Straying Embers: Pentecostal Ponzi And Charismatic Pyramids
These are trying times .. Everyone is trying something and getting caught.
The Church Lady, 1987
Preacher Accused In $9M Church Scam - by Errin Hayes, 2/4/2005
The Rev. Abraham Kennard shared his dream of a string of Christian resorts with a few of his fellow black ministers. They told a few more. And the few more told a few more. And they all told their flocks.
Soon, congregations nationwide -- many with only a few dozen members -- were holding fish fries, sponsoring cake walks and throwing carnivals to raise the $3,000 they needed to invest in Kennard's company.
For their small investment, the faithful were assured, they would eventually get their money back more than 100 times over -- up to $500,000 in a grant or a forgivable loan. What they actually got, prosecutors say, is duped.
Kennard, 46, was charged with bilking nearly $9 million from 1,600 churches in 41 states in just over a year. His month-long trial on 132 counts -- from money laundering to tax evasion to mail fraud -- ended Thursday and his fate now lies with a jury, which was scheduled to begin deliberations Friday.
The government argued that the charismatic Kennard took advantage of the nation's tight network of black churches to launch a fast-growing pyramid scheme.
"I know you can see clearly it was a scheme, all right. And for some 1,600 churches, it was a nightmare," prosecutor David McClernan told jurors during closing arguments.
Kennard, who represented himself, countered he's not guilty of anything.
"It's not a law against riding in a Cadillac if you don't want to ride in a Volkswagen," Kennard said in his opening remarks.
Kennard, prosecutors say, represented his Network International Investment Corp., based in Wildwood near the Georgia-Tennessee border, as a $25 million business with more than $100 million in investments.
About three-quarters of the investments would be used to build resorts and the rest would go back to the churches that paid the $3,000 fee. But the resorts were never built and, in most cases, the money was never paid out. The churches saw their big plans -- for expansions, outreach programs, drug rehabilitation classes -- dashed.
A sharply dressed Kennard criss-crossed the country on private jets and in limousines with a flashy promotional video in hand. But it was faith that sold Kennard's brethren on the deal. They in turn told their friends, nephews, cousins, brothers and, most importantly, fellow pastors.
"It wasn't about ignorance. It was about trust," said the Rev. James Cane of Victory Worship Center in Birmingham, Ala., one of several pastors who testified against Kennard.
"It was like a domino effect," added the Rev. Willie Robbins of the Greater Cathedral Worship Center in Nashville, Tenn., who helped spread the word to Cane and other pastors. "I had preachers telling me, 'I don't trust him, but I trust you."'
Much of the money went to Kennard and his family. It bought cruises and more than a dozen cars, including several Cadillacs and Mercedes-Benzes, prosecutors said.
The vehicles, along with Kennard's assets, were seized by the government. Kennard also used the money to pay for the jets and limos he used during his trips to promote his program, according to prosecutors.
Kennard was tried along with his brother, Laboyce, who was charged with conspiracy to launder money. Prosecutors said he received more than $360,000 from his brother.
Laboyce Kennard's attorney, Giles Jones, said Thursday his client was only trying to start his own business and had no knowledge of his brother's church enterprise.
"They want to make a big deal that he stuck his head in the sand," Jones said.
The Kennards' cousin, Jannie Trammel, and stepbrother Alvin Jasper also were indicted but pleaded guilty and testified at Kennard's trial. Lawyer R. Scott Cunningham is charged with money laundering, but will be tried later.
Michael Trost, who was appointed as Kennard's lawyer but became standby counsel when Kennard chose to represent himself, said he believes Kennard intended to help the churches.
"In hindsight, mistakes were made and things weren't done as correctly as they could have been, but that's not a crime," Trost said.
Trammel, who served as Kennard's right-hand and often helped sell the program to preachers, said she was willfully blinded by her charismatic cousin.
"Because of my relation with him, I didn't see those red flags," she testified. "There's no question people were misled."
But they were Spirit-led, weren't they? <SNIP>
Big Spending Led to Suspicion of Scheme Targeting Ministries - by E. Scott Reckard 11/30/2003
The $2.3-million, 103-foot powerboat Gregory Setser bought in June was just a starter. The self-styled Christian investor told his yacht broker that he was prepared to drop $12 million for a 140-footer with a helipad and $30 million to restore a 300-foot yacht once owned by the shah of Iran.
