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    Church official admits to swindle

    Prosecutors say a Ponzi scheme enabled Greater Ministries International to collect millions of dollars.

    By JEFF TESTERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000


    TAMPA -- James R. Chambers on Thursday admitted bilking Christian investors out of more than $1-million dollars and became the first of seven defendants to plead guilty to taking part in an elaborate swindle run by officials of the Tampa-based church, Greater Ministries International.

    Chambers, 68, of Altamonte Springs acknowledged marketing a scam originating in 1993 called "Double Your Money Gift Exchange Program," in which parishioners were told they could double cash investments within 17 months.

    Chambers and other church elders claimed the improbable returns were made possible by shrewd investments in gold and platinum mines and overseas banks paying sky-high interest.

    Greater Ministries officials promised investment returns would be regarded as tax-free gifts from the church and represented that investments would generate profits used to feed the homeless, provide rehabilitation for addicts and support foreign missions.

    In fact, prosecutors say, the church merely operated a Ponzi scheme, in which payments to initial investors were made with funds forwarded by later waves of investors. Money actually spent on evangelical missions was "minuscule," and some church faithful lost their life savings.

    Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Mosakowski said Thursday the scheme enabled Greater Ministries to collect "several hundred million dollars," with church elders such as Chambers pocketing 5-percent commissions they referred to as "gas money."

    The program was so successful that church officials decided in 1998 to cap gas money payments to each elder at $40,000 per month. In all, Chambers' take in gas money amounted to more than $1.3-million, Mosakowski said.

    The prosecutor also said that during the course of the scheme, Chambers knew three Greater Ministry elders were being prosecuted on fraud charges and was aware that other church elders continued to market the investment scam in violation of orders from state regulators.

    California, Ohio and Pennsylvania all opened investigations into Greater Ministries and claimed in one instance that the church was involved in the illegal sale of securities. Last year, a Pennsylvania judge levied against the church a $6.4-million fine, which arose from a contempt of court citation against Greater Ministries president Gerald Payne.

    The Florida Comptroller's Office issued a cease-and-desist order against the double-your-money program in 1995, but it was voided by an appellate court ruling giving Greater Ministries constitutional protection as a church.

    Church investors trying to get their money back face an uphill battle. Civil claims gotbogged down after the church sought protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Act in August 1999, just days after a federal judge entered a permanent injunction against the church's investment programs.

    Chambers and six other church officials, including Payne and his wife, Betty, were indicted by a federal grand jury in March 1999 and charged with 17 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. Maximum penalties on each count range from five to 20 years in prison.

    Thursday, Chambers pleaded to a single count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud and to transport property taken by fraud across state lines.

    The defendant agreed to cooperate in the prosecution of his six co-defendants, now scheduled for trial beginning Jan. 8. Chambers faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison, a fine of $250,000 and restitution.

    Before pleading guilty Thursday, the gray-haired Chambers said he had earned a high school diploma and was taking heart medication but could not remember its name. Asked by a federal magistrate whether he had done everything Mosakowski detailed, Chambers replied that he had.

    He politely declined to comment after the hearing.

    Chambers' Winter Park attorney, Chandler R. Muller, said his client's "life is in limbo right now."

    "It's been very stressful for him. He doesn't have the ability to make restitution of that ($1.3-million) magnitude."

    - Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.

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