Covington, Kentucky -- An Internet evangelist based in northern Kentucky who preaches that the end of the world is near lived a lavish lifestyle off donations from his followers from around the world and didn't pay taxes on much of the money, federal prosecutors said Monday in opening statements at the minister's trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert McBride told jurors in federal court in Covington that Ronald Weinland of Union, Ky., used credit cards to have his ministry, the Church of God-Preparing for the Kingdom of God, pay for more than $500,000 in personal expenses.
"That in and of itself isn't really good business practice, but it isn't inherently illegal. The crime here is mostly evading income taxes," McBride said.
The Kentucky Enquirer reported that (http://bit.ly/JSsy8D ) Weinland's attorney, Robert Webb, said the charges are erroneous because federal agents misunderstand Weinland's ministry. Webb said the group believes that society is in its "final days" and the U.S. financial system will collapse before Jesus Christ returns. Weinland writes on his webpage that the beginning of the end of the world started on May 27.
"The only issue in this case is whether Mr. Weinland had criminal intent," Webb said. "Did he have a black heart and a dark mind when he engaged in these transactions? No. He never deliberately tried the cheat the IRS or anyone else out of taxes."
Weinland is charged with not paying $357,065 in taxes from 2004 through 2008.
McBride noted that Weinland never missed a legal deduction allowed for ministers.
"While Mr. Weinland was no tax expert, he was no tax neophyte either," McBride said.
In about 2000, Weinland formed his church with a small congregation in Cincinnati. With no building to meet his followers in, Weinland began streaming audio of his sermons on the Internet. He now has followers from Los Angeles to Ireland and New Zealand. The Cincinnati congregation gathers weekly in a Sharonville hotel conference room to listen to the sermons.
Webb said the church grew because Weinland was "working for the church - spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Weinland patted Webb on the shoulder after his opening statement and said, "That was good."
McBride is expected to present evidence during the weeklong trial that Weinland broke the law by failing to report a Swiss bank account from 2004 through 2007.
Webb said Weinland was just trying to diversify the assets of the church before the financial collapse he had prophesied.
"Mr. Weinland didn't move this money to Switzerland over the cover of darkness," Webb said. "He didn't do it at night when no one was looking. He did it in broad daylight, and he told members of his congregation that he was going to move money to Switzerland before he moved it."
McBride said Weinland purchased diamonds and gold for his family with church money. Webb said those were liquid assets so his followers had something to barter with when the financial system crashed.
"The Weinlands carried the diamonds and gold with them when they traveled far abroad because they believe time was going to end - that Jesus Christ would return," Webb said.