A settlement was reached between New York State, a real estate developer, and religious leaders who had evicted church members from their places of worship in Harlem and Brooklyn.
The businessman, who had plans to convert distressed churches into new shrines and commercial buildings, sought out clergymen willing to work with him to create a multi-million dollar web of deception at the expense of seekers.
New York State Attorney Letitia James has met with developer Moujan Vahdat and his company Empire Development, retired AME Bishop Gregory GM Ingram, former First Episcopal District Chairman Melvin Wilson, Church of God in Christ pastor Kevin Griffin , and his wife reached out after working to stop fraud against faith-based institutions from their property for personal gain, according to the Washington Post.
While the actual agreement was reached in 2021, it was only recently published in August 2022.
Documents say Vahdat made payments to the preachers because he believed they had authority to negotiate real estate development deals on behalf of the community.
According to the settlement, Bishop Ingram, two pastors and a pastor’s wife received bribes from Vahdat, various congregations that owned church buildings, and state officials.
The patch says the deals were worth nearly $2 million combined.
They continued to receive money and expensive gifts from Vahdat even as he allegedly failed to keep his promises to the churches under the purchase agreements, including attempting to evict members from the church they once owned in order to get more money out of the ones they already owned scarce churches, turned off the heating of a congregation in the winter and dropped a blanket on a congregational member’s head.
The settlement states that Bishop Ingram and Elder Wilson have agreed to pay over $800,000 to New York State.
Ingram, who was once chief of the First Episcopal District and oversaw much of the Northeastern region of the United States, will repay his $610,000 finder’s fees, the money he received after selling the church properties in 2016 has and 2017.
In addition to the fee, he received $10,000 in cash in an envelope, a Rolex and an expensive wallet for his wife, James’ office claims.
Ingram is the second former bishop of his denomination to be linked to a real estate scandal. In February, former bishop Staccato Powell was indicted over a $14 million church-sale scheme, the Daily Beast reports.
Wilson, the former presiding elder of the First Episcopal District, worked for Ingram and has agreed to pay the state $200,000 plus an additional $101,075 in compensation suspended for his part in the scam.
Working with Vahdat, he was paid $144,250 between 2015 and 2018. The funds, which he had access to through his relationship with the Brooklyn-Westchester District of the AME church, brought in approximately $300,000, according to prosecutors, and ultimately raised a total of $900,000 from work in Vahdat.
A settlement was reached with Vahdat, in which he promised to honor the agreements with the churches or allow them to be exonerated from the deals they made with his company.
On Wednesday, August 31, after the state released the settlements, the AME Council of Bishops quickly condemned the two disgraced leaders.
“Following the findings of the Attorney General of New York and the signed agreement of the two AME ministers, the Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church expresses its disappointment and condemns the improper practices of our colleague and the former presiding elder in the New York Conference, who is currently Pastor of the New Jersey Conference,” the statement said.
In addition to the strong condemnation, and despite retaining his name on the national AME website, the council suspended Ingram from attending bishops’ meetings or other denominational events until 2024. A new bishop will soon take his place in the leadership and may decide to give a stronger reprimand.
The settlement reveals that Vahdat has also worked with leaders in the Church of God in Christ denomination and that Griffin and his wife raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to sell the historic Harlem building on Amsterdam Ave for the Childs Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ.
Demolished in 2018, the space was once a theater before being converted into a church, and was also the site for the Islamic funeral of El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz (formerly Malcolm X) on February 27, 1965.
According to state documents, Griffin reportedly received $900,000 from Vahdat, half of which went toward the sale of Childs Memorial.
However, Griffin maintains his innocence. In February, he filed an affidavit denying his involvement in anything illegal and saying he had no say or vote in the sale of the church. He admitted he may have received finder’s rewards from the developer for other churches purchased.
Griffin reportedly introduced Vahdat to Ingram and Wilson in 2015.
This case is still under investigation, and Griffin is fighting relentlessly in court to clear his name.
According to James’ office, seven churches were acquired, with Empire Development buying six and leasing the remaining one for 99 years. Five of these churches were AME churches and two were churches of God in Christ.
Vahdat started his campaign to buy these churches back in 2013. His goal was to get the buildings, demolish them and replace them with multi-story structures that would include a space for people to worship, but the other areas would be for them use and at the discretion of the developer.
To help carry out his plan, Vahdat sought out prominent clergy to help him locate land and position himself with communities and state officials to secure it. The most complicated part of obtaining approval to sell the church buildings was the paperwork that had to comply with state law.
The settlement says the sale of the six churches had gone through the approval process, but hit a snag when James’ office was notified that some of the documents had been changed after approval.
This sparked Ingram and Wilson’s investigation and shed light on how they used their positions to gain the votes to push through the sale at the statewide annual meeting.
James alleged that Ingram abused his position because he was “authorized or caused to make authorized sales transactions to the Developer with full knowledge of the personal financial benefits he was concurrently receiving from the Developer.”
According to his agreement, Vahdat had offered Wilson a job, but he turned it down.
He wrote in an email used in the comparison: “My thought is that it would be more beneficial to YOU if I continued to serve as presiding elder/minister because this position and title gives me access to many places. “
So good at his job that one church believed working with Vahdat was an order from God.
“It is not without a struggle that we have worked hard over the past few years to maintain the upkeep of the house of worship. We understand that a greater vision from God was required to advance this church in its financial responsibility and ministry,” the board of directors of one of the AME Harlem churches wrote in a resolution supporting the sale.
Not only are Ingram and Wilson barred from serving as religious leaders by the AME Council of Bishops, but the Attorney General has also banned them from serving as leaders in any charitable leadership roles. She will allow them to continue preaching the gospel.
https://atlantablackstar.com/2022/09/11/state-of-new-york-settles-lawsuit-against-disgraced-black-clergy-leaders-who-received-nearly-2-million-in-payments-in-church-real-estate-scheme-disappointment/ New York state settles lawsuit against disgraced black clergy leaders who received nearly $2 million in payments under church real estate program: ‘Disappointment’