s a case of a couple refusing to pay payroll taxes for their employees.
Opening statements began Tuesday in the trial of Pensacola evangelist Kent Hovind and his wife, Jo. Between them, the Hovinds are charged with 58 counts of tax fraud involving their Creation Science Ministry. The ministry includes Dinosaur Adventure Land on North Palafox Street, a creationist theme park dedicated to debunking evolution.
Twelve jurors and two alternates were selected Tuesday to hear the case that could take two weeks. The trial is expected to continue at 8:30 a.m. today before U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers.
Prosecutor Michelle Heldmeyer said Hovind, also known as “Dr. Dino,” failed to pay about $470,000 in federal income, Social Security and Medicare taxes for his ministry employees between March 31, 2001, and Jan. 31, 2004.
She said Jo Hovind contributed to the fraud by withdrawing thousands of dollars in cash from the ministry’s bank account so the money could not be traced. She made 45 transactions in a little more than a year, sometimes taking out as much as $9,500 at a time. Banks are required to report cash withdrawals that exceed $10,000.
“The Hovinds ran a business,” Heldmeyer told the jury. “All employers are required to contribute to those systems.”
Both Kent and Jo Hovind pleaded not guilty in July.
Defense attorney Alan Richey said Hovind was unaware of the laws he was charged with breaking. He said no one from the Internal Revenue Service ever notified Hovind he was breaking the law.
“The government, the IRS, has taken its time trying to find a way to come after Mr. Hovind,” he said.
Heldmeyer said from 1999 to March 2004, the Hovinds took in more than $5 million. Their income came from amusement-park profits and merchandise — books, audiotapes and videotapes — they sold on site and through phone and online orders, she said. About half the money went to employees.
Those employees either were salaried or were paid hourly wages. They worked set hours. They signed up for vacations and sick leave.
But rather than accepting his responsibility as an employer, Hovind hid behind terminology, Heldmeyer said.
He called his employees “volunteers,” “missionaries” or “ministers,” she said. Wages were referred to as “gifts” or “love offerings.”
Employees then became responsible for paying Hovind’s portion of the income tax, she said.
And though the Hovinds refer to their business as a ministry, it’s not affiliated with a church, she said.
“It’s not a church,” she said. “But that doesn’t matter, because a church still has to pay payroll tax.”
Hovind attempted to manipulate funds from the start of his ministry, she said.
In 1996, he filed for bankruptcy, a move Heldmeyer said Hovind designed to prevent the IRS from collecting taxes.
The IRS later determined Hovind filed under an “evil purpose,” Heldmeyer said.
She called Hovind a “very loud and vocal tax protester,” recalling a number of lawsuits he filed against the IRS over the past decade. Each was deemed frivolous and was thrown out, she said.
And on April 13, 2004, when IRS officials issued a search warrant for Hovind’s property, he resisted.
“It was a very difficult day,” she said.
Richey and Jerold Barringer, Jo Hovind’s attorney, told a different story.
Richey said IRS agents stepped outside their authority that day, interrogating employees and confiscating records and money.
“For the government, it’s OK if they’re extreme,” he said.
He called Hovind a literalist who takes every word of the Bible as truth.
Barringer said the Hovinds have specific religious beliefs that should be respected.
“Mr. Hovind believes what the Bible says,” he said. “Most Christians do, as well.”
He said when Hovind traveled the country sometimes 250 days out of the year, Jo Hovind served as a “housewife” who was “simply helping people in the office.”
“The government is flinging a lot of mud, trying to make him look dirty,” Richey said. “And his wife — a piano teacher of 20 years — they’re trying to make her look dirty, too.”