So when the broker, Lee Racicot, visited Setser's office near Ontario International Airport on Nov. 19, he expected to walk out with two solid offers.
But as he stepped out of the elevator on the eighth floor, Racicot saw that IPIC International Inc.'s front door, normally bolted, was propped ajar with a book. Beyond it, the usually immaculate offices were strewn with papers, and a swarm of strangers fell silent as Racicot asked, "Who are you?"
"We control the company now," said a man in a black suit. "We're FBI."
The feds were bringing down the curtain on what prosecutors and the Securities and Exchange Commission allege was an elaborate three-year scheme that fleeced evangelical Christians out of $160 million.
Using endorsements from Ralph E. Wilkerson, the former pastor of Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim, and other prominent evangelists to lure victims, Setser touted can't-miss investments to ministries across the nation, according to authorities who arrested him and three members of his family Nov. 18.
"It appeared that Ralph Wilkerson was the lineman who opened up the hole that Greg Setser ran through," said David Middlebrook, an attorney with many evangelist clients who signed a statement, attached to an SEC lawsuit, describing his dealings with Setser. "I can't speak to what he knew or thought. I certainly would hope to believe he wouldn't have done
Wilkerson, 76, didn't return repeated calls.
IPIC is an abbreviation for International Product Investment Corp. In criminal charges and a civil lawsuit, federal prosecutors and regulators say Setser told his "partners" that God had blessed him with the ability to purchase or manufacture various goods -- paint, metal garden decor, toys, bottled water, real estate, condoms -- at low prices around the world.
The authorities say he claimed to have guaranteed buyers, often retailers like Costco Wholesale Inc., Mikasa Inc. and Pier 1 Imports Inc., already lined up, and wanted to share his good fortune with other Christians. The burly 6-footer told investors to expect returns of 25% to 50% in three to six months and bragged that only one deal in 10,000 failed, according to an indictment handed up by a federal grand jury in Dallas.
In reality, it was all a scam, the government says.
Allegations of Deceit
Setser, who claimed to be a former minister, had pleaded no contest to theft by check in Texas state court in 1993 and filed for bankruptcy protection later that year. The court dismissed his Chapter 13 petition four years later after he failed to make payments as agreed, according to the SEC. When he arrived in California touting IPIC three years ago, the
agency says, he failed to mention those details about his past to investors.
Setser and his wife, Cynthia, both 47-year-old Rancho Cucamonga residents, are in jail pending a bail hearing set for Friday in federal court in Riverside. Their daughter-in-law, Charnelle Setser, 21, and Gregory Setser's sister, Deborah Setser, 38, both also from Rancho Cucamonga, were arrested on the same securities fraud and money laundering charges; they have been released on bail. A fifth defendant, T. Thomas Henschke, was arrested in Florida.
Setser's attorney, Philip K. Cohen of Los Angeles, declined to comment on details of the case beyond saying he was in discussions with federal prosecutors and SEC attorneys. Lawyers for the others didn't return phone calls.
Setser cut a noticeable swath as he promoted his investments, federal authorities said, calling them "joint ventures" to avoid having to register them as securities.
Employees of the building where IPIC rented space said Setser hired burly guards to protect himself and conducted "bug sweeps" of the offices for fear he was being secretly recorded. The building's manager, Michael Bates, said Setser sometimes arrived at work in a limousine followed by a "chase car" carrying his guards. IPIC officials were so worried about
security that "we had to re-key the door to their suite," said Bates, who opened the door of the offices for federal investigators when they arrived.
IPIC supposedly had $700 million in annual sales, but a local operating division called Iron Garden Inc. appears unremarkable except for its location in a 100-year-old winery complex just north of the Ontario airport. Visible through the rusting metal windows of the small brick building recently were bowls of dusty-looking plastic fruit, a few painted walking sticks and several model sailing ships.
Across a lane, a small yard is filled with rusty metal gates, trellises, shelves and benches, apparently part of the garden decorations IPIC said it imported from North Africa.
A few miles away at a mobile home park in Montclair, Gregory Setser's mother, Eva Setser Smith, lay flat on her back recently, looking ill. Smith, who the SEC contends received at least $300,000 in fraudulent gains from IPIC, said her son's arrest "has to have been a mistake," adding that "his life was finally starting to come together."
