Taken for a ride: TV preacher Pat Robertson used Operation Belssing's airplanes for diamond mining operations in Zaire, former pilots say.
While the charity's planes were criss- crossing the troubled African nation in support of Robertson's attempt to tap into the lucrative diamond trade, Robertson was on television raising millions in donations by promoting his humanitarian word there. Operation Blessing volunteer medical teams were helping care for refugees in the country.
Three airplanes, moved to Zaire in September 1994, were emblazoned with the name of Operation Blessing on their tailfins. Robert Hinkle, the chief pilot, said that of about 40 in-country flights flown during the six months he was in Zaire, only one or at most two could be construed as humanitarian. All the rest were mining-related, he said.
Through a spokesman, Robertson first denied the accounts of Hinkle and a co-pilot. Later, the spokesman said he wanted to clarify his response. He said the planes turned out to be unsuitable for medical relief and that Robertson reimbursed Operation Blessing for their use. The spokesman characterized it as a benevolent gesture that helped the charity cover the costs of airplanes that would otherwise have been unused.
"Pat Robertson's extraordinary benevolence toward Operation Blessing should be commended, not criticized," said Gene Kapp, vice president for public relations at Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network.
From the beginning, the airplanes' intended use was ambiguous, said Hinkle, a pilot from Chandler, Ariz., who signed on with Robertson in June 1994.
"My first impression when I took the job was that we'd be called Operation Blessing and we'd be doing humanitarian work," Hinkle, a former Peace Corps volunteer, said in a telephone interview.
"We got over there and we had 'Operation Blessing' painted on the tails of the airplanes, but we were doing no humanitarian relief at all. We were just supplying the miners and flying the dredges from Kinshasa out to Tshikapa."
Based in the Zairian capital of Kinshasa, Robertson's for-profit company, African Development Co., sought to dredge diamonds from a remote jungle riverbed near Tshikapa, a town to the south. Robertson is the president and sole shareholder of the company.
"We hauled medical supplies one time," Hinkle said -- on a flight from Goma to Tshikapa. "It might have been about 500 pounds at the most. It was a very minimal amount." The planes' payload was usually about 7,000 pounds, he said.
Goma, a town in eastern Zaire, was a major destination for refugees fleeing civil war in neighboring Rwanda.
On one other occasion, Hinkle said, he persuaded his superiors to let him pick up another missionary organization's two small airplanes that had been stranded in the bush. The wings were removed and the small planes loaded aboard the larger cargo craft. He said he was allowed to make the run only after the missionary group agreed to reimburse Operation Blessing for its costs.
"After three months," Hinkle said, "I had the workers in the hangar take the 'Operation Blessing' off the tails because I was embarrassed to be flying around these places doing diamond mining operations and not humanitarian stuff."
Hinkle's six months in Zaire represented about half the time that Operation Blessing's planes flew there. He said he had five co-pilots. Hinkle said he was present on every flight during that period.
Hinkle's account is backed up by notes he kept during most of the flights. The notes contain entries for 36 flights. Of the 17 that mention the purpose of the trip, 15 are related to diamond mining. Some examples: "Picked up dredge.... Dropped off dredge .... Resupplied miners." The entry for one flight on which Robertson himself was a passenger includes the notation "Prayed for diamonds."
Hinkle's story is corroborated by Tahir Brohi, an Englishman whom Hinkle hired as a co-pilot after arriving in Zaire with the planes in the summer of 1994.
Hinkle left African Development Co. (ADC) in March 1995 because of family reasons. Brohi stayed on until the company shut down its mining operation in October 1995. In a telephone interview from England, he could recall only one additional humanitarian mission during that time: a delivery of medical supplies to the town of Kikwit during an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. The delivery may have involved as many as three flights, he said.
Meanwhile, Brohi said, there were "quite a lot" of miningrelated flights.
Kapp, Robertson's spokesman, contradicted the pilots' accounts when first questioned about them. (Robertson declined to be interviewed directly.)
In a written response, Kapp said the mining company used Operation Blessing planes "from time to time." But "most of the air missions that took place in Zaire were either for humanitarian or training purposes," he said. "For example, medicine was transported to some 17 clinics in Zaire .... There were very few instances when the Operation Blessing planes were used solely for ADC purposes."
