2 sentenced in church-run fraud
By GRAHAM BRINK
© St. Petersburg Times,
TAMPA -- Two former members of the Greater Ministries International Church who admitted to helping bilk tens of millions of dollars from thousands of victims were sentenced to prison Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge James Whittemore sentenced Andrew J. Krishak to 30 months in prison and two years of probation for helping attract investors to what prosecutors called a "classic Ponzi scheme." James R. Chambers received five years behind bars and two years of probation.
"I was involved in something that was wrong," Krishak told the judge. "I should have just left."
A jury in March handed down guilty verdicts on 72 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and unlawful monetary transactions against Greater Ministries president Gerald Payne, 64, his wife, Betty Payne, 61, and church elders Patrick Henry Talbert, 52, Haywood Eudon Hall, 59, and David Whitfield, 48. They are awaiting sentencing.
Both Krishak, 49, and Chambers, 69, pleaded guilty before the trial to a single count of conspiracy. Krishak, who had faced up to five years in prison, testified against his former colleagues. Whittemore agreed Wednesday that Krishak's cooperation warranted a reduction in his sentence.
"I have no doubt that you have sincere religious beliefs," Whittemore told Krishak. "You were swept along in this fraud."
Chambers did not provide assistance. For that reason, argued federal prosecutor Robert Mosakowski, he didn't deserve a break on his sentence beyond the reduction he received by being allowed to plead to a single count, instead of facing 17 counts and the accompanying exposure to a longer sentence.
"He had the keys to the jail cell, and he didn't use them," Mosakowski said.
The defendants promised to double investors' money in a scheme they operated from March 1993 to January 1999 at the church at 715 Bird St. near the Tampa Greyhound Track, according to court records. It also was known as the "Double Your Blessing Gift Exchange" and the "Faith Promises Program."
Christians from across the country were told their money would double in 17 months, thanks to gold mines and other profitable overseas investments the church claimed it had.
Investors were told part of the profits would be used to help the homeless, drug addicts and foreign ministries, the indictment stated. Part of the pitch included a passage from Luke 6:38: "Give, and it shall be given unto you."
But the funds returned to some investors actually came from money put up by later investors, the indictment charged. Meanwhile, church officials and "elders" were receiving 5 percent of the gifts from the faithful they recruited, commissions that the defendants termed "gas money." The officials defrauded 18,853 people in several states out of a total of about $448-million, prosecutors said.
Whittemore called the scheme "disgusting and despicable" in the way it preyed on people's religious beliefs and left so many victims in financial ruin.
- Times staff writer Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
local news desks