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Ex-pastor target of IRS inquiry

The federal agency is examining bank records of Living Water Church founder Ronald Clark.

By JEFF TESTERMAN
Published March 12, 2004

TAMPA - The IRS has opened a criminal investigation of Rev. Ronald H. Clark, the charismatic founder of the Living Water Church of Tampa who was accused in divorce papers of devising a secret plan to channel church assets to himself at an overseas mission.

The Criminal Investigation Division of the IRS issued a summons to SunTrust Bank in Orlando on Feb. 17 to deliver bank records pertaining to Clark and nine corporations, including the Living Water Church and two nonprofit foreign missions, according to documents obtained by the Times.

The summons compels the bank to deliver banking, retirement account, payroll, loan and other records on Ronald and Belinda Clark to Special Agent Elizabeth Belcher at the IRS office in Tampa next week. The Clarks maintained the Orlando bank account after buying a home in Celebration, a community near Disney World outside Orlando.

Belcher declined to answer questions about the summons Thursday.

IRS spokeswoman Alycyn Culbertson also said she could not discuss the summons. Culbertson did say there must be "an official investigation" before a summons is served to obtain banking and other financial records.

In an e-mail to the Times, Clark said he was unaware of any subpoena by the IRS or of any investigation of him by any agency. He said he had broken no IRS laws or regulations.

Clark asked that a copy of the summons be forwarded to his divorce lawyer, Dade City attorney Dennis Alfonso. Alfonso said he, too, was unaware of any IRS investigation into Clark.

"I can only say that, given the contentious nature of the divorce case, it doesn't surprise me that he might have allegations made to the IRS," Alfonso said. "There have been a lot of allegations since I've been representing Ron, but I've yet to see anything substantiated."

The rancorous divorce of the Clarks began to attract publicity a year ago, and has been blamed for the defection of nearly three of every four members at the Living Water Church, which was founded by the couple in 1988.

Ronald Clark, the $138,000-a-year church pastor, accused his wife of being unfaithful, suffering from mental illness, dabbling in pornography and stealing church mail filled with Easter church donations.

Wife's accusations

Belinda Clark, Living Water's $70,000-a-year associate pastor who was fired in the wake of the allegations, accused her husband of domestic violence, of lying to church trustees to ruin her credibility and of having a secret plan to sell the church, place the proceeds in a trust, then have funds funneled to him at a foreign location.

Neither Belinda Clark nor her Dade City attorney, Jack Hoogewind, would comment about the IRS investigation.

Ronald Clark resigned his church post in June 2003 and later sought protection from creditors in federal bankruptcy court.

Owners of a $500,000 home and horse ranch in Dade City and a $275,000 home in Celebration, the Clarks also had $700,000 in debts.

On Feb. 20, three days after the issuance of the IRS summons, Clark filed papers in his bankruptcy case saying he needed to hire an accountant for, among other reasons, "assistance in defending/objecting to the pending claim of the Internal Revenue Service, if any."

Clark's bankruptcy attorney, Matthew J. Kovschak, did not return calls Thursday.

With Living Water attendance and collections plummeting, the evangelical Christian church went to bankruptcy court last year to reorganize its finances.

The church had just $60 in its checking account and $3.4-million in liabilities when it filed bankruptcy papers.

After leaving Living Water, Ronald Clark took a position with a wealthy Illinois non-denominational organization called Family Harvest Church, which in August took over the operation of the Living Water Church on Interstate 4.

Living Water officials initially sought to sell the church's 16-acre property to Family Harvest for $3.1-million, well below a recent appraisal of $4.5-million, but have since decided to auction the property to the highest bidder in early April to meet creditors' demands and facilitate building a new church.

Although at least one former Living Water board member said he has been interviewed by IRS agents, the news of the federal investigation appeared to take others by surprise.

"Wow, that's pretty serious," said Living Water board chairman Melvin Myer. "This is not a good thing.

"But there isn't any off-shore money I'm aware of. I don't know of any inappropriate handling of funds on my watch."

Buddy Ford, a Tampa attorney handling the Living Water bankruptcy, said he was unaware of the IRS investigation, but said he doubted it was initiated on flimsy grounds.

"I've seen (IRS) Criminal Investigation Division investigations in the past, and before they open an investigation there has to be an underlying reason to do so," Ford said.

The IRS summons seeks records pertaining to Ronald Clark's Real Life Productions Inc., which handled his evangelical broadcasts; Magnolia Stables Inc., the company overseeing the Clarks' horse stables; Family Hair Care, a Dade City salon which lists Ronald Clark as an officer; Swalley Ministries, a company formed with a former music minister, and Global Medical Missions and Global Medical Relief, two companies set up to provide food and medical assistance in Haiti and China with Dr. John Gentri, a Brandon physician.

Doctor's experience

Gentri said he worked without salary and never knew much about the business side of the foreign missions.

He said he was frustrated when Ronald Clark reneged on a promise to provide church funds to feed Haitian children, then backed away from the mission work altogether to concentrate on TV evangelism.

"I think they were supposed to give us $3,000 a month, but we begged for every penny," Gentri said. "We were always behind.

"Then Ron said he couldn't afford it any longer. He said he had to make a choice between supporting his church and supporting the mission. I didn't believe him. But I absolutely didn't know what went on with the money."

Gentri said he now runs the mission in Haiti through private donations.

He said he left Living Water Church after he learned that Ronald Clark was telling other church members that Gentri had diagnosed Belinda Clark as mentally ill when he had offered no such opinions.

- Jeff Testerman can be reached at testerman@sptimes.com or 226-3422.

[Last modified March 12, 2004, 02:05:29]


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