Ex-board members allege pastor fleeced Staten Island flock out of $25,000

The Staten Island Advance, New York/September 9, 2013

By Frank Donnelly

Staten Island, New York -- The pastor of a West Brighton church has fleeced his flock out of thousands of dollars, former board members allege in a lawsuit.

The Rev. G. Laurenzo Stevens, who heads the New Life Church of Staten Island, signed and cashed more than $10,000 in checks made payable to himself without the church board's authorization, according to the suit, recently filed in state Supreme Court, St. George.

Rev. Stevens has also failed to account for a $25,000 grant the church received in 2008 from the Richmond County Savings Bank Foundation, the lawsuit contends.

The three ex-board members -- Leemue Bainda, Augustus Tucker and Rufus W. Kermee -- accuse Rev. Stevens of "blatantly looting the kitty and ignoring constitutional limits on his authority," according to an affidavit filed by their lawyer, Duane C. Felton. They further allege Rev. Stevens unilaterally dissolved the board.

"We're just seeking an accounting of the money," said Felton, who is West Brighton-based, in a telephone interview. "We never got an accounting of the money that was donated to the church by the members and the $25,000 donated by the Richmond County Savings Bank Foundation."

Rev. Stevens referred all inquiries to his lawyer, Catherine McGovern.

"We're still reviewing the allegations and have no response right now other than to deny the allegations," Ms. McGovern said in a telephone interview. "Everything will come out in court."

She added Rev. Stevens is considering filing a defamation claim against the former board members.

Court papers said the church was incorporated in 1997 and is a designated charitable organization. Located on Castleton Avenue, it presently has about 50 to 100 members, said Felton.

Church members are predominantly Liberian, and the three ex-board members were among the church's founders, according to Felton and Advance reports.

In addition to being pastor, Rev. Stevens is chairman of the church's board of directors.

According to court papers, Rev. Stevens directly received a $25,000 donation from the Richmond County Savings Bank Foundation five years ago. However, the plaintiffs claim there is no documentation that the cash was deposited into the church's bank accounts.

Rev. Stevens, they allege, has steadfastly refused to account for the money.

In an affidavit, Kermee alleges Rev. Stevens wrote himself "dozens" of checks for "questionable and unauthorized expenses" over the past five years. The board didn't authorize the payments, which amount to more than $10,000, court papers contend.

Felton said Rev. Stevens claimed the cash paid for supplies and auto repairs, but allegedly has not documented those expenses.

Matters came to a head earlier this year.

In June, about 25 church members signed a petition requesting a full accounting of all donations, court documents show. They also sought to convene a committee to revise the church's constitution.

Rev. Stevens responded by unilaterally dissolving the board and replacing them with hand-picked appointees, maintain court papers.

Felton said his clients, who remain church members, filed the lawsuit to "rein in" Rev. Stevens.

"They'd like to have a peaceful resolution so they can resume their peaceful worship," he said. "They want to move on and get the church back on solid financial footing."

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