By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Tough-talking Broward Property Appraiser Lori Parrish called it a “tax dodge” four years ago when Pastor Frederick “Sonny” Irons asked her to grant his $1.9 million Fort Lauderdale waterfront estate tax-exemption as a church.
“Everyone knows what a real church is, and this isn’t it,” Parrish told the Sun-Sentinel after she rejected Irons’ request.
But Parrish has changed her mind about Irons’ tiny Seafarer’s Church of the Creator.
In December, without announcement, Parrish settled a three-year-old lawsuit with Irons by agreeing to grant his application for tax-exempt status for 2006, but not for 2005. The deal reversed Parrish’s original decision to deny the exemption for both years and meant Broward’s tax collector couldn’t collect about $33,000 in property taxes assessed for 2006.
More importantly, Parrish has given her official blessing to a perpetual property tax exemption for the two-story brown brick home at 1309 SW Fifth Court where Irons and his wife, Judy, reside. That means the valuable parcel astride the north fork of the New River is now legally a church and parsonage, and the city and county can no longer collect taxes on it.
You can see the property’s tax record here: http://bcpa.net/RecInfo.asp?URL_Folio=504209020730
Pastor Irons, once a political ally of former Mayor Jim Naugle, told Broward Bulldog he holds services at his residence for his flock of 92 souls Sunday at 11 a.m. and Wednesday at 7 p.m. But neither he nor his Fort Lauderdale lawyer, Scott Golden, would talk about the details of the case.
“I just feel that God promised he would take care of this,” said Irons, 63. “I put my faith and trust in our God, and he did what he said he would do.”
Irons, a former civic activist and chairman of the city’s marine advisory board, formed his Seafarer’s Church under curious circumstances in 2004. It was those circumstances that caused Parrish to label it a “tax dodge” and tell the Sun-Sentinel, “This would have opened Pandora’s box, and every home in Broward County could have been a church.”
But Ron Gunzburger, the property appraiser’s general counsel, says Parrish became a believer a couple of years ago after Irons cleaned up the church’s not-for-profit corporate structure to ensure that a future sale of the property would not benefit him or his family personally.
“We cannot and do not judge the validity of the beliefs or methods of worship of applicants for exemption. We simply determine whether the applicant meets the legal requirements, as defined by statute, administrative code, and case law,” Gunzberger said.
To get there, though, appraiser Parrish and her attorneys at the politically connected law firm Moskowitz, Mandell, Salim and Simowitz looked beyond some problematic evidence that originally led Parrish to deny the application.
Public records show that Sonny and Judy Irons paid $200,000 for the property in 1983. Over the years, they built the home where they now live, finishing it in 2004.
In May 2004, Irons incorporated his Seafarer’s Church in Nevada, gave himself the title “presiding overseer” and made himself the sole corporate officer. In early December that year, the couple sold the 4,870-square-foot house to the church for $100 and by month’s end Irons took a Vow of Poverty and filed it with the county.
According to court papers filed by Parrish in June 2008, Irons took those steps not long after attending a seminar “on the topic of methods for evading taxes” put on by tax protestor Eddie Ray Kahn. Seafarer’s board member Jerry Williamson of Lauderhill also attended the seminar, Parrish stated.
Kahn gained national notoriety in 2006 when he was indicted along with actor Wesley Snipes in a tax fraud case in Ocala. Snipes was convicted in 2008 on three counts of failing to file federal income tax returns and remains free on bond while he appeals his conviction and three-year prison sentence.
Kahn was convicted on more serious felony tax fraud charges that Parrish described in court filings as involving “various tax evasion schemes including, specifically, the creation of bogus religious corporate sole organizations.” He is currently serving a 10-year sentence.
The “corporation sole” structure Irons used to incorporate his church is a legal device used by religious leaders to hold property, but one the IRS warned in March 2004 can be fraught with legal peril.
“Scheme promoters typically exploit legitimate laws to establish sham one-person, nonprofit religious corporations,” an IRS news release said.
When Parrish denied his church an exemption, Irons appealed. After losing at the Value Adjustment Board, he sued in 2006.
Parrish agreed to settle the case before it came to trial.
Along the way, Irons changed the church’s bylaws and added other members to its board of directors to lessen his control and blunt findings by a VAB special magistrate that the church existed “to a great extent to serve the private benefit of the Irons family.”
“Once those changes were made, our concerns were resolved,” Gunzburger said.
Today, there are five members on the Seafarer Church’s board of directors. Three of the five are Irons, his wife, and Williamson.