Some may say a way televangelists can measure their success is that they have the ability to fly their own corporate jet to spread the gospel.
For the past several months, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Fort Worth have been traveling the globe in a new $20 million jet. They pledged that the aircraft would be used for the purpose of serving their ministry.
Are the Copelands practicing what they preach?
The Copelands are regarded by many as the most successful televangelists in the world, and they certainly look the part these days—jetting about in their new Cessna Citation, operated, they say, in exact accordance with federal tax law and used solely for ministry purposes.
But flight records News 8 obtained raise questions.
It was the prospect of wellness that for years lured Bonnie Parker of Winnsboro, La. to the Copelands’ broadcast every Sunday morning, said Parker’s family.
Believer after believer, much like Parker, lined up to be healed by the Copelands. For many, they believed all it took was faith. And according to Parker’s husband Alvin and their daughter, it also took something else – money.
“We know it was a lot, a whole lot,” said Kristy Beach, Parker’s daughter, talking about the amount of money Bonnie Parker donated.
She said the total reached into the the tens of thousands, and possibly even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Parker also spent money on the lottery. Handwritten notes reflected her desire to remit her winnings to the Copelands, whom she said she believed could stop the cancer ravaging her body.
“I can’t see how they can sell something that doesn’t even belong to them to begin with, but that’s what they are doing,” Beach said. “They’re selling something that you can’t sell.”
While buying up lotto tickets, Parker’s family said she was also paying and praying for healing.
Meanwhile, the Copelands needed $20 million in their aim to buy a new jet that Kenneth Copeland said would be used only to spread the gospel.
“It will never, ever be used as long as it is in our care, for anything other than what is becoming to you, Lord Jesus,” he said.
But what “is becoming” is becoming less clear.
According to flight records obtained by News 8, the Copeland jet, on its way to an evangelical seminar in Australia last October, made a two-day layover in Maui. Then it was on to the Fiji islands for another stop.
After seven days in Australia, the Copelands headed to Honolulu for another three days of what they called “eating and rest.”
Last December, amid other evangelical stops, there was a jet ride to the Yampa Valley Airport in Colorado, just a few miles away from Steamboat Springs Ski Resort.
That same day, the jet flew back to the Copelands’ private airport north of Fort Worth.
Five days later, the jet traveled to the Yampa Valley Airport near Steamboat and returned to Texas.
One week later, there was another trip. This time, to the LaFonda Ranch in Southwest Texas, a favorite stop over the years for Kenneth Copeland and his son, John.
The La Fonda Ranch is described as a working cattle and hunting ranch located in the arid brush country.
A picture taken of Copeland and his son John shows them proudly posing with a pair of axis deer indigenous to India and Sri Lanka.
So, is a jet trip to a South Texas wild game ranch a proper use?
“You can’t take the assets that are supposed to be used for a religious or charitable purpose and use them for your own purposes without some tax consequences,” said Wayne Shaw, a former IRS agent and current Southern Methodist University business professor.
Concerns about Kenneth Copeland’s jet travel came as no surprise to Pete Evans of the Trinity Foundation in Dallas.
The organization has tracked the Copelands’ aircraft and more than $20 million in property assets for years.
“It tells everybody that Christianity is about getting stuff, and not about giving your life for the people around you,” Evans said.
Meanwhile, Parker’s husband said Bonnie died believing she hadn’t given enough money to Kenneth and Gloria Copeland.
Parker and Beach said they asked the Copelands for an accounting of Bonnie’s contributions.
“I can’t believe, I can’t comprehend them going on vacation in a jet that my mom paid for with her life,” Beach said. “I can’t imagine that.”
The Copeland ministry declined requests for an interview, and pointed to an accounting firm’s declaration that all jet travel complies with federal tax laws.
A request to see their annual tax filings and list of Board of Directors was also denied.
The reason they cited for the denial was that as a church they are not required to disclose that information.
Feb. 28, 2007
Brett Shipp, News 8 Investigates