Just over three years ago, former Pittsburg resident and pizza magnate O. Gene Bicknell filed suit against the state of Kansas in his long-running dispute over taxes the state claimed he owed — despite being a resident of Florida.
In 2017, more than a decade after the state insisted Bicknell owed $42.5 million in taxes, and several years after he paid (with interest) $48 million under protest while appealing the decision, Bicknell sued in Crawford County District Court. All local judges recused themselves and Senior Judge Richard Smith was appointed and ruled in 2019 that the state had, indeed, acted improperly and was required to return the money — with interest.
By August of 2020, that figure had grown to $63 million and counting — to the tune of about $200,000 a month.
The state — as the Kansas City Star put it in an editorial at the time “Kansas hemmed and hawed, scuffed the dirt, and put its hands in its pockets. The state hasn’t written the check.”
In February of this year, Bicknell’s lawyers filed a motion to require the state to pay up.
Instead of getting a check, Bicknell instead was told “no, you really were a Kansas resident.”
In an interview with the Sentinel, Bicknell, now in his late 80s, said the state is trying to run out the clock on him.
“They’re just waiting for me to die,” he said. “I’m not gonna live to see the end of it because they’re now going to take it to the (Kansas) Supreme Court and see if the Supreme Court is going to take it. And if not they want to do another trial.”
According to the Pittsburg Morning Sun, the Kansas Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 last month, Senior Judge Smith, despite being appointed by the Kansas Supreme Court to hear Bicknell’s case, improperly shifted the burden of proof onto the KDOR to prove Bicknell was living in Kansas during tax years 2005 and 2006, instead of requiring Bicknell to prove he was living in Florida, as he claimed.
The Morning Sun reported that at a press conference last week, Bicknell said the two judges who ruled against him “inferred that the Crawford County courts were not able to conduct a fair trial, that they were inferior to other courts in Kansas, even though all the judges in Crawford County had recused themselves.”
Bicknell started many businesses in Pittsburg — the most famous being Pizza Hut franchise operator NPC International — and was known as a philanthropist in the area.
Bicknell said his health is fragile at best. He said he had a near-fatal battle with a rare lung disease three years ago, had COVID-19 in November, and now struggles with Post-COVID Syndrome.
“So, my health is an issue and they want me to come to Topeka and take care of myself since I have nobody to take care of me, and they want to have a trial in Shawnee County because they say Crawford County Courts aren’t capable,” he said. “They find one excuse after another and it doesn’t make any difference what I’ve done for the State of Kansas. They’re going to persecute me and that’s sort of how I feel.”
Bicknell said that if the State Supreme Court declines to hear his appeal, or finds with the appellate court, he would consider a federal case.
The problem is that a federal case would require a civil rights violation or a question of constitutionality. It is unclear if either exists here — although the interstate nature of the case does open the possibility — but Bicknell said he’d “Certainly inquire into that.”
Bicknell has been fighting the state since the Kansas Department of Revenue audited the taxes he paid from 2005 to 2008 — he moved to Florida in 2003 — and found that he owed $42.5 million based on his 2006 sale of NPC International — America’s largest holder of Pizza Hut franchises with hundreds of restaurants.
The state has maintained that Bicknell’s primary residence was Kansas while he maintains he was resident in Florida.
Bicknell agreed to pay $48 million in 2014, “as a deposit” which he and his lawyers maintain should have been put into escrow, pending the end of litigation.
That was not done, however, and the money has long since been spent.
In his 2017 filing, Bicknell said that since at least 2003 he maintained a residence in Florida, has bank accounts there, is registered to vote there, and has a Florida driver’s license.
When in October 2017 — and despite accepting his Florida residency in previous years, according to Bicknell — the Kansas Board of Tax Appeals ruled against Bicknell, they based it in part because a barn cat named “Checkers” was still living on property he owns in Kansas.
As the Wichita Eagle reported in 2017, part of the Kansas Department of Revenue’s argument in court filings was that Bicknell had visited family and friends in Crawford County, owned a house in the county, installed a swing set for his grandchildren, and allowed Checkers to remain as proof of Kansas residency.
Where the law says cats serve as proof of residency is unclear.