Relatives of televangelist prosper
Over the years, a circle of Copeland’s relatives and friends have done just that, The Associated Press has found. They include the brother-in-law with a lucrative deal to broker Copeland’s television time, the son who acquired church-owned land for his ranching business and saw it more than quadruple in value, and board members who together have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for speaking at church events.
Church officials say no one improperly benefits through ties to Copeland’s vast evangelical ministry, which claims more than 600,000 subscribers in 134 countries to its flagship “Believer’s Voice of Victory” magazine. The board of directors signs off on important matters, they say. Yet church bylaws give Copeland veto power over board decisions.
While Copeland insists that his ministry complies with the law, independent tax experts who reviewed information obtained by the AP through interviews, church documents and public records have their doubts. The web of companies and non-profits tied to the televangelist calls the ministry’s integrity into question, they say.
“There are far too many relatives here,” said Frances Hill, a University of Miami law professor who specializes in nonprofit tax law. “There’s too much money sloshing around and too much of it sloshing around with people with overlapping affiliations and allegiances by either blood or friendship or just ties over the years. There are red flags all over these relationships.”
Copeland, 71, is a pioneer of the prosperity gospel, which holds that believers are destined to flourish spiritually, physically and financially – and share the wealth with others.
His ministry’s 1,500-acre campus, behind an iron gate a half-hour drive from Forth Worth, is testament to his success. It includes a church, a private airstrip, a hangar for the ministry’s $17.5 million jet and other aircraft, and a $6 million church-owned lakefront mansion.
Already a well-known figure, Copeland has come under greater scrutiny in recent months. He is one target of a Senate Finance Committee investigation into allegations of questionable spending and lax financial accountability at six large televangelist organizations that preach health-and-wealth theology.
Copeland’s church also has invited an Internal Revenue Service audit, which would keep information private, and has launched a sophisticated Web site, Believers Stand United, to “help set the record straight.”
The Senate committee didn’t set out to determine whether Copeland or the others broke the law, although it could provide information to the Internal Revenue Service if something seems flagrantly wrong, a committee aide said. The main goal, Grassley has said, is to figure out whether existing tax laws governing churches are adequate, which could carry sweeping implications for all religious organizations.
The committee could subpoena Copeland if he remains uncooperative. Neither he nor John Copeland, his son and the ministry’s chief executive officer, responded to interview requests.
But Lawrence Swicegood, spokesman for Kenneth Copeland Ministries, said in written responses to questions that no Copeland family members receive improper benefits through their ties to the church.
All revenue from the church’s business interests – including an oil and natural gas company it owns – go into the church, Swicegood said.
He said that Kenneth Copeland has never exercised his veto power over board decisions, a provision meant for emergency use. Even so, Swicegood said, the board is scheduled to meet in August to vote on taking away that ability.