(Photo: AP Images / John Amis)
Ten members of Bishop Eddie Long's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, have filed a civil suit against the megachurch pastor for allegedly using his influence to force them into investing in a million-dollar Ponzi, or pyramid, scheme.
The lawsuit, according to The Wall Street Journal, claims that Long and New Birth "marketed, sponsored and hosted 'Wealth Tour Live'" seminars in October 2009. It was through these seminars that congregants were encouraged to invest in a scheme that promised 20 percent yearly returns, according to the lawsuit.
Instead of getting returns on their investments, claimants allege that their money, totaling more than $1 million, was instead diverted to a failing company.
Long and New Birth Missionary Baptist Church are reportedly listed as defendants in the lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in DeKalb County State Court.
WSJ's Kelly Greene reports that the New Birth senior pastor and his church used their "confidential/fiduciary relationship" to "coerce" the 10 church members into investing with Ephren Taylor Jr., the former chief executive of City Capital Corp. in Chicago.
The complaint reportedly cites Long as telling the congregation during Taylor's visit that he was "responsible for everyone" he brought before church members and for "what they say." Long and New Birth allegedly were paid by Taylor.
Long's spokesman, Art Franklin, told WSJ that the New Birth Missionary Baptist minister has already asked Taylor "to do the right thing by quickly resolving this matter with a positive outcome."
Earlier this year, Long was shown in a YouTube video asking City Capital and Taylor to "do what's right" and refund money that was invested by members of his Atlanta-based church. Long said the money was not returned after the investments went "sour."
Asking members of his 25,000-strong congregation to back his appeal, Long said to Taylor, "You’re a great man ... Let’s settle this so that these families can move on."
Taylor responded to Long's claims in February, calling them a "direct character assassination." He asserted that he has been in cooperation with the City Capital's legal team even after his departure as the CEO and has helped to ensure that investors at New Birth each received a resolution package to resolve any outstanding issues.
He also noted that Long and his church received "a percentage of product sales."
According to the WSJ, the civil lawsuit filed against Long and New Birth Missionary Baptist Church is "one of the highest-profile accusations to date of so-called religious affinity fraud, in which potential investors are targeted through a faith-based organization."
Joseph Borg, a securities commissioner in Alabama, told the WSJ, "I've seen more money stolen in the name of God than any other way."
Borg noted that 70 percent of his cases involve the type of fraud Long and his church are being accused of, and that nearly half of those cases, when in the South, "have a religious angle."
According to a guide book highlighting affinity fraud, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission describes the term as "investment scams that prey upon members of identifiable groups, often religious or ethnic communities."
SEC adds that affinity fraudsters "often enlist respected community or religious leaders from within the group to spread the word about the scheme, by convincing those people that a fraudulent investment is legitimate and worthwhile. Many times, those leaders become unwitting victims of the fraudster's ruse."
The Securities and Exchange Commission highlights on its website dozens of cases involving Christians, African-Americans, Latino-Americans, the elderly and disabled and others being cheated through affinity scams.
Long, linked to the Word of Faith "prosperity gospel" movement, often encourages the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church congregation to "be fruitful, multiply, replenish, subdue, rule and take dominion."
This current lawsuit is just the latest in a string of legal battles for Long, who in late September, requested repayment of settlement money from three men who have accused him of abusing his spiritual authority to lure them into sexual relationships.
Long has also come to the defense of a former security guard accused in a burglary at the church and has also recently settled in a case involving default of a loan.
In early September, Long told the DeKalb County District Attorney's Office to dismiss burglary charges against Anthony Boyd, a former New Birth security guard who was also among three young men accused of stealing about $100,000 worth of jewelry and electronics from the church in 2010, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Not long after, the Baptist minister reached a settlement in a property lawsuit over a default on a $2 million loan he took out in August 2007 to buy a local gymnasium.
Most recently, Long has said that he wants back some of the settlement money he gave Jamal Parris, Spencer LeGrande and Centino Kemp, who have all accused him of abusing his spiritual authority to engage them in sexual acts. The settlement had a confidentiality agreement, which Long's attorneys say the young men violated when they spoke publicly about the allegations. Long was reportedly seeking at least $900,000 in repayment from the young men.