A settlement has been reached between the state of New York, a real estate developer, and religious leaders who defrauded church members out of their places of worship in Harlem and Brooklyn.
The businessman, who had plans to refurbish distressed churches into new sanctuaries and business properties, sought out clergy willing to work with him to create a million-dollar web of deception at the expense of god-seekers.
New York State Attorney Letitia James has settled with developer Moujan Vahdat and his company Empire Development, retired AME bishop Gregory G.M. Ingram, former First Episcopal District presiding elder Melvin Wilson, Church of God in Christ pastor Kevin Griffin and his wife after they worked to scam faith institutions out of their properties for personal gain, according to the Washington Post.
While the actual settlement was made in 2021, it was only recently made public in August of 2022.
Documents claim Vahdat made payments to the preachers believing they were authorized to negotiate real estate development deals on behalf of the congregation.
According to the settlement, Bishop Ingram, two pastors, and one pastor’s wife received kickbacks from Vahdat, various congregations that owned church buildings, and state officials.
The Patch states the deals were worth almost $2 million combined.
They continued to receive money and expensive gifts from Vahdat, even when he supposedly did not live up to his promises made to the churches as laid out by the purchase agreements, including once trying to evict members from the church they once owned, get more money from the already cash-strapped churches, turned off the heat in the winter on a congregation and let a ceiling fall on a parishioner.
The settlement says Bishop Ingram and Elder Wilson have agreed to pay over $800,000 to the state of New York.
Ingram, who at one time was the head of the First Episcopal District and oversaw much of the northeastern region of the United States will pay back his “finder’s fees” of $610,000, the money he received after arranging the sale of the church properties in 2016 and 2017.
In addition to the fee, he received $10,000 cash in an envelope, a Rolex, and an expensive pocketbook for his wife, James’ office contends.
Wilson, the former First Episcopal District presiding elder of the denomination, worked for Ingram and has agreed to give the state $200,000, plus an additional $101,075 in restitution suspended for his part in the swindle.
When working with Vahdat, he received $144,250 between 2015 and 2018. The funds he had access to through his relationship with the AME Church’s Brooklyn-Westchester District netted approximately $300,000 and ultimately made a combined $900,00 from working Vahdat, according to the prosecution.
A settlement was made with Vahdat where he promised to honor the agreements with the churches or allow them to be released from the deals they made with his company.
On Wednesday, Aug. 31, after the state made the settlements public, the AME Council of Bishops swiftly condemned the two disgraced leaders.
“As a result of the findings of the Attorney General of New York and the signed agreement of the two AME clergypersons, the Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church expresses our disappointment and condemns the inappropriate practices of our colleague and the former presiding elder in the New York Conference, who currently pastors in the New Jersey Conference,” the statement read.
In addition to the strong condemnation and despite keeping his name on the AME national website, the Council has suspended Ingram from attending any of their bishop meetings or other denominational events until 2024. A new bishop will soon take his place in leadership and may decide to give a stronger reprimand.
The settlement reveals Vahdat also worked with leaders in the Church of God in Christ denomination, giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to Griffin and his wife for the sale of the historic Harlem building at 1763-1771 Amsterdam Ave. (near 147th Street) and housed the Childs Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ.
Torn down in 2018, the space was once a theater before being transformed into a church, and also the location for the Islamic funeral for El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz (formerly Malcolm X) on Feb. 27, 1965.
According to state documents, Griffin allegedly received $900,000 from Vahdat, half of which was for 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 did admit to possibly receiving finder’s fees from the developer for other churches that were bought.
Griffin allegedly introduced Vahdat to Ingram and Wilson in 2015.
This case is still under investigation, with Griffin adamantly fighting in court to clear his name.
According to James’ office, seven churches were acquired, with Empire Development purchasing six of them and obtaining a 99-year lease on the remaining one. Five of those churches were AME congregations and two Church of God in Christ.
Vahdat started his campaign to purchase these churches as early as 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 the use of and at the discretion of the developer.
To help execute his plan, Vahdat sought out the prominent clergy to help him find properties and be positioned with the congregations and state officials to secure them. Getting approval to sell the church buildings was most complicated by paperwork that had to comply with state law.
The settlement says the sale of the six churches had gone through the approval process but reached a snag when James’ office was notified that some of the documents were altered after being approved.
This sparked the investigation into Ingram and Wilson, spotlighting how they used their positions to get the votes to push the sale through at the statewide annual meeting.
James alleged Ingram misused his position because he was “authorized or caused to be authorized what were supposed to be arms-length sale transactions to the Developer with full knowledge of the personal financial benefits he was receiving from the Developer at the same time.”
According to his settlement, Vahdat had offered Wilson a job, but he turned it down.
He wrote in an email used in the settlement, “My thought is that it would be more beneficial TO YOU for me to continue working as a Presiding Elder/Minister because this position and title gives me entree’ into many places.”
So good at his job, one church believed working with Vahdat was a directive from God.
“Not without a struggle, over the past several years we have worked hard to maintain the upkeep of the house of God. We understand that there has been a need for a greater vision from God to move this church forward in its fiscal responsibility and ministry,” the board of one of the AME Harlem churches wrote in a resolution supporting the sale.
Ingram and Wilson are not only barred by the AME Council of Bishops from serving as religious leaders, but the Attorney General has also prohibited the two from taking leadership in any non-profit leadership capacities. She will allow them to continue to minister the gospel.