"This is one of the largest Ponzi-type schemes ever investigated," an Internal Revenue Service spokesman said yesterday after Gerald and Betty Payne, Don Hall, Patrick Henry Talbert, and David Whitfield were convicted on federal conspiracy and fraud charges. For more than five years, beginning in 1993, Greater Ministries bilked Christians out of $500 million in a "Double Your Blessing," or "Faith Promise" program. Participants expected to double their money in less than 18 months. The Greater Ministries Web site calls yesterday "A day that will go down in history … Although the government did not come close to proving their case the jury brought back a guilty verdict ! The judge was not even decent enough to let the elders get their affairs in order, the took them all right into custody! What a disgrace for America when the First Amendment is stomped on and disregarded like an old rag." But defense attorney Ron Smith one-upped even the Web site. "I know that the jurors was crying when they were polling the jury," he told The Tampa Tribune. "I think that means they were pressured." Either that or they were upset with how many people's lives were ruined by the pyramid scheme.
Speaking of fraud …
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed a lawsuit against filtered Internet service provider Families On Line (FOL), CEO Mark Thurman, and COO Robert Fiene for allegedly conducting "an affinity fraud designed to raise money from fundamentalist Christian investors," says a SEC press release. According to the SEC, the company fraudulently raised $3.9 million from about 410 Christian investors through unregistered sales of FOL stock and warrants. Not only that, but the SEC alleges the company forged a letter from Trinity Broadcasting Network president Paul Crouch saying the network would back the company. Also, according the the SEC release, "FOL told investors that their funds would be used for the company's business. In fact, however, Thurman and Fiene have taken at least $1.8 million in investor funds for their own use. Among other things, the SEC's complaint alleges that Thurman and Fiene used a debit card linked to FOL's bank account to pay for items from adult novelty and drug paraphernalia stores, and they used investor funds to purchase boating lessons, a BMW automobile, a custom motorcycle, and jewelry, and to pay for their household and living expenses and to retain a criminal attorney to represent them in matters unrelated to FOL." Thurman and Fiene, by the way, are both convicted felons, and now face criminal charges of securities fraud, money laundering, wire fraud and tax evasion. It sounds like FOL and its money will soon be parted. (See Weblog's earlier coverage of FOL's follies here.)
Another fine mess regarding Bush's faith-based initiatives
Just as the waters are beginning to clear about how religious conservatives are truly reacting to Bush's plan to allow faith-based organizations to compete for government social service grants, they're muddying over what the White House is actually doing about it. The Washington Times published an article today detailing what the Christianity Today Weblog has been saying for weeks: " … the debate over President Bush's charitable choice agenda is a matter of details, not a sign of conservative infighting over the legislation." The article quotes from National Association of Evangelicals president Kevin Mennoia and Andrew Walker of the Capital Research Center (who reiterates, "The criticism from conservatives is friendly advice, not hostility"). Granted, if any newspaper should be able to summarize conservative reaction to the federal government, it's the "counterbalancing-rather-than-balanced" Washington Times. But with luck—and yesterday's similar article in The Washington Post—maybe other papers will stop characterizing religious conservatives as opposed to Bush's faith-based initiative.
Meanwhile, the White House is denying that article in yesterday's Washington Post, which reported that the faith-based initiative was being postponed. Actually, it quoted deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Don Eberly as directly saying "We're postponing." But Bush directly contradicted that yesterday. Asked, "You're not backing down off your faith-based program, are you?," the president replied, "Oh, not at all, no. Our faith-based—we've submitted a package to the United States Congress. I'm proud of the faith-based initiative. There is a lot of bipartisan support on the Hill, and somebody mentioned something about an article today. I haven't read it yet. But, no, we're moving forward. It's the right thing to do." Meanwhile, reports The Boston Globe, "White House officials yesterday rejected requests for interviews with Eberly and John DiIulio Jr., the director of the faith-based office. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer said Eberly did not believe that the Post article was an 'accurate reflection' of his remarks, and Fleischer called the story 'puzzling'." Sounds like somebody spoke out of turn (but, according to an article in Saturday's Washington Post, that's becoming de rigueur at the White House.) Meanwhile, Congress really is moving forward. Reps. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and Tony Hall (D-Ohio) say they will introduce legislation later this month to translate Bush's faith-based initiative into law.
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