"None of what they're saying is true," she said, declining further comment.
Until the morning when federal agents arrived with guns drawn, the Setsers had appeared friendly and unremarkable to neighbors -- except for the new vehicles that appeared in their driveway every few months.
"We thought, 'Wow! They must be pretty successful,' " said Patrick Lopez, a 23-year-old college student who lives across the cul-de-sac from the couple's home in Rancho Cucamonga.
The two-story, dull pink tract house has newly installed granite kitchen countertops and a small pool and spa that were filled with debris one recent afternoon. Paint was peeling on a fence, an old tire sat in a concrete side yard and boxes of cereal and Christmas decorations had been left on tables at the back of the home.
If the Setsers led a quiet suburban home life, they apparently made up for it at work and play.
The SEC says Setser spent $1 million on a helicopter and $2.3 million on the yacht Shana. He arrived by chopper for one meeting with Racicot, the San Diego-based "mega-yacht" specialist for Fraser Yachts recalled.
With a three-member crew still aboard, the Shana is docked in Mexico, where the Setsers took delivery of it so they wouldn't have to pay California sales taxes, Racicot said. He added that Setser once asked him to recruit a crew of bodyguards from the ranks of former Navy Seal commandos.
Setser at one point offered to pay $4 million to buy an interest in a Gulfstream G3 private jet from televangelist Benny Hinn's church and touted investments in an African diamond mine he said was owned by President Bush's family, according to evidence filed by the SEC.
"He's a Burl Ives-type character, very disarming, jolly, overweight, with a kind of chuckle in his voice as he talks," said Middlebrook, an Irving, Texas, attorney whose clients include Hinn, a Texas-based faith healer; Marilyn Hickey Ministries in Denver; and Reinhard Bonnke's Christ for All Nations in Orlando, Fla., all of which had dealings with Setser.
"This is not a slick New Jersey Mafioso type, all bada-bing, bada-boom," Middlebrook said in a telephone interview. "He kept saying, 'I don't know exactly how it works -- I just sell before I buy. That eliminates all the risk.' "
In his statement to the SEC, Middlebrook said he met Setser at a pastor's conference in Carrollton, Texas, where "Ralph Wilkerson, a well-known charismatic Christian minister, introduced Setser as a man who would change my life and the lives of my clients forever by making everyone rich."
Wilkerson and some other well-known ministers came out far ahead on their investments. According to an SEC analysis of IPIC's main accounts at Bank of America and Citizens Business Bank, Wilkerson turned a profit of nearly $150,000 on his dealings with Setser, while Millennium Missions, an enterprise headed by Wilkerson, came out ahead by more than $74,000.
Setser also had won the confidence of Bonnke, an evangelist who has crusaded extensively in Africa. Bonnke made $999,134 personally on his IPIC investments, while his Christ for All Nations recorded a gain of $984,315, according to the SEC analysis.
In a statement, Christ For All Nations said it learned of Setser from a former employee of its own: Henschke, the man arrested in Florida. Christ For All Nations said that for more than a year it checked and double-checked Setser's reputation, gradually increasing its investments after an initial deal proved profitable. Ultimately, it put Setser on its board.
He took part in just two board meetings "and gave a substantial gift to the ministry" before his arrest, according to the statement, which described the group as a victim.
"We want to do our part to help others who have suffered because of Mr. Setser's illegal actions," the organization said.
Many suffered considerably. According to the SEC, the Assemblies of God district for Northern California and Nevada lost more than $3 million, while a fund called Amber Enterprises, which pooled investments in IPIC on behalf of hundreds of small investors, lost more than $11 million.
The alleged scam began to crumble when Reece Bowling, a son-in-law of Marilyn Hickey who had invested with Setser, began to press him for details about his business and asked to see his audited financial statements.
Bowling told the SEC that Setser refused, saying he couldn't disclose things that might help competitors and adding that most of his business was conducted from Panama.
Bowling insisted on visiting Panama and recruited Middlebrook to help investigate. The men said they saw a small paint operation that appeared insufficient to make the large quantities Setser claimed to be selling, a large warehouse containing a single brick-making machine and a warehouse with a machine designed to produce plastic bottles, still in its factory wrapping.
