Bicknell vows to keep fighting KDOR in multimillion dollar tax dispute

Jonathan Riley
Morning Sun
At a press conference Wednesday in Pittsburg, Gene Bicknell pledged to continue his legal battle with the State of Kansas over tens of millions of dollars he says it owes him.

PITTSBURG, Kan.  — Former Pizza Hut tycoon and Pittsburg native Gene Bicknell was briefly back in town Wednesday for a press conference, following a recent state appeals court ruling that reversed his win in a $63 million income tax dispute with the Kansas Department of Revenue and ordered a new trial. 

“I can tell you right now that I will not quit fighting this,” Bicknell said Wednesday. “I’ll fight it to the last breath of my life, because I believe in what’s right and I believe in justice.” 

Bicknell built NPC International Inc., the world's largest Pizza Hut franchisee, from a location he opened in Pittsburg in 1962. In 2006, he sold NPC for $615 million. His tax dispute with the State of Kansas stems from the fact that while he claims he moved to Florida three years before the NPC sale, the KDOR has maintained that Bicknell was living in Kansas during tax years 2005 and 2006. 

After concluding a review of the matter in 2009, the KDOR sent Bicknell a $41 million a tax bill, including interest and penalties on what was originally a $29 million income tax assessment. 

In 2013, Bicknell paid the State of Kansas the money it said he owed it, but also filed a lawsuit seeking reimbursement. Because of interest, the amount in dispute has since ballooned to more than $63 million as litigation has been ongoing.  

“The money is not the issue here, the issue is what’s fair and what’s just,” Bicknell said at his press conference Wednesday at Immigrant Park in Pittsburg. 

After filing a petition for judicial review with the Crawford County District Court in November 2017, Bicknell eventually scored a victory in the continuing legal battle when the court ruled that his legal state of residence was Florida in tax years 2005 and 2006. 

Last August, the Kansas City Star’s editorial board opined on the 2019 ruling that Bicknell’s claim to Florida residency was legitimate, and that the State of Kansas owed him his money back. 

“Each day the dispute goes unresolved, Kansas owes Gene Bicknell more money, to the tune of about $200,000 a month,” the board wrote. “It makes a terrible situation worse.” 

In a 2-1 decision last month, however, the state appeals court found that Senior Judge Richard Smith, who was 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 two judges that 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 said Wednesday. 

“Now, that’s an insult to this community, and quite frankly this community deserves better recognition than that.” 

Bicknell said a new trial in Shawnee County, as ordered by the latest ruling, would be difficult for him at his age. 

“For me to go to Topeka and stay in a hotel and find a way to get to and back from the courtroom in my physical condition alone with no one to care for me would be very hard,” said Bicknell, who is in his late 80s. “In Crawford County, at least my kids live close enough by that they can help take care of me.” 

On Wednesday Bicknell also discussed his wife Rita’s death last year. Rita Bicknell, like Gene, was a well-known in the Pittsburg community for her philanthropy. 

“It pains me more than I can express to you today that Rita didn’t get a chance to see the end of this nightmare in 14 years,” Bicknell said. “I’ve been a resident and homesteader in Florida since 2003 and deserve to live my final years without stress and anger.” 

In its editorial last August, before the latest ruling in Bicknell’s case, the Star editorial board concluded that both sides should be willing to resolve the dispute, but ultimately the state should pay Bicknell. 

“The Kansas budget, like most state spending blueprints, is in shambles because of COVID-19. The state should approach Mr. Bicknell now, publicly, and see if he’s amenable to a settlement somewhat south of $63 million, or if the debt can be paid over several years,” the board wrote. 

“He should consider agreeing to such a deal. The state’s stubbornness will make it harder, of course, but it’s worth a try. An apology might help. 

“This dispute should end. Another two or three years of state inaction, and the debt could approach $70 million or more. Kansas taxpayers should not be required to pay that kind of money to pursue a case the state has lost.” 

Although he was asked, Bicknell did not say Wednesday if there was a lesser amount he would settle for than the full $63 million, but implied he would give a significant portion of the money he says the state owes him to charity – if he ever gets it. 

The most recent ruling notes that the Bicknells once argued that Gene had to “choose between potential tax liability and time with grandchildren in Crawford County," but that their argument was “unpersuasive on this issue,” and Bicknell is not prohibited from visiting Crawford County or his family members that live there. 

Accordingly, Bicknell said Wednesday he would be spending some time with his grandchildren while he’s in town. 

“I’ve always liked to see my kids and grandkids,” he said, adding that he also likes to see his friends in town when he visits. 

“This community is very dear to me,” he said. “The courts of Kansas are not very nice to me.”