New York settles AME Church lawsuit over bishop kickbacks

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A group of New York clergymen took more than $1 million from a real estate developer seeking to turn distressed black churches into lucrative properties, under deals with the state’s attorney general.

The settlements show that a bishop, two pastors, and a pastor’s wife sought to conceal the bribes from the congregations that owned the buildings, as well as from state officials. The funds were taken even though the promoter, Moujan Vahdat, reportedly failed to keep the promises made to the churches in the purchase contracts. In one case, Vahdat is accused of trying to evict a congregation from the building they once owned.

Two African Methodist Episcopal clergy have agreed to repay more than $800,000 to New York State, according to the settlements, which were posted on the attorney general’s website last month. Vahdat also signed a settlement with the attorney general, offering to honor his company’s promises to churches or allow them to renege on their agreements.

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Retired AME Bishop Gregory GM Ingram, who previously oversaw the church’s First Episcopal District, which covers much of the northeastern United States, has agreed to reimburse $600,000 in ‘finder’s fees that he received from the sale of church properties. The Bishop also agreed to sell a Rolex he received as a bribe. Former First Episcopal District President Melvin Wilson, who worked for Ingram, agreed to repay $200,000, with an additional $101,075 restitution suspended.

The news of the settlements led the AME Council of Bishops to condemn the actions of their fellow clergy. The condemnation came after the agreements, which were signed in 2021, were made public in late August, according to the bishops.

“Following the findings of the Attorney General of New York and the signed agreement of the two AME clergy, the Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church expresses our disappointment and condemns the improper practices of our colleague and former former president. of the New York Conference, who currently serve as New Jersey Conference pastors,” the Council of Bishops said in a statement dated Aug. 31.

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The Council of Bishops also announced that Ingram, although still listed as a bishop on the AME’s national website, would refrain from participating in bishops’ meetings or other denominational events until 2024. Any New Discipline against Wilson will be decided by the new bishop of the AME. First Episcopal District.

Neither Wilson nor Ingram responded to requests for comment.

According to the settlements, Vahdat allegedly gave a Church of God in Christ pastor and his wife hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes for the sale of the historic Childs Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ in Harlem. This pastor and his wife are not named in the colonies. In 2021, however, the New York State Attorney General sued Church of God in Christ pastor Kevin Griffin, claiming he received $900,000 from Vahdat, including $450,000 from the sale of Childs Memorial.

In an affidavit filed in February, Griffin, who denies any wrongdoing, said he did not participate in the vote to sell the church. He also said he may receive finder’s fees from the developer for other church sales.

Settlements with the attorney general’s office cover the acquisition of seven churches – five from AME and two from the Church of God in Christ – from 2013. Vahdat’s companies bought six of the churches and secured a lease 99 years old on one of the buildings. The idea was to take over the old church buildings which were already heavily exploited, according to the colonies. These buildings would then be demolished and replaced with multi-storey structures, which would contain a sanctuary for the church, with the rest controlled by the developer.

Vahdat enlisted the help of clergy to identify and secure the buildings, an effort complicated by state law governing the sale of church buildings, which is highly regulated. According to the regulations, any sale must be approved by a state court or the attorney general’s office.

Six of the church sales had gone through the approval process. But then the Attorney General’s office learned that the documents used to obtain approval had been changed. after. This led to an investigation which found that Ingram and Wilson had used their leadership positions for personal gain, leading sales through the approval process, which required a vote from congregational leaders, local district and the annual state conference, led by Ingram.

Prior to his retirement in 2020, Ingram played a prominent role in the AME, serving as host bishop for the denomination’s 200th anniversary.

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As leaders of the church, Ingram and Wilson have been charged with protecting its property — which, under AME rules, is held in trust for the denomination. New York State law requires nonprofit leaders to recuse themselves from any transaction in which they have a personal interest.

According to the settlement, Ingram abused his authority because he “authorized or caused to be authorized what purported to be arm’s length sales transactions with Developer with full knowledge of the personal financial benefits he was receiving from Developer in same time. ”

Wilson turned down a job offer from Vahdat, per his settlement, saying it would be best to stay in his leadership role at the church.

“I think it would be more beneficial FOR YOU if I continue to work as an elder/minister president, because this position and this title gives me access to many places,” he wrote in an e-mail. email to the developer mentioned in the rules. .

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Under the agreements, Ingram and Wilson are barred from holding leadership positions at a nonprofit, but can remain ministers.

The AME Settlements news follows another church property case this year involving the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Zion, in which a former bishop was charged with $14 million in alleged fraud during the sale of church buildings.

— Religious News Service

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