CA Attorney General Moves on Church Scammers

CA Attorney General Moves on Church Scammers

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The office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris is suing a handful of businesses and people who allegedly conned more than 30 African-American churches in the Southland. The scam involved shoddy computer kiosks.

Ecclesia Christian Fellowship pastor Rev. Joshua Beckley whose church was among the 30 defrauded in the Southland says the kiosks were nothing more than a low end monitor and printer that rarely worked.

Harris says two Maryland-based firms — Urban Interfaith Network and Television Broadcasting Online — persuaded churches to lease computer kiosks. Agents of the companies allegedly promised that the kiosks would connect the churches and their members to national advertisers, and would even make the churches some extra money. Advertisers would make the lease payments on the kiosks, and the churches would shoulder no financial obligation.

But the lawsuit says all that turned out to be wrong: the computers didn't always work, and the churches were on the hook for them for as much as $47,000 per kiosk. When the churches didn’t pay, the leasing agents filed collection suits against them.

Nearly 200 Black churches in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties including at least five churches in the Inland Empire, leased the computer kiosks. The Attorney General’s complaint, filed in LA County Superior Court, seeks $800,000 in civil penalties.

The computer kiosk at Ecclesia Christian Fellowship in San Bernardino was moved back to the church lobby. It was hoped it would generate money and convenience.

Instead it became part of a costly and possibly criminal scam.

“A program that was supposed to help churches with ministry and outreach was in fact a fraud,” said Pastor Raymond Turner of Temple Missionary Baptist Church in San Bernardino. In late 2007 Turner’s trustees signed off on a $40,000, 48-month contract for what was marketed as ‘cost free information kiosks’.

Ecclesia Christian Fellowship pastor Rev. Joshua Beckley recalls representatives from D.C. based Television Broadcasting Online, Inc. (TVBO) and its subsidiary Urban Interfaith Network presented members of the Inland Concerned African-American Churches with what sounded like a win-win business plan. Beckley said local TVBO representative, Wayne Wilson who is African-American offered churches cost free interactive information kiosks, to be placed prominently in their foyers and activity centers,” he said.

The idea said Turner was “we would receive “sponsor checks” from advertisers who wanted to reach our church members. In turn churches would agree to house the kiosks at no cost to the congregation.”

“What we received was a cheap PC locked in a fancy plywood box, said Turner. The printer and ‘kiosk sponsors’ they promised never materialized. Fortunately we didn’t allow them to debit our account,” said Turner. “We did not lose money. They gave us checks to cover the first three months of the lease. When the company couldn’t get the equipment to work and the “sponsor checks” stopped coming we stopped paying the lease.”

That the clergy say led leasing company Balboa Capital of Irvine to sue seeking full payment of the lease agreement. Beckley who leased two kiosks said when TVBO stopped sending the ad checks Ecclesia continued to pay the $900 monthly payments.

“We had a contract so we paid them for 2 months because we trusted the companies to repair the equipment and honor the contract.

We wanted to give them a chance to make it right. They never did.”

"This was a cruel and hypocritical scheme,'' said Harris. "The perpetrators preyed on institutions of faith. Let this be a lesson to others who may look to defraud our community organizations: You will be caught and you will be held accountable."

Ecclesia Christian Fellowship, New Hope Missionary Baptist, St. Paul AME Church and Temple Missionary Baptist Church all of San Bernardino were among those defrauded. Primm Tabernacle AME Church is located in Pomona.

“This does shake our trust because the people who brought us this concept were not strangers. We trusted them,” said Richard Nevins, a trustee and attorney for New Hope Missionary Baptist Church.