Web of riches raises doubts
Deals by friends, kin of televangelist are questioned
NEWARK, Texas - Here in the gentle hills of north Texas, televangelist Kenneth Copeland has built a religious empire teaching that God wants his followers to 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 specialists who reviewed information obtained by the AP through interviews, church documents, and public records have their doubts. The web of companies and nonprofits 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."
Neither Kenneth Copeland nor John Copeland, Kenneth's son and the ministry's executive director, responded to interview requests.
Kenneth Copeland, 71, is a pioneer of the prosperity gospel, which teaches that believers are destined to flourish spiritually, physically, and financially - and share the wealth with others. His ministry's 1,500-acre campus outside Forth Worth is testament to his success. It includes a church, private airstrip, a hangar for the ministry's aircraft, and a $6 million, church-owned 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.
All have denied wrongdoing, but Copeland has fought back the hardest, refusing to answer most questions from the inquiry's architect, Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa.
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 committee could subpoena Copeland if he remains uncooperative.
A one-time pop singer, Copeland had a born-again experience and enrolled at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla. He worked as a pilot and chauffeur for Roberts himself. He describes hearing his own call to preach standing in a dried-up riverbed.
Now a 500-employee operation with a budget in the tens of millions, Kenneth Copeland Ministries has won supporters worldwide through its conferences, prayer request network, disaster relief work, magazine, and television program.
Kenneth Copeland Ministries is organized under the tax code as a church, so it gets a layer of privacy not afforded large secular and religious nonprofit groups that must disclose budgets and salaries. Pastors' pay must be "reasonable" under the federal tax code.
Copeland's current salary is not made public by his ministry. However, the church disclosed in a property-tax exemption application that his wages were $364,577 in 1995; Copeland's wife, Gloria, earned $292,593.