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Church Leaders Accused Of Conspiring With Developer In Property Sale Scheme

Greater Bethel AME church

Three church leaders scored improper cash payments for arranging the sale of churches in Brooklyn, a state investigation has found.

The secret payments come to nearly $2M combined, Patch reported. New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office ran an investigation into developer Moujan Vahdat, per the publication, which has uncovered the secret payments.

Two of the three clergy members settled with prosecutors, as did Vahdat, but a third pastor’s matter is before a state court. Vahdat leads Elmo Realty and Empire Development Fund. 

In one case, Bishop Kevin Griffin took a $440K “finder fee” after he agreed to sell the Childs Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ on Amsterdam Avenue to Vahdat in a $2M deal. The deal closed in 2016, but prosecutors claimed Griffin had never disclosed to his church community or authorities that he received the fee, along with a $450K cash payment at closing.

Bishop Gregory G.M. Ingram – a leader at the AME Church – also formed a relationship with Vahdat, as did the Rev. Melvin Wilson, who was appointed by Inghram to supervise AME churches in Brooklyn and Westchester.

Between 2016 and 2017 Ingram received a collective $610K, which included $10K in cash, as well as a Rolex and a designer handbag. Wilson received $144,250 from Vahdat between 2015 and 2018, but in all he was able to score some $300K via his ability to access funds from the AME Church’s Brooklyn-Westchester District.

Prosecutors say Wilson and Ingram helped Vahdat buy churches between 2015 and 2017, one on East 123rd Street, another on West 123rd St. and another on West 135th St. In all, there were seven churches that traded – largely with predominantly Black congregations — and the leaders were never upfront about their personal gains associated with the sales and their relationships with the developer, according to prosecutors.

The properties were in need of repair, and they were vulnerable to the deals because they were in such financially perilous conditions, the prosecutors said. After making these purchases, they said, Vahdat allowed them to fall into disrepair, in some cases sit empty, and he failed to deliver on certain promises like to build housing.

“Not without a struggle, over the past several years we have worked hard to maintain the upkeep of the house of God," the board of one of the strained Harlem churches wrote in a 2015 resolution supporting the sale to Vahdat, per Patch. "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.”

State prosecutors reached settlements with Ingram and Wilson last year. The state said the churches could either cash out or Vahdat continue with the plan with third-party supervision, which six of the churches elected to do.