Federal Officials Charge that Florida-Based, Antigovernment Greater Ministries is Actually a Criminal Fraud
Federal officials charge that Florida-based Greater Ministries, an antigovernment 'religious' group, is actually a criminal fraud
For many, it seemed too good to be true. After contributing to Greater Ministries' "gifting" program, investors received wads of $50 bills in monthly payments sent via Priority Mail.
People stood in line to give their money away, and the leaders of the group supplied them with stories of debt-free living, African gold mines, humanitarian efforts and an herbal research center with a possible cure for cancer.
But last year, it began to fall apart. Cease-and-desist orders were filed against Greater in California, Ohio and Pennsylvania by regulators who characterized its double-your-money programs as "unregistered securities." In July, after officials shut down Best Bank of Boulder, Colo., Greater's main bank, Greater said it had lost more than $20 million and suspended monthly payments to "gift"-givers.
In November, a Pennsylvania judge ordered Greater to halt all transactions with state residents. After Greater officials defied that ban and Payne destroyed financial records, the judge fined Greater $6.4 million.
Then, in March, the federal indictments were handed down. Talbert, Hall, Payne, Payne's wife Betty, John Krishak, David Whitfield and James Chambers were charged. The indictment said that despite promises to invest the money in offshore metal and currency trading, very little money was ever invested in anything.
The defendants face possible prison terms of up to 20 years on each money laundering count alone. Six of the seven accused made bail immediately, and Payne did so later.
A history of fraud
This was not the first trouble to involve Greater principals.
· In 1979, Payne was convicted on 12 counts of lying to a grand jury investigating an unrelated fraud involving a Payne employer in New York City. He was sentenced to four months in jail. Payne has sued the government for seizing a trove of up to $26,000 in gold and silver coins when he entered the country in 1997 without declaring it.
In a recent court hearing, officials said they also seized 26 bestiality videotapes from Payne.
· Talbert has been charged with 42 counts of racketeering, fraud and grand theft for allegedly cheating 11 elderly south Florida investors out of $280,000 in an investment scheme called "Down Town Auto." His trial in that case was to begin this spring.
According to The Tampa Tribune, Talbert also has been sued twice since 1994 by people who accused him of bilking them out of their investments — a couple who said he stole a $100,000 investment of theirs and a widow who says she lost $25,000.
· Eidson, who then had an oil recycling business, was convicted in 1993 of illegally dumping motor oil into storm sewers that empty into Tampa Bay. In 1995, Eidson, who would become Payne's legal adviser in 1996, was convicted of practicing law without a license.
· James Maher, who incorporated an earlier version of Greater Ministries with Payne, was sentenced in 1985 to five years' probation after being found guilty of running a fraudulent Ponzi scheme. Ten years later, Maher was forced to refund $1.2 million paid by 40 Floridians to an "investment club."
· Jonathan Strawder, a 25-year-old who once worked for Greater and whose uncle helped to incorporate it, created a similar program in 1997 called Sovereign Ministries International. After collecting $13 million from some 2,100 investors — and spending some of it on a yacht, two Porsches and a Land Rover — Strawder quit making payments to his donors.
· In December, he signed a plea agreement admitting Sovereign Ministries was a Ponzi scam and agreeing to provide key testimony against Greater Ministries.
· Niko Shefer, who is Greater's main overseas operative in its alleged Liberian mining interests, is a South African who once served six years for bank fraud. According to a dissident Liberian group, Greater obtained tax exemptions in the West African country that are reserved for humanitarian organizations.
The group claims that promised relief supplies and other services for the financially strapped country never materialized.
· The owner of the bank Greater chose to do business with — the bank that issued its credit cards — was Edward Mattar III, a man with "a long history of financial recklessness," according to the Rocky Mountain News. Mattar has been sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars in various financial undertakings. He owned several schools that wound up owing money to debtors and students.
Shortly before his Colorado bank was seized, Mattar paid himself and his bank president a $9 million bonus. "It's odd that Greater Ministries would put assets in an illiquid bank if God is advising them," a ranking Pennsylvania regulator told the News. "How did they end up with such a schlocko banker?"
· A couple in California, Don and Jeana Muir, are facing felony charges for promoting Greater Ministries' "Faith Promises" program, which is banned in the state.
Tall buildings and tales
Payne and Hall claimed to have received more than $500 million from 100,000 people, although prosecutors say that is exaggerated. The real amount is not known.
It's also unclear where the money raised by Greater Ministries went. Its leaders have claimed to own about 100 gold mines around the world, including a gold and platinum concession in Liberia that they assert has a "$40 billion" reserve just 15 feet under the ground.
They say they have bought "the tallest building in Africa" for $15 million. Greater allegedly put up the money for a $7 million purchase of Kentucky's second-largest hotel and has spent upward of $1.5 million in improving its Tampa headquarters.
Last year, after the collapse of Best Bank in Colorado, two Greater members, Charles Tomlinson and Carl Thomas, tried to buy a South Florida bank. Regulators rejected their application.
Shortly before the Kentucky hotel purchase, Greater officials reported a robbery at their Tampa headquarters. Payne's wife allegedly first told police that nothing had been stolen. Later, corrected by her husband, she said $500,000 was missing. Payne would later claim the haul was actually $3 million, a figure that eventually grew to $3.5 million.
Police, who say that a guard told them that the Paynes had taken all the money in Greater's vault home before the 1996 robbery, have closed the investigation. "We have our suspicions as to what really happened," Sgt. Bob Wright told The Tampa Tribune.
The Kentucky hotel purchase caused a local stir when Eidson, apparently acting on behalf of Greater Ministries, issued a "common-law lien" to prevent other investors from buying the hotel. Headlines also spotlighted Eidson's anti-Semitic past. But in the end, the purchase went through, with Eidson associate Jim Biggerstaff taking over.
"I run the hotel," Biggerstaff told the Owensboro (Ky.) Messenger-Inquirer. "If it makes any money, some of that will be returned to Greater Ministries."