Tulsa minister charged in $930,000 scheme might have embezzled more

The U.S. attorney calls the fraud case one of the biggest in recent years

Tulsa World/August 22, 2014

By Corey Jones

A Tulsa minister’s alleged siphoning of nearly $1 million from a nonprofit organization he founded is among the largest embezzlements of its kind that area federal prosecutors have seen in the past few years, U.S. Attorney Danny Williams said.

And the total sum the minister is charged with embezzling — $933,507 — might have been more if not for the statute of limitations, Williams said.

Willard Lenord Jones, pastor of Greater Cornerstone Baptist Church and former executive director of the Greater Cornerstone Community Center, was charged last week with three counts of wire fraud and a single count of filing a false tax return.

Williams, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma, said prosecutors and defense attorneys are negotiating a plea arrangement. Jones is scheduled to be arraigned during his initial court appearance Friday.

“We anticipate he will enter a guilty plea,” Williams said, noting that a plea won’t necessarily be entered Friday.

Williams said a five-month federal investigation into Jones and his organization began in February. The information filed last week laid out a scheme that appeared to be rather straightforward.

Prosecutors allege that it involved Jones diverting money intended for the construction and operation of the community center into church bank accounts. From there, Jones would “fraudulently disburse” community center funds, put them into his own personal accounts or make cash withdrawals, all for personal uses, they allege.

The court filing indicates that the funds were taken between September 2007 and June 2013, which is when Jones stepped down as executive director of the community center. He raised $7.2 million for the nearly 21,000-square-foot community center at 5610 S. 41st West Ave, which opened in September 2012.

A Tulsa World article from January 2012 states that the community center began as an $800,000 conception seven years before, in 2005, and grew into a $1.5 million and then $2.5 million dream. The amount later shot up to $6.9 million before a final tally of $7.2 million was raised by Jones.

During a news conference announcing the charges against Jones, Williams said the community center’s board launched an internal audit after a request for more funds was made upon completion of the facility. That audit, which went back only two years, determined that more than $500,000 was missing, which Williams said attracted the attention of federal authorities, who began looking for evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Williams said he was unsure why Jones was allowed access to or control of all the bank accounts, but he said Jones carried with him a certain level of credibility, as evidenced by his raising several million dollars from private donors, foundations and other individuals.

“That’s probably why he was allowed to have unfettered access to the accounts he had,” Williams said.

As far as nonprofit groups go, Williams said, checks and balances are a key to preventing embezzlement. Strong board oversight also is crucial when dealing with employees and bank accounts, he said.

“The board should be engaged in terms of how money is being spent and put good practices into place,” he added.

Williams thought it was important to note that residents of the Northern District of Oklahoma, in particular the Tulsa area, are “very philanthropic.” Many communities have a history of giving, he said.

“This case should not dissuade any of those foundations from continuing to give,” Williams said. “That center was built to help elderly, children and those in need and shouldn’t be punished for the reverend’s acts.”

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