JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A spokesperson for the founding pastors of Celebration Church, one of the largest churches in the Jacksonville area, says the couple did not misuse government Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) money as the church alleges in a court filing.
Stovall and Kerri Weems are in a legal dispute with the church they founded in 1998. The dispute involves allegations of financial misconduct and fraud.
The Weemses filed a lawsuit for injunctive relief against Celebration Church. The injunction said one of the church’s trustees was improperly billing the church for construction-type services at its Honey Lake Farms property in Madison County. The injunction said that trustee began feeding other trustees and senior church members lies and convinced them that Stovall Weems committed misconduct, leading to his suspension. The Weemses also said they’ve been threatened with arrest if they enter church property.
Celebration Church filed a motion to dismiss the Weemses’ injunction and said the trustees requested an investigation into the founding pastors when they discovered the Weemses “engaged in a series of questionable financial transactions without board knowledge or authorization” in early 2021. The motion outlines four areas of concern:
- Multiple large transfers to new for-profit entities that the Weemses intended to manage going forward
- Church’s purchase of a parsonage (in which Stovall and Kerri Weems were to live rent-free) for $1,286,863.30 that a company solely owned by Stovall Weems had bought four months earlier for $855,000
- Advancement of nine months’ salary to Kerri Weems and seven months’ salary to Stovall Weems in violation of Florida statute and the church’s own internal policies, despite neither Stovall nor Kerri Weems performing the duties of the offices that purportedly justified those salaries
- Improper use of over $1,000,000 in PPP loan proceeds to fund the Weems-managed entity Honey Lake Farms, LLC and to purchase TurnCoin, an illiquid, speculative digital currency
The News4JAX I-TEAM looked into what Celebration Church received in PPP money, which was distributed to help businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It was approved for $2,153,702 on April 6, 2020. This is how Celebration planned to use the money, based on data from the lender when the loan was originated:
- Payroll: $1,615,276.50
- Rent: $269,212.80
- Utilities: $269,212.80
Weemses’ Spokesperson Outlines PPP Money Usage
The News4JAX I-TEAM asked a spokesperson for Stovall and Kerri Weems to respond specifically to the allegations of misuse of PPP money. Where did the PPP money go? Sara Brady gave the following response on behalf of the Weemses: “The Motion to Dismiss alleges that more than $1 million in PPP money went to fund Honey Lake Farms, LLC and to purchase Turncoin. Neither allegation is true.
No PPP funds went to Honey Lake Farms, LLC. Honey Lake Farms, LLC (which is different than the non-profit Honey Lake Farms, Inc.) is a for profit entity that was formed on the advice of the Church’s attorneys at Holland and Knight. It is a non-operational entity to which no money was ever transferred and in fact, has never had a bank account.
No PPP funds were utilized in the Turncoin investment. The Church’s 2020 audited financials certifies that the Church utilized the PPP funds in accordance with their legally allowed purposes. Administration of the Church’s PPP funds was controlled by the Church’s CFOs. The 2021 PPP funds were completely used up by the Church’s payroll. Neither the PPP funds nor the Turncoin investment also had anything to do with Pastor Stovall’s salary advance.
Pastor Stovall invested approximately $100,000 in Turncoin, an SEC approved investment, for the purpose of creating a retirement fund for long-time Celebration Church employees. Currently, that investment is worth more than $1.5 million. Pastors Stovall and Kerri never intended to receive any money from this investment. The restricted usage of these funds is documented with the Church’s Human Resources department.” – Sara Brady, spokesperson for Stovall and Kerri Weems
Weemses’ Spokesperson On Waterfront Property Purchase
Celebration Church said in its motion to dismiss that the board of trustees did not have knowledge of or give authorization to the purchase of property that was designated as church parsonage for the Weemses.
Duval County property records show Weems Group, LLC, which is registered to Kerri Weems and managed by Stovall Weems, according to the State of Florida’s Division of Corporations, purchased a home on Shellcracker Road in the Black Hammock Island area of Jacksonville for $855,000 in February 2021. Four months later, in June 2021, property records show Celebration Church purchased the home from Weems Group, LLC for $1,286,900.
The Weemses’ spokesperson released this statement to News4JAX on Thursday about the purchase of that property: “Pastor Stovall’s parsonage allowance as approved by the Board of Trustees, was approximately $1.3 million which included the price of the property and expected improvements. The Weems Group LLC purchased the home at $855,000. As contemplated all along by all parties involved, the home required various updating and repairs. Therefore, the Church purchased the home from The Weems Group at the $1.3 million price. The difference between the two prices (approx. $400,000) was used for the updating, repairs, and ordinary housing-related expenses such as furniture and landscaping. This transaction was performed with full transparency and in line with the amount approved by the Church’s compensation committee.” – Sara Brady, spokesperson for Stovall and Kerri Weems
The News4JAX I-TEAM reached back out to Celebration Church to see if it had a response to the Weemses’ spokesperson’s statement on Thursday. An attorney for the church released the following statement: “Celebration did not bring this lawsuit and does not intend to litigate it through the media. The church’s investigation has uncovered ample documentation to support the positions in its motion to dismiss, and Celebration remains confident that the truth will ultimately prevail.” — Lee Wedekind, attorney for Celebration Church
Celebration Church released a statement to News4JAX on Wednesday for our initial reporting on this case: “Celebration Church has grown and thrived since Pastor Tim Timberlake became the church’s spiritual leader in September 2021. Celebration’s board of trustees recently suspended Pastor Stovall Weems pending an investigation into certain decisions made by him in early 2021 that were not in the best interest of the church and were not approved by the board. As that investigation remains ongoing, the church does not intend to make any further comments about it at this time. Celebration is praying for a resolution for all parties involved, and is confident in God’s plan for the church and that ultimately the truth will prevail. We remain focused on advancing the kingdom of God.” --Wayland Wiseman, Executive Pastor, Celebration Church
In 2021, Stovall Weems transitioned out of the Senior Pastor role and into a Founding Pastor role. Tim Timberlake was named Weems’ successor to lead the nearly 12,000-member church.
Stovall and Kerri Weems released a statement to News4JAX on Wednesday: “We could never have imagined that the church we started and nurtured for nearly 25 years would be seized by individuals whom we believe are prioritizing their individual interests in power and money ahead of their duties to Celebration Church and its mission. We have nothing to hide. We are being retaliated against and have been denied a proper investigation according to long-held church by-laws. Meanwhile, the substantive allegations made in our Complaint about financial improprieties perpetrated by current Board members have gone unanswered. We reject the utterly baseless and false allegations made against us. Celebration Church members have a right to know what is happening in their church and we have a right to be treated fairly.”
The Weemses filed a request on March 15 for Celebration Church to produce the following documents within 30 days:
- Any and all meeting minutes, agenda, and board resolutions, and any drafts thereof, of Board of Trustees meetings held between January 1, 2017 through present
- Any and all documents relating to Pastor Stovall and Kerri’s compensation packages from 2017 through the present, including but not limited to written agreements and records of payment from the Church to them
- Any and all documents relating to the church’s 2021 purchase of the parsonage from an entity controlled by Pastor Stovall as alleged on page 9 of the Motion To Dismiss
- Any and all documents supporting your allegation that Pastor Stovall made “multiple large transfers to new for-profit entities that the Weemses intended to manage going forward” including but not limited to bank records and written communications.
No criminal charges have been filed in this case. A civil court hearing is scheduled for May 20.