Florida 'Church' Leaders Guilty in Scam

Patriot Games

Five leaders of Florida's Tampa-based Greater Ministries International Church were found guilty in March of running a massive Ponzi scheme that took close to half a billion dollars from over 18,000 victims — people who were promised that God would double their money in less than two years. The church leaders used the language of the "Patriot" movement and often victimized fellow antigovernment zealots.

In nationwide "road shows," Greater Ministries head Gerald Payne explained that his financial program was based on the Gospel of St. Luke. Although profits were up to God, he said, those who gave would make money until the Second Coming of Christ.

Payne said he would invest the "donations" in gold and diamond mines in Liberia, among other places, where he said he was a friend of the president.

Once rich, Payne promised that the investors would convert Greater Royal Island, north of the Bahamas, into a theocracy, complete with 1,000 Claymore mines, c-4 plastic explosive, grenade launchers, .50-caliber machine guns, shotguns, sniper rifles, flak vests, armor-piercing ammunition and imported Filipino laborers.

Payne said he had cleared it with the United Nations, but that in the event of a showdown with the Bahamians, "I want us to win at any cost."

The Greater Ministries principals never got to face down the Bahamians. In fact, they hardly even got around to investing. In a classic pyramid scheme, prosecutors showed that Payne and his fellow defendants used later investors to pay off earlier ones.

The directors' secret 5% cut — "gas money," they called it — totaled $22.4 million.

Payne's conviction on 19 charges included various counts of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud and money laundering. His wife, Betty, and two others were guilty on 16 charges; a fifth man was guilty on five. All are awaiting sentencing.