Marcus D. Dukes traveled church to church in Prince George's County and beyond, peddling an investment plan to black parishioners, appealing to their desires both to penetrate the exclusive world of finance and to support African American entrepreneurship.
Dukes and a partner, Teresa Hodge, preached a gospel of faith and finance as they promoted membership in what they called the Financial Warfare Club. Parishioners were told that, in exchange for joining, they would receive "financial literacy" courses and, eventually, grants of stock in African American-owned companies that later would be taken public.
In 2000 and 2001, the club raised in excess of $1.3 million from more than 800 members in Maryland and elsewhere -- investments that, in virtually every case, yielded no return.
On Wednesday, a jury in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt found that the investment plan was a criminal scheme, convicting Dukes, 35, of a dozen felony counts. The jury also ordered him to forfeit $1.17 million in proceeds from the fraud.
The U.S. attorney's office said the charges are punishable by as much as 65 years in prison. Daniel Stiller, an attorney for Dukes, said he expects a term of more than 10 years at sentencing Sept. 12.
Neither prosecutor was available to give comment yesterday, a spokeswoman said. Stiller said Dukes was not available either. Hodge, who was raised in Maryland, has been indicted on the same charges and is awaiting trial, prosecutors said in a statement.
From their base in Prince George's, where they were regular guests on a local gospel radio show, Dukes and Hodge expanded their financial club into the District and more than a dozen states. They worked through a network of small black Pentecostal churches and pastors who introduced them to parishioners and passed them on to other congregations. Some of the pastors invested church money as well as their own.
They promised to end what they called the "economic apartheid" that shut out African Americans from lucrative initial public offerings. Dukes and Hodge offered several levels of participation in their investment club, according to the indictment. "Believers" paid $550 for 250 shares in each of the three companies that were supposed to go public. "Warriors" paid $1,050 for 500 shares in each company and two financial education courses. "Founders" paid $2,550 for 2,000 shares in each company and three courses.
In 2002, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed suit alleging that the three companies -- Integrated Solutions International Inc., GlobalCom InterNetworks Inc. and GeNex Inc. -- were shells with no significant revenue, profit, assets or employees.
Catherine E. Pappas, senior trial counsel at the SEC's Philadelphia office, said the civil case, which is pending, was notable because of the "scheme to defraud primarily African American investors through the exploitation of their religious faith and their ethnic pride. That was the appeal of the scam, to go to churches and be presented through the pastors, giving them the aura of credibility," she said.
In the criminal case, Dukes's attorneys argued that the ventures promoted through the club were legitimate, although not yet profitable. They acknowledged that more than 800 people invested and that virtually nobody received anything in return. But the membership pitch was "an opportunity offered from the heart," Stiller said.
"He grew up in the African American church community, and like many others within that community, he found himself frustrated that the breadth of the community vision was limited by the depth of its treasure," Stiller said of Dukes.
Prosecutors alleged that Dukes, who lives in suburban Detroit, made false statements to induce parishioners to invest. Among them: that he had helped take at least one other company public and that he and Hodge had themselves invested more than $1 million in the club.
Dukes, who attended the U.S. Naval Academy but did not graduate, was found guilty of four counts of mail fraud, seven counts of interstate transportation of money obtained by fraud and one count of money laundering.