"He was going to start something called the Living Water Bottling Co., so I asked him what his source was," Middlebrook recalled. "He said, 'That's the great thing. Don't tell anyone, but the quality of the water here is unbelievable. We're going to take it out of the tap and sell it as Panama spring water.' "
Middlebrook said he warned Setser that he could go to prison if he was deceiving investors, and late last summer traveled to Ontario to further check on his operation. Middlebrook said that at a restaurant during that visit, Cynthia Setser poured what appeared to be small diamonds from a velvet bag and said IPIC was able to buy gems wholesale in Africa, ship them to Israel for polishing and then sell them in the United States at a substantial profit.
According to the SEC suit, Cynthia Setser claimed the program involved "extraction of diamonds from mines purportedly owned by President George W. Bush's family in the Republic of the Congo." A White House official said, "There is no indication that the president knows this person."
Middleton said he advised his clients to demand their investments back immediately and has told them to segregate any "profits" pending the opportunity to return them to the court-appointed receiver for IPIC.
One of those clients was Hinn, who said Bonnke introduced him to Setser at a dinner in December 2002. Soon after, Hinn again met Setser, this time at Wilkerson's home in a gated community in Dana Point, where Hinn frequently visited during the Christmas holidays.
Setser subsequently attended a series of Benny Hinn Ministries events, and Hinn invested $300,000 in IPIC on Jan. 7, receiving $465,798.51 in return May 3. He reinvested $400,000 on June 9, he said in a statement, but withdrew those funds Aug. 22 without earning any profit because he was "uncomfortable with Mr. Setser and IPIC when he learned that a yacht and other luxury items had been purchased by them."
Since learning later about the federal investigation, Hinn "has been proactive" in cooperating with the authorities, he said in the statement.
"When I learned that Gregory Setser had misused the trust of ministers of the gospel, my heart was profoundly saddened by the potential damage this might bring to God's precious people and to many ministries," Hinn said.
"I am outraged that Gregory Setser would use the church for his own benefit."
Of course he is .. how dare Benny not be able to give out $5000 tips? (Click here for PDF file of receipt) <SNIP>
Foursquare Sinner Forgiven : Former President's Investing May Have Cost Church $15M - by Don Lattin 6/8/2004
Saying he has "been to hell and back,'' the former president of one of the nation's best-known Pentecostal churches is in San Francisco this week seeking forgiveness for his role in a huge evangelical investment scam that could cost his flock some $15 million.
The Rev. Paul Risser, the disgraced leader of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, appeared to receive that forgiveness Wednesday, as nearly 3,000 church members stood in the Grand Ballroom of the Hilton Hotel to salute him with rousing choruses of "Amazing Grace.''
The weeklong annual convention of the 4 million-member church had been scheduled long before Risser's March 10 resignation as head of the Los Angeles- based denomination.
This is not the first time the Foursquare Church, founded in 1923 by radio evangelist and faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson, has been touched by controversy.
But the investment scheme that snared Risser and several of the nation's best-known TV preachers may be one of the costliest scandals to rock the evangelical movement.
Risser and his church are among scores of churches and ministers who have lost millions by investing church money and personal funds in two Southern California companies -- the International Products Investment Corp. and Financial Advisory Consultants.
According to federal authorities, the two firms were classic Ponzi schemes that promised miraculously high returns on church investments. They appeared to meet those promises by using funds from later investors to pay off early investors.
Operating in the close-knit evangelical community, the fast-growing firms attracted new business by providing personal endorsements from church leaders who got the early high returns.
But it all came crashing down in recent months, when federal prosecutors and Securities and Exchange Commission investigators shut the two firms and charged James P. Lewis, the head of Financial Advisory Consultants, and Gregory Setser, the leader of International Products Investment Corp., with multiple felony counts of fraud. The scope of the alleged fraud is still unclear, but federal authorities say churches, pastors and individual congregants may have lost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Other investors in the two collapsed companies include television evangelists Benny Hinn and Reinhard Bonnke, along with Northern California church leaders with the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination.
The Rev. Glen Cole, district superintendent of Assemblies of God churches in Northern California and Nevada, said his Sacramento office invested $2.3 million with Setser's purported import/export business, but got back all but $460,000 of the investment.
