Prosecutors: Man of God was man of greed

Phillips accused of forgery in alleged insurance scam

Rocky Mountain News, Denver/August 8, 2007
By Betsy Lehndorff

The Rev. Acen Phillips has taken to the pulpit for decades, preaching the importance of helping those who cannot help themselves.

But Tuesday, prosecutors painted a different picture of the charismatic leader, alleging that he betrayed friends to line his pockets with more than $575,000 in life-insurance proceeds.

State Attorney General John Suthers announced that his office has filed 12 felony charges of forgery and theft against the 72-year-old Aurora preacher in the wake of a four-month investigation.

Suthers accused Phillips of forging beneficiary documents to collect life-insurance payments from AIG Life Insurance Co. The complaint says Phillips claimed the dead were members of his churches.

Some of the money went to the families, but more went to Phillips, his nonprofit organization, American Church United, and New Birth Temple of Praise Community Baptist Church, prosecutors say.

"The members were dreamed up after they died," Suthers said at a news conference.

Contacted by phone at his attorney's office, Phillips said he was trying to decide what to say and when.

"We have to do it in a way that is most beneficial," he said.

Later in the day, his attorney, Gary Lozow, issued a statement in which Phillips criticized Suthers for releasing the charges to the media. Phillips stated: "At this time, I must remain silent in regards to responding to these charges. I would also ask that the community of faith keep me and my family lifted in prayer, as I look forward to my fair day in court."

That process will begin Sept. 19 in Arapahoe County District Court, when Phillips will appear for the first time to face charges.

The affidavit alleges a recurring pattern: Phillips went to trusted friends and associates after a death in their family and persuaded them to fill out claim forms for life-insurance policies.

Prosecutors say he promised the families they would receive 80 percent of the proceeds, but often neglected to tell them the full amount to which they would be entitled.

In the five cases alleged in Tuesday's charges, prosecutors say, Phillips altered the paperwork to change the percentages families would receive, giving as much 80 percent to him or his church associations.

Several family members told investigators he forged signatures.

According to the affidavit, Phillips and another church pastor attempted to get a group term life insurance policy for employees several times, beginning in the fall of 2004.

In February 2005, Phillips' organization, American Church United, obtained an AIG policy that covered 608 church members and submitted the first monthly premium payment of $18,000. But before the check could be cashed, Phillips stopped payment and eventually purchased a policy for 257 members for $10,000 a month. He also submitted a list of all the members' names.

The policy went into effect April 1, 2005.

The claim that launched the state investigation was for Shely Lowe, once a "person of interest" in the case of missing 7-year-old Aarone Thompson.

Lowe, who died in May 2006 of a heart condition, was the live-in girlfriend of Aarone's father, Aaron Thompson, when the child was reported missing.

Thompson has since been charged in connection with the little girl's disappearance. Police believe she was killed as many as 18 months before the couple reported her missing.

Phillips surfaced as a key supporter and spokesman for the couple, often criticizing police for calling off their search for Aarone. Thompson later became a member of Phillips' church, where he served as a deacon until his arrest in May.

A month after Lowe's death, Phillips filed a claim seeking 80 percent of her life insurance for himself.

That claim has not been paid.

Phillips has long been a leader in the black church community, but several cases alleged Tuesday involve fellow Baptist ministers, including the Rev. Willie Simmons.

Simmons' mother, Sallie Simmons, of Louisiana, had a life-insurance policy. The 70-year-old woman died in 2005.

Willie Simmons told investigators that his understanding was that he was to receive 80 percent of the payout on her policy, but the insurance papers said he was to receive only 40 percent.

Simmons declined to comment Tuesday.

Parishioners and fellow preachers have come to Phillips' defense in the past, including when allegations of insurance fraud first came to light.

They characterize him as a caring and compassionate minister who doesn't shy away from controversy if he believes what he is doing is right.

The charges

Twelve counts filed by the attorney general against the Rev. Acen Phillips:

  • Six counts of Class 3 felony theft
  • One count of Class 4 felony theft
  • Five counts of Class 5 felony forgery

The reverend's response to the allegations

"I have reviewed the charges leveled against me by AIG Insurance, a multibillion-dollar insurance conglomerate and its agents. At this time, I must remain silent in regards to responding to these charges. I am disappointed that Mr. Suthers has decided to start this journey by sending out press releases and untested investigative affidavits. My attorney, Gary Lozow, and I received notice of these charges from the media. To the attorney general and the media, I would ask that you remember your power to taint any jury pool. I would also ask that the community of faith keep me and my family lifted in prayer, as I look forward to my fair day in court."

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