Pastor's scandal divides Friendship Missionary Baptist in Liberty City
Congregants at Liberty City's Friendship Missionary Baptist Church are divided as their spiritual leader goes to trial on a grand theft charge.
Political scandal. A church divided. An inner-city community in need.
Miami's Rev. Gaston Smith, the prominent Liberty City pastor with an outsized personality and fiery pulpit presence, gets his day in court this week -- but the subplots stretch far beyond the courtroom.
Smith, 43, is charged with grand theft for allegedly misusing $10,000 in county grant money intended to revitalize Liberty City. Instead, Miami-Dade prosecutors say, he used cash for personal expenses, including $500 at a Las Vegas martini bar.
Jury selection is set to begin Monday.
Political observers will watch the trial closely -- Smith was charged in January 2008 as part of a corruption probe that last month netted the arrest of Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, a parishioner at his church. She was later suspended from office.
The trial will be attended both by Smith's entourage and a group of his detractors from Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, which has been roiled by allegations of financial mismanagement under Smith's tenure.
``He basically used the church as his cash cow, that's the bottom line,'' said Costello Guyton, a church trustee who resigned with three others in June after fellow board members voted to give Smith a controversial $50,000 gift for his legal defense bills.
Countered Senior Deacon Booker Smart: ``He's our leader. If we can help him against these false accusations, we will help him.''
A CITY INSTITUTION
Founded in 1929, the church, 740 NW 58th St., is a landmark in Liberty City. Smith was an associate minister before he took over the top job in 2002. He could not be reached for comment.
The church drew headlines after a 2004 visit from presidential candidate John Kerry, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, and the reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. The IRS investigated -- and cleared -- the church on allegations that it hosted improper political activity, potentially jeopardizing its tax-exempt status.
Smith's position at the church has not made him immune from money woes. His former employer, the Royal Palm Resort in Miami Beach, sued him in 2002 for ``contract indebtedness,'' a suit that was later settled, records show.
Broward court records show he was evicted from his apartment in 2002, and was sued by Capital One over credit card debt in 2007. He also owes child support in Houston and has an IRS lien against him, according to court testimony in a pretrial hearing Friday.
Authorities say his troubled financial history continued after he created a nonprofit group called Friends of MLK in 2004 to promote the revival of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Smith later told prosecutors he felt Spence-Jones pressured him into creating the organization and paying her an $8,000 ``consulting fee'' after she helped him secure a $25,000 grant from the county-created agency Metro Miami Action Plan Trust.
At the same time, according to prosecutors, Smith used a Friends of MLK debit card to withdraw thousands of dollars, none of which went to helping the community.
Smith's lawyers, Michael Tein and Larry Handfield, insist Smith used the MLK county money for legitimate expenses and always reimbursed the account for outside expenses.
``The pastor viewed the business of MLK as virtually the same business as the church,'' Tein told The Miami Herald last year. ``They will never be able to show that Pastor Smith stole from MLK or anybody else.''
Prosecutors declined comment on Friday.
The allegations of financial misconduct have roiled the church, which relies on parishioner donations to fund operations. The marquee at the church reads: ``Pastor Smith: We Love and Support You.'' But not all members feel that way.
Smith's detractors say he skirted church rules and ordered a cadre of supporters to routinely order up checks for large and questionable expenses without approval from the board or congregation, as required by church by-laws.
The most brazen expense, they say, came when Smith in 2007 had two deacons authorize the purchase of a Mercedes-Benz in the church's name.
Five ex-board members say they only found out about it when debt collectors began calling to say the auto payments were delinquent. The car was later repossessed.
They said they were shocked to find church checks written to a business called Your Anointed Florist. State records, they discovered later, list Smith as the business' sole officer -- and a vacant building owned by the church as its office.
``Gaston is a person who does not want to be held accountable,'' said ex-board Chairwoman Glenda Wingard-Percell, a retired Miami-Dade police officer. ``He is very good at divide and conquer.''
Handfield dismissed the complaints about the Mercedes and floral shop, saying they were legitimate expenses approved by trustees who controlled the church purse strings.
``You've got some disgruntled members who want control,'' Handfield said in an interview Wednesday.
Wingard-Percell and four other ex-board members approached Miami-Dade prosecutors recently seeking a criminal investigation, but they were told a crime couldn't be proved. Frustrated, they instead will sit in on the trial, looking for a window into their pastor's financial practices.
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