Church targeted in scam

By Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects
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How low will a con-artist stoop in the quest for cash?  In one case, the scammer targeted those seeking a new home to worship.

"It was the end of the world, it was unbelievable. I had been violated. Not just violated financially, I was violated emotionally," said fraud victim, Reverend Royce Cornelius.

Cornelius is understandably angry.  He and his congregation were scammed out of their church, literally.

The nightmare began when they decided to buy a new building to accommodate their expanding numbers.

"We were trying to borrow that money and we couldn't find it," said Cornelius.

"The housing market collapsed, is another way to put it," said US Postal Inspector Samuel Abraham Freedman. "It became almost impossible for churches to get loans. One broker that we interviewed actually said no one was giving churches the money because no one wants to foreclose on God."

Then Cornelius met Jamal Lawson.

Freedman said, "I think of Jamal Lawson as a charming devil, with a silver tongue and a golden keyboard because the craft he had in creating these lies, in creating these scams, sending solicitations, full color that looked very professional through the mail, promising these churches all of this money."

Lawson told Cornelius he needed money up front and the church complied.

"There were some things he wanted us to pay for that he had to do in preparation, said Cornelius. "He had his staff working on our behalf."

Freedman explained, "The $4,000 that he paid, well,  that came from congregation contributions. You know, the Sunday morning passing the hat, you had these blue collar workers."

The process seemed to be going very well prompting Cornelius to sell his church building.

"We were supposed to be going to the closing table and he kept extending the date," he added.

Cornelius realized he had been duped and his congregation was not alone.

Inspectors say Lawson scammed 25 churches out of more than $100,000. But the money wasn't the biggest loss.

"What we lost was our dignity," said Cornelius. "In the church world we were made to look foolish. We were boasting. We were celebrating the new building we were getting, we were emailing, we were posting pictures and tentative dates of moving and all of a sudden they sold our building, the deal was closed. We were homeless. We had nowhere to go. We had 1500 people who had nowhere to go. How do I describe how that feels?"

Postal inspectors say it is so important to do extensive research and contact references before entering financial transactions.

"He was aiming for churches and he had no shame in that whatsoever," said Freedman.

"Forgiving is easy. Forgetting isn't. So I have to work hard to keep forgiving," said Cornelius.

Lawson was found guilty of wire fraud and is still awaiting sentencing.

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