Taxes are like American baseball — even if you don’t it, you can’t exactly get away from it. That doesn’t stop people from trying, and when they do try we can’t help but snicker when they’re caught and punished. Because, let’s be honest, if we have to pay, then everyone else better bet themselves that they do too. It’s the law.
Recently, there’s been a huge to-do regarding the Anchorage Baptist Temple and the various properties they’ve claimed as tax exempt for several years. For those who don’t know, Allen Prevo and his now ex-wife lived in one such property, and because Allen Prevo is an ordained minister with the church, the property is tax exempt (but only if the church is the sole owner of it). Allen, however, had a side agreement with the church, a “paper mortgage,” by which he was slowly purchasing the house from the church over time (since 2004, actually); this means that he has interest in the property, and therefore it does not qualify for tax exemption.
But ABT was claiming it anyway. No one would have known but for the divorce proceedings, in which Holly Jo Prevo (Allen Prevo’s then-wife) mentioned the agreement, and produced paperwork between Allen and ABT to prove its validity. What followed was an investigation of the other 14 tax exempt properties being used as residences for ABT ministers and educators, during which one other mortgage-like agreement was discovered and published by blogger Melissa S. Green on her LGBTQ website, Bent Alaska. ADN later picked up the story and expanded on it, drawing more attention.
ABT is claiming that they misinterpreted the law, that they didn’t realize what they were doing was wrong and that they would gladly pay the $53,298 in back taxes for the two properties (after being assured by Anchorage Assessor Marty McGee that they had, in fact, claimed ineligible property). McGee claims his investigation indicates that this is true, that ABT didn’t knowingly commit tax fraud, and that there would be no criminal charges pressed.
However, certain events and past taxation issues indicate that ABT knew precisely what it was doing, thereby willingly committing tax fraud over the course of several years.
During the Prevo divorce proceedings, Holly Jo indicated that Allen scoured their home for the “mortgage” documents, and testified that it was because he didn’t want her to have access to them and possibly get the church in trouble for “how they do their housing,”as reported by the Anchorage Daily News. If this is true — and no one claimed it wasn’t — then it should be taken as the first indicator that ABT at least had an idea that what they were doing wasn’t completely acceptable.
The second indicator that ABT knew that they were (possibly) committing tax fraud is that this isn’t their first rodeo regarding property taxes. In 2004, McGee investigated them for improperly claiming property tax exemptions on residences that didn’t qualify for it under Alaska’s tax exemption clause. The properties involved were returned to the tax roll until 2006, when legislation was passed in the state House and Senate to include properties owned by a church that are inhabited by religious educators and ordained ministers who fit an individual church’s criteria for a minister. This legislation was lobbied for by ABT.
Having gone through the process of defending their decisions and being found in the wrong, and then pushing a change in state law not two years later, it is unlikely that ABT was uneducated on the ins and outs of the tax exemption law when they chose to claim Allen Prevo’s residence and the residence of another minister as tax exempt. It is nearly impossible. Tack that on with Allen Prevo’s alleged desire to keep the church’s integrity out of question when he searched for their agreed upon paper mortgage, and the “coincidences” are just too much.
All that being said, why is a more in-depth investigation not being conducted? Why, when it seems so glaringly obvious that this organization knowingly is ripping off the general public by not paying its fair share of property taxes, are criminal charges not being filed? When a person is caught speeding and is pulled over, saying, “I’m sorry, I thought it was legal to go 100 mph down Old Seward at night with my headlights off,” is not going to get the person out of a ticket and a couple of fines. Why shouldn’t ABT be charged criminally, when any average property owner would be?
Ignorance is not a viable defense to breaking the law, and ignoring shady coincidences is not a good enough reason not to pursue a case. Make an example of ABT so that other organizations and individuals can see first hand that cheating (both the government and your fellow citizens) isn’t tolerated.