TAMPA - A church bishop and two top aides have been indicted by federal prosecutors on charges they bilked banks out of nearly $2-million to finance the clergyman's "lavish and expensive lifestyle."
Michael Wayne Lewis, a bishop at Harvest Fellowship Bible Church, pleaded innocent to conspiracy, bank fraud and money laundering charges in a 14-count indictment unsealed Thursday.
Also named in the indictment were Louise Gentle and Patricia Carter, whom Lewis is accused of using to sign checks written from fraudulent loan proceeds.
The main victim of the scheme is AmSouth Bank, which loaned Lewis vast sums, even though he had a criminal-fraud record, the indictment said.
A check for $48,834.45 went to buy a 2004 Lincoln Navigator in the name of Harvest Fellowship Bible Church and Achievement Educational Systems "even though the vehicle was for Lewis' personal use," the indictment said.
The indictment also alleged Lewis forged signatures of other ministers and pastors in churches he associated with to obtain loans in those churches' names without the pastors' knowledge.
"I think this matter would have best been handled in civil court," said Lewis' attorney, Darryl Rouson. "It is not criminal. We expect the bishop to be vindicated."
AmSouth sued Lewis in March, alleging he headed a conspiracy involving front organizations and numerous conspirators.
The plot was to obtain more than $10-million in fraudulent loans from the bank "using a combination of misrepresentations, forged signatures, false financial statements, stolen identities and other fraudulent documents," the civil suit said.
The defendants allegedly borrowed against nonexistent equipment and used inflated real estate appraisals to back loans, according to the lawsuit. Some loans were supposed to fund building improvements that were never done and equipment that was never purchased, the lawsuit says.
Carter, who was represented by the Federal Public Defender's Office, pleaded not guilty. Gentle did not enter a plea because she has not yet hired an attorney.