Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist in Georgia is facing a lawsuit by former church members who are claiming that the pastor encouraged them to invest money in a company that had a $3 million capital deficit.
"If Bishop Eddie Long hadn't endorsed this they wouldn't have invested," plaintiffs attorney Jason Doss said, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The accusations against Long state that even though the bishop did not invest any of his own money in the alleged Ponzi scheme, the 12 former church members who filed the suit last month in DeKalb County state court lost more than $1 million dollars in the investment.
"He has to put his church members' interests before his own," Doss added. "He was obligated under the law to tell everybody about it, and obviously he didn't."
"That was my everything, and that's it, it's gone," said plaintiff Lillian Wells, who invested $122,000 with Ephren W. Taylor, the "social capitalist" who led a series of financial seminars in October 2009 at the New Birth church.
Last week, reports came out revealing that Long had been warned of the impending lawsuits in advance. The bishop has addressed the situation, calling for Taylor to repay the money that congregation members might have lost.
"I'm asking you to join with me to make an appeal to Ephren Taylor and City Capital, that they would return as soon as possible the funds, and with interest preferably, to those who have invested in good faith, who have invested because of their love of God, who have invested because of love of their family," Long said in 2011.
The church "remain[s] hopeful that Ephren Taylor and companies related to him restore the funds that were taken from congregants at New Birth and churches around the county. We continue to cooperate as the case proceeds," New Birth spokesman Art Franklin reportedly said.
The lawsuit also alleges that the church received a warning about Taylor and his faulty practices, as an internal memo tried to warn New Birth from being "taken advantage of." The informant apparently warned that there will be no return on investment that members of the congregation put in; Taylor had promised at least a 20 percent return in real estate investments, but failed to deliver.
The Securities and Exchange Commission revealed that the investor has allegedly targeted more than 1,000 people, mostly church members, in his elaborate Ponzi scheme.
"These are good, Christian, hard-working people who saved their whole lives," said Cathy Lerman, another lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Long's 25,000-member church has faced a number of hardships in the past couple of years. Civil lawsuits have been filed against Long accusing him of sexual relations with underage male members of his church, though the bishop has denied those charges. His wife, Vanessa Griffin, filed for divorce from the pastor in late 2011, prompting Long to take a months-long leave of absence in order to try and save his marriage.
Long, who has been married to Griffin for over 20 years and with whom he has three children, has said: "Vanessa is, and has always been, a loving, dedicated and committed wife and mother. My love for her is deep and unwavering. It remains our sincere desire to continue working together in seeking God's will in these circumstances."