Thursday, July 18, 2013

2 get probation for church embezzlement in Michigan.Former Grand Rapids pastor, church secretary will repay $220,000 taken from church, judge vows


The former pastor and bookkeeper of a Grand Rapids church have been sentenced for embezzlement.

Both ex-pastor Arthur Pearson and ex-bookkeeper Gerolanita Bailey were sentenced to four months probation. Pearson was ordered to pay restitution to the tune of $160,000. Bailey was ordered to pay $50,700 in restitution.

In January, Pearson pleaded no contest to embezzling between $50,000 and $100,000 from Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church.

He turned himself in after allegations first surfaced in early January 2012. He initially claimed his contract did not specifically prevent him from using certain funds on personal items, such as car repairs and mall shopping trips.

Bailey pleaded no contest in February to a charge of embezzlement of between $50,000 and $100,000. She took nearly $60,000 from the church and used it for her own benefit -- mostly to pay bills.

The influx of former and current members of the church showing up for Thursday's sentencing hearing forced court staff to set up an auxiliary room with a remote video hook-up so they could watch the proceedings 10 floors below.

Kent County Circuit Court Judge Dennis Leiber scolded the pair for using their positions of trust to take money from the people they were supposed to be serving in order to finance a lavish lifestyle.

He said he would not hesitate to put them in prison if they failed to live up to their repayment obligations - a sentence that has a maximum term of 15 years after each pleaded no contest to embezzlement charges earlier this year.

Related: Grand Rapids Baptist church pastor pleads no contest to embezzling up to $100,000

But second-generation church member Johnnell Williams said she doubts the church will ever see 10 percent of that money and wishes some amount of jail time, maybe six months, would have been required to give the pair time to think about what they had done.

“Her actions of theft stem from vanity and greed,” Williams said. “Ms. Bailey is a thief.”

Williams gave a victim impact statement to the judge prior to sentencing, during which she said the illegal actions prevented the congregation from carrying out its ministries and disgraced the church, which now can no longer get credit.

Pearson is accused of taking some $167,000 that he used to give himself raises and bonuses of as much as $20,000. He used the church credit card for personal expenses at several area retail stores and restaurants, including the Electric Cheetah, Macy's, Victoria's Secret and Hearthstone Bistro, according to the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office.

Bailey used more than $60,000 in church money to pay utility and cable bills for herself and family members and wrote checks intended for personal use.

Among the allegations laid out following an audit of church finances was that Bailey diverted $6,100 to Comcast, $7,300 to Sprint, $10,000 for a Capital One credit card and about $18,000 taken in written checks to "cash" or herself.

This embezzlement went on between 2008 and 2012.

The experience divided the Franklin Street SE church, causing membership to plummet and leaving the church without a full-time pastor for the last year and a half.

Williams said the situation has been hardest on the youth she works with and people like her mother who attended the Southeast Side church for decades before Pearson took over from their 40-year pastor in 2008.

Some church board members met with a civil attorney after the sentencing and both Bailey and Pearson refused to give statements in court today, due to the threat of lawsuits. In 2011, the church board did file suit in Kent County Circuit Court against Pearson.

Pearson’s attorney, Steve Fishman, said he hoped that as “Christian people” the dispute could be settled without “dragging everyone's dirty laundry through a public forum.”

Pearson also brought a $1,000 check with him to begin paying off the debt. Fishman did not say how Pearson is earning the money.

Bailey’s attorney, Jolene Weiner-Vatter, said her client has work in an Ohio ministry run by Bailey’s sister.

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