Hinkle called that statement "a clear-cut lie." He said he has no recollection of supplying any clinics.
Ten days later, after further questioning, Kapp offered a written clarification of his first response. He said that by the time the airplanes arrived in Zaire in September 1994, Operation Blessing's "need for airplane activity for all practical purposes had ceased" because of mechanical problems with the planes and chaotic conditions in the country that made medical relief too dangerous. Kapp said the planes were put up for sale.
No one purchased them, and they continued flying in Zaire for another year.
"In an effort to prevent Operation Blessing from incurring further expenses with its aircraft in Zaire, Pat Robertson, through ADC, utilized the aircraft -- with full reimbursements for usage - for missions that transported mining equipment, cargo and medicine which generated revenue for Operation Blessing," Kapp said.
"The issue is not how many flights were 'Operation Blessing' flights or 'ADC' flights," Kapp said. "The fact is Mr. Robertson paid for all Operation Blessing and ADC activity during that period .... Without Mr. Robertson's generous overture, Operation Blessing would have incurred further expenses with its aircraft."
Kapp said Hinkle and Brohi don't know the full picture because "they did not have access to ownership records, financial documents, or accounting information regarding the air missions and funding."
Kapp further said he hadn't meant to imply that the planes flew to 17 clinics. Robertson provided medicine targeted to help 17 clinics, Kapp said; "how it reached those
Though most Zairians live in abject poverty, their country is mineral-rich. Zaire is the world's second-largest producer of diamonds. Robertson is one in a long line of outsiders who have sought to tap that wealth.
But his for-profit operation ended up losing millions of dollars, and is now at the center of a lawsuit in which the evangelist is trying to recoup some of his losses from a mining equipment manufacturer.
The mine site lies in a part of Zaire now being overrun by the rebel forces pushing to oust longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Although Robertson has abandoned his diamond venture, other foreign mining interests are scrambling to make deals with the rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, as Mobutu's power crumbles.
Robertson was chasing diamonds in Zaire with Mobutu's blessing as early as 1992. The Virginia Beach-based broadcaster ratcheted up the effort in 1994, the same year that eastern Zaire was flooded by more than 1 million refugees fleeing the bloody civil war in Rwanda.
That summer, Operation Blessing bought three Vietnam War-era DeHavilland Caribou cargo planes from a California company, Union Flights. Known in aviation circles as STOLs -- for short takeoff and landing -- the Caribous were designed for hauling war material in and out of short airstrips in jungle terrain.
The charity paid about $1 million for the three planes and an inventory of spare parts, said William Paynter Jr., vice president for operations at Union Flights. Hinkle, who worked for Union Flights, was hired to fly the planes to Zaire for African Development.
Federal Aviation Administration records show that two of the three Caribous were registered to Operation Blessing. The third was registered in the name of another entity, Africa Air Corp., a Virginia corporation in which Robertson was the only officer.
Like Hinkle, Paynter said he sensed some ambiguity about the planes' intended use.
"They told us they were going to use them to haul relief supplies for the Rwandan refugees," Paynter said. But then he was told the planes needed to be capable of hauling large mining dredges weighing more than 3,000 pounds, he said.
"I immediately questioned that, and they said, Well, we're teaching the natives how to be more self-sufficient,'" Paynter said. Robertson has portrayed African Development Co. as having a charitable intent: Under an agreement with the Mobutu government, a portion of the company's profits -- had there been any -- were to be plowed back into humanitarian projects in Zaire.
In Virginia Beach, Zaire was a hot topic on "The 700 Club," Robertson's daily religious news/talk TV show.
Throughout the summer and fall of 1994, there were regular reports on the flood of Rwandan refugees and on the work done by six Operation Blessing volunteer medical teams sent to help out in the refugee camps during that period. The medical missions began in late July and were still going when the Caribous arrived in September.
"A month ago, death and disease were spreading like wildfire," a Christian Broadcasting Network newscaster said in one report. "But Operation Blessing's medical strike force quickly delivered more than 25 tons of medicine and medical supplies to that region. Thousands of lives were saved."
The reports were accompanied by video footage of sick and dying refugees and of Robertson being cheered and hugged by throngs of smiling African children.
