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  • State examines status of $135,000 Mercedes purchase

    By JEN PILLA

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published July 12, 1997


    The Florida Department of Revenue will investigate whether Bernice Edwards committed a third-degree felony by using Bethel Metropolitan Church's state sales tax exemption when she bought a $135,000 Mercedes-Benz S 600V last year.

    Edwards, who owns a Tierra Verde home with the church's pastor, the Rev. Henry Lyons, used the church's exemption to save more than $8,000 in state sales tax when she bought the car from Lokey Motor Co. in Clearwater. The car is registered to her and the church.

    "We're definitely interested in this case," said Donna O'Neal, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Revenue.

    Edwards gave Lokey a $1,000 personal check for the car, followed by a $37,500 cashier's check in February. She and Lyons then delivered a third check for $36,000 in March and took possession of the car. A $60,445 loan from United Bank paid the balance.

    Initially, the car was registered to the National Baptist Church and Edwards, but the registration was changed in May to Bethel Metropolitan Church and Edwards.

    John Buisson, a taxpayer's assistant for the Revenue Department, said a sales tax exemption applies only when the purchase is made by the tax-exempt organization or its representative.

    The purchase must be made with the tax-exempt organization's money, and the item purchased must be owned only by the organization. If the item is co-owned by the organization and another person, the purchase loses at least part of its tax-exempt status.

    O'Neal said that it's not clear whether Edwards wrongfully took the tax exemption but that the state will work with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office to determine if Edwards fraudulently used the church's tax exemption when she bought the car.

    Fraudulently claiming a tax exemption is a third-degree felony that also carries a fine of twice the amount of the unpaid tax.

    O'Neal said church tax exemptions are not typically used to buy luxury cars, but there's no regulation barring such a purchase if it meets the other requirements.

    "The circumstances you're describing are certainly unusual," O'Neal said. "We don't see churches buying $135,000 cars too often."

    For that price, you get a 12-cylinder engine that carries the Mercedes-Benz S 600V from 0 to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds. You also get heated leather seats, an interior of hand-picked and laminated burl walnut trim, and a suede-lined floor and ceiling.

    The car comes with a cellular phone and compact disc player. For an additional $900, it can be ordered with rear bumper sensors that set off warning bells if the driver backs to within 6 inches of an object.
    -- Times staff writer David Barstow contributed to this report.


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