"What we learned is you never can be sure these days. This is not the first time a Christian ministry has lost out by trusting people,'' Cole said.
But Cole's loss pales in comparison to those piled up by Risser and the Foursquare churches. San Francisco attorney Stephen Farrand, who investigated the Foursquare fiasco, said the church may have lost $15 million. Farrand said both Risser and church treasurer Brent Morgan, who also resigned last March, should have been more suspicious of Setser and
Lewis. Farrand also said Risser and Morgan bypassed the denomination's board of directors and finance council in a series of shaky investments that date back to March 2001.
They continued until Dec. 11, 2003, the day Risser handed Lewis a check for $5 million.
Less than two months later, on Feb. 2, the FBI arrested Lewis in Texas. He now sits in an Orange County jail awaiting trial on federal fraud and money- laundering charges. Setser, who is free on bail, faces a separate trial in Dallas. Farrand said his investigation found Risser guilty of "management negligence that approaches gross negligence.'' But he said there is no
evidence that the former Foursquare president committed fraud himself.
Risser declined a request for an interview with The Chronicle. But in an emotional address to the convention Tuesday night, the Pentecostal leader said he has "sinned against the heart of God'' and "failed the church by violating your trust.''
"I have, metaphorically, been to hell and back,'' Risser told the ballroom audience. "I am very, very sorry for these transgressions.''
In the convention session Wednesday morning, the delegates stood and raised their hands to affirm a "statement of grace'' forgiving Risser and urging him to remain involved in the church. This year's convention is chaired by the Rev. Ron Pinkston of Danville, pastor of the East Bay Fellowship, the largest Foursquare church in the Bay Area, and has attracted delegates from around the world.
Before the convention adjourns Friday night, the 2,600 voting delegates are expected to elect a new president and adopt new measures designed to tighten financial controls at church headquarters.
But does Reverend Risser still handle money? <SNIP>
Ministering To His Flock — Or Fleecing Them? By Allan Turner - February 19, 2005
Sally Riley was hopping mad at the devil. Speaking in tongues, brandishing a wooden staff to vanquish God's enemies Old Testament-style, the co-pastor of the nondenominational Secret Place International Church reached a crescendo as she warned that sooner or later all good Christians would find themselves assailed by Satan.
Pink slips, cancer, crack cocaine, knuckleheaded kids — the devilish assault would be brutal. But God would prevail, toss the evil one into a fiery lake and reward his children in spades.
From a wing chair on the sidelines, the Rev. Sean Riley exhorted his wife to greater heights, clapping, shouting and swatting the air as if delivering a knockout punch to an unseen adversary.
"These hard times are small potatoes," Sally Riley assured her flock. "We've been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we've not been demoralized."
To some, the midweek service might have seemed unremarkable, a generic, if theatrical, admonition on the rigors of a Christian life. But for the Rileys, captains of the Humble storefront church and an international television ministry, the sermon resonated with meaning.
Pyramid Scheme Alleged
Riley, 37, a minister's son who strayed into drugs and alcohol before returning to Christ, now faces the biggest challenge of his life.
Earlier this month, authorities charged him with promoting a pyramid scheme to bilk the faithful and others out of thousands of dollars.
If indicted and convicted, Riley, a dapper man whose wardrobe is highlighted by an oversized gold-colored pendant, could serve up to two years in prison.
"He will not be indicted," a testy Sally Riley snapped when asked after Wednesday's night service if her spouse had hired an attorney. She refused further comment, directing a trio of staff members to eject a reporter from the building.
When agents of the Harris County District Attorney's Office served search warrants at the church, 7211 FM 1960 West, and the couple's Lee Road mobile home in early February, they confiscated more than $8,000 in cash, computers and computer records, and forms linked to Elite Activity, an allegedly illegal "gifting" scheme with national branches.
Thousands of dollars in $100 bills — the minimum sum needed to enter the group — were found on Riley's person, a district attorney's investigator attested.
Riley, son of the late Humble minister Don Riley, founded the Secret Place in 1999. Since 2001, the church has leased space adjacent to a liquor store in the Foxwood Place Shopping Center. The church's televised services are seen in 200 million homes in Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia, the church Web site claims.
