Where money meets faith, bring skepticism

Michelle Singletary
Columnist August 11, 2012

Robert “Dr. Shine” Freeman, a Maryland minister, took the command “let us pray” and turned it into “let us prey.”

Because that’s what he did. He preyed on his people.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

Prosecutors said Freeman, 56, hid assets to avoid paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts. He recently pleaded guilty to obstructing bankruptcy court proceedings and received a 27-month prison sentence. He was ordered to pay more than $630,000 in restitution to four church members who took out loans to buy cars and a mansion.

What Freeman did falls under “affinity fraud.” Affinity fraud is when people use a personal connection such as religion or ethnic status to gain people’s trust and their money.

Nearly one in four Ponzi schemes involve affinity-group targets, according to a study by consulting firm Marquet International of major Ponzi schemes in the United States since 2002. The three most common affinity groups targeted by Ponzi schemers, accounting for 85 percent of such cases, were the elderly or retired, religious groups and ethnic groups.

The people who try to fight affinity fraud will tell you it’s a hard scam to prevent. Typically people are told that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But when that too-good-to-be-true deal or request is coming from someone you trust or is being endorsed by a person you respect, you let your guard down. You suspend common sense. And this opens you to becoming a victim.

The word “con” in con man stands for “confidence,” and that is what these people aim for. They gain your confidence through the affinity group, says Chris Marquet, chief executive of the company that conducted the Ponzi scheme study.

“Affinity fraud is really egregious in the religion community,” Marquet said. “It’s like a double whammy because it not only involves trust but somebody who is supposed to be righteous and good.”

In 2005, Freeman and his then-spouse filed for bankruptcy protection, claiming they were broke. The couple said they had $1.3 million in debt, including $846,000 in back rent and $87,000 in lease payments on a jet. But they were hiding the fact that they were living in a $1.75 million, 9,000-square-foot home purchased by a church member. Freeman didn’t disclose that he had the use of 11 luxury vehicles worth more than $1 million, also purchased by church members. Freeman’s ex-wife was not charged.

In another affinity-fraud case announced this month, a federal grand jury indicted husband and wife Shannon and Yvette Johnson of Laytonsville, Md., and Corona, Calif., in connection with an alleged fraudulent advance-fee scheme, according to Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. attorney for the district of Maryland.

The Johnsons developed relationships with pastors, ministers and religious-based organizations, allegedly passing themselves off as philanthropists. In return for “advance banking fees,” the couple promised to provide individual and business investors with money that they claimed they held in an overseas bank account. They allegedly received $3.7 million in fees but never provided the promised financing.

Prosecutors say the couple used the money to purchase Bentley, Mercedes-Benz and BMW automobiles, lease a $3.5 million residence in California, pay the mortgage on their Maryland home and travel on private jets.

After Freeman’s sentencing, I asked readers what they thought about his actions. Many of their responses provide guidance that can help fight affinity fraud.

“I’m a pastor of a small church in Maine,” wrote Franklin Anderson of Limerick, Maine. “I think that the church is in part responsible for inadequate supervision of its accounts and its pastor. Under no circumstances am I allowed to borrow money from parishioners, or accept personal gifts or loans more than $25 from parishioners. Doing so is a conflict of interest. I could not serve my parishioners impartially and equally. And it would be taking advantage of their trust in me by virtue of my being their pastor for my personal gain.”

Jeanne Mitchler-Fiks of Washington said that “just because someone is a pastor doesn’t mean that he is more holy or spiritually above the rest of the congregation.”

I found a MySpace video with snippets of a sermon Freeman delivered in 2007. It was prophetic.

“This church is what qualifies you to get what you can’t afford,” Freeman told the congregation. “When you’re broke and in faith, you’re not broke. You’re just suspended in time until reality catches up with you and brings you your money.”

Freeman used his church members, in the name of Jesus, to get what he couldn’t afford.

Every time you hear about one of these cases, remind yourself that having trust and faith doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have an abundance of skepticism.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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