Church leader gets 27 years
By GRAHAM BRINK
© St. Petersburg Times,
TAMPA -- Defiant to the end, Gerald and Betty Payne stuck to their image as persecuted church members targeted by an overzealous government that has trampled their constitutional rights.
The mantra had no effect on U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore, who sentenced the Paynes on Monday for helping orchestrate a pyramid scheme that took in $448-million from 1993 to 1999 and defrauded more than 18,000 people.
Whittemore sentenced Gerald Payne, the leader of Greater Ministries International Church, to 27 years in prison. Betty Payne received almost 13 years. The judge said a hearing to decide restitution will take place in the next 90 days.
Whittemore said the Paynes' tactic of using God to perpetrate a fraud was "absolutely despicable." He described Gerald Payne as a "wolf in sheep's clothing."
"You lied to people. You misrepresented facts to people. You hurt people," Whittemore said.
For most of the four-hour hearing, the Paynes sat side by side in their jail garb, holding hands and whispering back and forth. They often bickered with their lawyers.
After Gerald Payne, 65, was sentenced, he kissed his wife. She squeezed his hand, perhaps for the last time. As he shuffled away, slowed by the effects of four strokes, he turned slowly toward two rows of supporters, smiled and waved goodbye.
Then Betty Payne's lawyer, Anne Borghetti, successfully argued that her client should get about three years taken off her sentence because she had played a lesser role in the scheme. Betty Payne, 61, irked the judge by reading a statement professing her innocence.
Borghetti tried to mitigate the damage by telling the judge that her client was under the control of her husband and other church elders and had not written the statement. All the while, Betty Payne tugged at Borghetti's sleeve, insisting that it was her statement.
Whittemore sentenced Betty Payne to the mid range of the federal guidelines, about a year more than she would have received if she had kept quiet.
"It's one thing to have blind faith. It's another to cast yourself as a martyr for no apparent good," Whittemore told her. "You have only yourself to blame."
In March, a jury handed down guilty verdicts on 72 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and unlawful monetary transactions against the Paynes and three other Greater Ministries elders -- Patrick Henry Talbert, Haywood Eudon Hall and David Whitfield. They will be sentenced later this week.
Before the trial, Andrew J. Krishak and James R. Chambers pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy for helping attract investors to the scheme. Krishak, who testified at the trial, received 30 months in prison; Chambers got five years.
Internal Revenue Service officials called Greater Ministries' Double Your Money Gift Exchange program one of the largest Ponzi schemes they had ever investigated. During the seven-week trial, prosecutors Robert Mosakowski and Jay Hoffer stacked up reams of bank records showing that payments to initial investors were made from funds forwarded by later waves of investors.
The investigation began in 1994 as IRS agents started looking at suspicious bank transactions -- $1.5-million in checks cashed by Gerald Payne, all in amounts less than the $10,000 federal currency reporting requirement.
Payne, who was convicted in 1979 of lying to a grand jury in New York, and his followers asked church members for cash. They told investors that the "gifts" were tax deductible and promised huge returns from investments in overseas banks and African gold and diamond mines.
Part of the evidence shown to jurors was a series of videotaped Greater Ministries meetings where elders discussed trying to keep secret an incentive program that paid 5 percent commissions on new investments.
The commissions, called "gas money," added up to $22.4-million for church elders, prosecutors said.
Defense attorneys presented their own videotapes, asking jurors why Greater Ministries leaders would have kept a record of meetings if they were involved in illegal acts. The defense also said church members' actions were protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Prosecutors said the Ponzi scheme collapsed in 1998, when Colorado regulators seized the Best Bank of Boulder, where the church had stashed $20-million in a checking account. Complaints mounted as investors suddenly stopped receiving payments. California, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Alabama opened investigations into the church's finances.
A federal grand jury indicted the Greater Ministries officials in March 1999. In August of that year, just days after a federal judge in Tampa issued an injunction against the church's investment program, Greater Ministries sought protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.
Documents filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court listed 18,853 people as creditors of Greater Ministries. The investors named say they are owed $190-million, yet the church claims assets of just $10-million, records show.
-- Contact Graham Brink at (813) 226-3365 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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