Riley's sermons often address contemporary topics such as career, marriage and overcoming setbacks as well as emphasizing men's "rightful place as leaders and high priests in their homes."
According to a petition for the search warrant, church employees tipped the district attorney's fraud division to the alleged scam, giving investigators DVDs in which Riley urged viewers to "get a grip on prosperity" by joining Elite Activity.
Elite Activity's Web site contends it "is not about a business or an opportunity or selling or pulling people by the sleeve or some kind of illegal pyramid. It's simply A FRAME OF MIND that once applied and shared with like-minded people becomes so POWERFUL, it makes achieving PROSPERITY and HAPPINESS a part of our daily lives."
"No Promises Or Guarantees"
To enroll, the posting advises, participants must give $100 to Elite Activity and recruit two other members. Because the money is given with no assurance of financial gain, the site contends, the undertaking is legal.
"There are no promises or guarantees of a return of any kind!" it notes. But, at another point, it entices: "You can receive $800, $2,000, $4,000, $8,000, $16,000, $32,000, and $48,000 in gifts — Over and over again!!"
Despite claims of legality, Elite Activity meets Texas' definition of an illegal pyramid scheme, said Assistant District Attorney Valerie Turner. Federal law also bans such frauds.
"Pyramids will inevitably fail" as it becomes increasingly difficult for newer members to recruit additional participants, Turner said. While promoters, and possibly early participants, can reap handsome sums from the newcomers, most members lose their money.
"People don't realize how quickly it gets out of hand," added Assistant District Attorney Russel Turbeville, who has spent 26 years in the consumer fraud division. "They don't recognize how impossible it gets to recruit new participants."
Suspicion Of Fraud
Texas law mandates a 6-month to 2-year state jail sentence for the offense.
"And that's served day for day," Turbeville warned.
Riley's alleged offense falls into the most basic category of pyramid frauds, the Ponzi scheme, said James Kohm, the Federal Trade Commission's chief of staff for the bureau of consumer protection.
Such cases, named after the early 20th century master con artist Charles Ponzi, who amassed a fortune by manipulating foreign postal coupons, generally involve the simple exchange of money, with no pretense of manufacturing a product or using the collected money to purchase stock.
"These tend to be small," Kohm said. "They tend to move around, to be semi-secretive. Sometimes they have masterminds, sometimes they develop from spores of an original group started by somebody who was involved moving from one city to another."
Such frauds frequently target church groups, social clubs or other close-knit groups whose members' trust can be exploited for wrongdoing, he said.
Last year, municipal or state authorities in Arkansas, South Dakota, Ohio and South Carolina warned of such frauds, some linked to Elite Activity, occurring in their areas. The scope and structure of Elite Activity have not been determined.
In late 1999, local authorities charged 44 people for participating in the "Jubilee Celebration Paradigm" pyramid scheme, which raked in as much as $10 million across the nation. At one Houston meeting, undercover operatives witnessed $2 million change hands. Members, who were required to pay a $2,000 entry fee, were assured they ultimately could receive $16,000.
In the Riley case, documents filed with the court said, an undercover officer witnessed the minister participate in an Elite Activity promotional meeting held at his church.
In the confiscated DVDs, described in court documents, Riley explains that the Elite Activity program provides for 15 positions, divided into freshmen, sophomores, juniors and a senior. Once a senior received $800, he could leave or advance to a second, more costly program. Ultimately, he said, a participant could receive more than $83,000.
'Papa Doc' and 'Mama Doc' Riley advises participants in the recorded session to subscribe to a computer database to track their progress through the Elite Activity system. He also advises them to assume false names. He and his wife, he said, had assumed the names "Papa Doc" and "Mama Doc," court documents reveal.
Like his wife, Riley, who is free on $2,000 bond, refused comment on his case after Wednesday's service.
When asked how he was faring, he responded: "I'm blessed."
(Click here for details of conviction of Elite Activity founder Harvey Dockstader for fraud in Harris County, TX, whose website says that "the time is come" for "all like-minded people are welcome to learn more about this unique concept." And Dockstader will have plenty of time - 2 years worth - to use his website to scam others)
For more information on other credulous Christian churches being taken by other "Christian" scam artistes: click here
And the band played on ..
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