Interspersed among those reports were frequent pleas for donations from "700 Club" viewers.
Robertson seldom mentioned the Caribous on the air, and didn't talk about what they were being used for.
During one broadcast in December 1994, Robertson showed co-host Ben Kinchlow some snapshots taken on a trip to Zaire.
"We actually carved an airstrip," Robertson told Kinchlow, who left the show last year. This is a 3,000-foot airstrip carved by hand in two weeks by natives with machetes and mattocks. They were so excited.... The whole village came out, because they were so thrilled to have a little airport."
Robertson didn't tell viewers the airstrip, in the village of Kamonia, was built so the Caribous could bring in mining equipment.
In late September 1994, "The 700 Club" conducted a weeklong phone-a-thon to raise funds for a new airplane -- a bigger, more elaborate model. Robertson told viewers he was buying a Lockheed L- 1011 passenger liner and planned to transform it into a "Flying Hospital" equipped with state-of-the-art surgical gear.
The televised appeals included a computer-generated simulation of a gleaming plane, "Operation Blessing" in red letters on its side, soaring through the clouds.
"Imagine a hospital plane that is also a flying ambassador for the gospel wherever it goes," an announcer said." ....The Operation Blessing hospital plane will be a beacon of hope soaring on wings of healing to those in need."
Robertson talked of what a spectacle the plane would make.
"It will fly into nations, and it's the kind of thing that will be received by the president," he said. There will be television cameras .... Every time this thing lands, it's a major event for a nation."
The "700 Club" set was transformed to look like an airplane cabin full of surgical gear. Robertson and Dr. Paul Williams, Operation Blessing's medical director, urged viewers to send in generous pledges. Premiums were offered for different levels of giving: a lapel pin for $100, a desk-top model of the plane for $250, a bronze model for $ 1,000, a gold-plated one for $5,000.
According to its annual report to the Internal Revenue Service, Operation Blessing took in $36 million in donations in fiscal 1995 -- a 71 percent increase over the previous year -- and finished the year with a $5.5 million excess over expenses.
Operation Blessing spent $25 million to buy and outfit the Flying Hospital, which was rolled out to a trumpet fanfare at Dulles International Airport in May 1996 with a keynote speech by former President George Bush.
Nine months later, the new plane was at the center of a major fissure in the organization.
Dr. Williams wanted to undertake medical missions in remote areas of the world where the huge airplane couldn't go. But Robertson was adamant that the Flying Hospital would remain the group's centerpiece.
In February, Williams and his core medical team -- 11 employees in all -- were dismissed. Operation Blessing said they would be replaced with volunteers.
So far the Flying Hospital has undertaken missions to El Salvador, Panama and Ukraine. Spokesman Kapp said it would fly to the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan in late June -- with a stop en route at the Paris Air Show.
Robertson pulled the plug on his failing diamond venture in the fall of 1995.
African Development Co. is suing the California manufacturer of its mining dredges in Norfolk federal court, claiming the dredges were defective and seeking to recover more than $1 million in business losses.
Kapp said Robertson paid for all the humanitarian work performed by Operation Blessing in Zaire from Sept. 1, 1994, until African Development ceased operations a year later.
"Mr. Robertson contributed a total of $500,000 during that period to Operation Blessing," Kapp said, "funds that either came from his personal reserves or funds he provided through African Development Co."
That sum included full reimbursement for the use of the planes, Kapp said.
None of Operation Blessing's dealings with African Development is apparent from its public filing with the IRS.
Stephen D. Halliday, a Washington lawyer who advises Robertson on tax matters, said Robertson's contributions were reported in the aggregate with other Operation Blessing revenue. Robertson's contributions "certainly were in an amount that was well in excess of any benefits that were received," Halliday said.
Operation Blessing reported no income in fiscal 1995 that was unrelated to its charitable purpose. In its report to the IRS, it specifically denied engaging in any "sale, exchange or leasing of property" or "furnishing of goods, services or facilities" to any taxable organization with which any of its officers is affiliated.
Halliday said Operation Blessing's treatment of its activities with African Development is consistent with IRS guidelines.
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|Publication:||Church & State|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1997|
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