Penn. Pastor Sentenced to Prison

Associated Press/June 6, 2002

Pittsburgh -- A former pastor was sentenced Wednesday to four to eight years in prison for bilking congregants out of hundreds of thousands of dollars through an investment scheme he masterminded at the church.

"You should be ashamed," Judge Raymond Novak told W. Michael Altman.

Altman, 48, had entered a no contest plea in April to more than 100 criminal charges, including 45 counts of theft by deception.

Prosecutors said Altman, the former pastor of Grace Christian Ministries in suburban Pittsburgh, got church members and their families to put money in a bogus investment. The money was used to pay for Altman's credit cards and vacations, said Assistant District Attorney Russ Bowman.

His attorney, Sumner Parker, said board members share blame because they allowed Altman to write checks without a second signature. Parker also noted that during Altman's tenure, a new building was constructed on church-owned land.

"If you want to find the money, look at the building that did not exist," Parker said.

Witnesses said they were promised semiannual interest of 16 percent. Bowman said investors, who put in between $500 to $50,000, lost more than $350,000.

As part of the deal, Grace Christian Ministries' 11,000-square-foot church, another building and five acres of land in West Mifflin will be sold to repay victims. The value of the properties has been estimated about $950,000.

Grace Christian will retain its smaller, original church in nearby Homestead.

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