AME official Jerome V. Harris dies amid lawsuit over nearly $100M missing from pension fund

The Rev. Jerome V. Harris, is the former executive director of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Department of Retirement Services.
The Rev. Jerome V. Harris, is the former executive director of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Department of Retirement Services. | Screenshot: Facebook/6th District AME Church

Jerome V. Harris, the former executive director of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Inc.’s Department of Retirement Services who was accused in a federal lawsuit of losing nearly $100 million from the denomination’s retirement plan through "foolish" and risky investments, has died. He was 79.

The AME’s official publication, The Christian Recorder, said Harris “died suddenly on May 8.” John Thomas III, a general officer of the church and editor of The Christian Recorder, told RNS that he suffered a heart attack.

Harris’ only child, Chris Harris, remembered his father as his “first best friend” and “superhero” in a public statement on Facebook a day after his death.

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“I lost my first best friend yesterday .. My guiding voice, my protector, my example of what work is, looks like and is.. my superhero in real life, not just me but to many many others,” he wrote. “I'm forever broken but not shattered .. know I'll be fine eventually and that I LOVE YOU thru this space and time and beyond…until we hug again my friend .. my Father and most important my Dad!!! Rest in Love !!!”

The late AME officer’s life was also celebrated in a homegoing service at St. John's AME Church in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 15.

According to a 49-page federal complaint filed in a proposed class-action lawsuit in March 2022 by retired AME pastor, the Rev. Cedric V. Alexander, Harris’ “foolish” and risky management of the denomination’s pension fund hurt more than 5,000 participants financially. At least two other lawsuits alleging similar charges have been filed in Florida and Virginia.

The complaint alleges that Harris was "given sole authority” by the church “to invest tens of millions of AMEC clergy's and other Church servants' retirement savings in a questionable and potentially unlawful purchase of undeveloped land in Florida, a promissory note to an Illinois installer of solar panels, and an even more foolish investment in a now non-existent capital venture outfit."

While all of this was happening, church officials kept reporting to the plan's beneficiaries that their retirement funds were safely flourishing as investments in annuities from Symetra Financial.

"This suit is about a complete and total abrogation of these fiduciary responsibilities by Defendants, resulting in numerous breaches of duty and resulting in a single, unmonitored individual, Defendant Harris, controlling all Plan assets and investments," the complaint says.

In March 2023, U.S. District Judge S. Thomas Anderson, of the Western District of Tennessee’s Eastern Division, dismissed federal ERISA charges against the AME church and third-party administrators in connection with the church’s retirement plan. They will still, however, have to face state charges. Harris, along with Newport Group, Inc. and Symetra Life Insurance Co., administered the denomination’s pension fund.

In an amended complaint, the plaintiffs in the case alleged fiduciary breach charges against the defendants and Anderson upheld that position.

“The court holds that Symetra has not discharged its burden to show that plaintiffs lack capacity to sue as representatives of the plan as a matter of Tennessee law and that the AMEC has not carried its burden to show why the Council of Bishops and the General Board lack the capacity to be sued as matter of the law of corporations,” Anderson said in his decision.

In addition to his son, Harris leaves behind his wife, Sandra Elaine Anderson, and three grandchildren.

Contact: Follow Leonardo Blair on Twitter: @leoblair Follow Leonardo Blair on Facebook: LeoBlairChristianPost

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