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Televangelist’s humanitarian planes used for diamond mining

April 27, 1997

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) _ Airplanes sent to Zaire by evangelist Pat Robertson’s tax-exempt humanitarian organization were used almost exclusively for his diamond mining business, say two pilots who flew them.

Three airplanes were flown to Zaire in September 1994 by Operation Blessing.

However, chief pilot Robert Hinkle said only one or two of the roughly 40 flights during his six months in the country could be considered humanitarian.

All the rest of the flights were mining-related, he told The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot.

Robertson’s spokesman first denied the accounts by Hinkle and a co-pilot, Tahir Brohi of England.

Later, Gene Kapp, vice president for public relations at Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, said the planes turned out to be unsuitable for medical relief and that Robertson reimbursed Operation Blessing for their use.

``Without Mr. Robertson’s generous overture, Operation Blessing would have incurred further expenses with its aircraft,″ he said.

Robertson refused to be interviewed directly, the newspaper said in Sunday’s editions. Calls to his office on Sunday were not answered.

Hinkle, from Chandler, Ariz., said he had assumed the flights would be for humanitarian work.

``We hauled medical supplies one time,″ Hinkle said in a telephone interview. ``It might have been about 500 pounds at the most. It was a very minimal amount.″

The planes were capable of carrying about 7,000 pounds, he said.

Notes that Hinkle kept during most of the flights contain entries for 36 flights, the newspaper said. Of the 17 that mention the purpose of the trip, 15 are related to diamond mining.

Robertson’s company, African Development Co., based in the Zairian capital of Kinshasa, sought to dredge diamonds from a remote jungle riverbed. Robertson is the president and sole shareholder of the company.

The company ended up losing millions of dollars, and is now at the center of a lawsuit in which Robertson is trying to recoup some of his losses from a mining equipment manufacturer.

Zaire was a hot topic on ``The 700 Club,″ Robertson’s daily religious TV show, with regular reports in 1994 on the work done by six Operation Blessing volunteer medical teams sent to help refugees from Rwanda.

During one broadcast in December 1994, Robertson showed snapshots taken on a trip to Zaire.

``We actually carved an airstrip,″ Robertson said. ``This is a 3,000-foot airstrip carved by hand in two weeks by natives with machetes and mattocks. ... The whole village came out, because they were so thrilled to have a little airport.″

The newspaper said Robertson didn’t tell viewers the airstrip was built so planes could bring in mining equipment.

Operation Blessing reported no income in fiscal 1995 that was unrelated to its charitable purpose. In its report to the Internal Revenue Service, it 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 was affiliated.

Stephen D. Halliday, a Washington lawyer who advises Robertson on tax matters, said Operation Blessing’s treatment of its activities with African Development was consistent with IRS guidelines.

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