Pastors sue AME Church over missing retirement funds

Bishop Anne Byfield, front right, President of the Council of Bishops, speaks during the opening worship service at the African Methodist Episcopal Church conference, July 6, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. Retired pastors have filed at least two federal lawsuits in recent weeks against the African Methodist Episcopal Church and several subsidiaries and financial firms the church used, claiming tens of millions of dollars from a pension fund were mismanaged and missing.(AP Photo/John Raoux, file)
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Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Pastors have filed at least three federal lawsuits in recent weeks against the African Methodist Episcopal Church along with several subsidiaries and financial firms the church used, alleging tens of millions of dollars from a pension fund were mismanaged and missing.

The retired and current pastors in Florida, Maryland and Virginia filed the lawsuits against the oldest historically Black denomination in the U.S. late last month. They are seeking class-action status on behalf of thousands of other AME pastors and church officials throughout the country who lost money through the pension fund.

The pastors, who were required to participate in the retirement plan, said they have been unable to get access to their money.

The lawsuit filed by the Florida pastor, the Rev. Charles Jackson in Orlando, alleges the church and its related financial institutions were negligent and breached their fiduciary responsibilities. Jackson is seeking a jury trial and punitive damages in the complaint filed in federal court in Tennessee.

“Many Class member — including Plaintiff Reverend Jackson — are retired and have suddenly learned that resources they relied on to support themselves, to depend on in times of bad health, and to simply enjoy during retirement, have been stolen from them by people they trusted,” the lawsuit said.

In their lawsuit filed in Virginia, the Revs. Derrell Wade and Reuben Boyd allege that between $80 million and $90 million was unaccounted for by either 2020 or 2021.

In his lawsuit, the Rev. Cedric Alexander of Bowie Maryland, said the then-chair of the church’s retirement fund invested money in undeveloped land in Florida and a now-defunct capital venture outfit, and gave a promissory note to an installer of solar panels. The lawsuit alleges violations of a federal law protecting employee retirement funds.

The church’s retirement fund chair “invested Plan assets in imprudent, extraordinarily risky investments that ultimately lost nearly $100 million of Plan participants’ retirement savings,” the Maryland lawsuit said.

In a statement Tuesday, the church said it was limited in what it could say because of the litigation but noted that it had resumed some distributions to fund participants starting last month.

“We appreciate our community’s concern and remain grateful for the patience of our clergy, staff and members as we continue to investigate this matter,” the statement said.

In a message posted to its website late last month, the church acknowledged that retirement fund participants “may have been the victim of a financial crime.”

After a new administrator of the church’s Department of Retirement Services took over last year, financial “irregularities” were uncovered in some retirement fund investments. The church has hired an outside legal firm and forensics experts to conduct an investigation, the statement said.

“The AME Church takes financial irregularities and disclosures seriously, and we are committed to the restoration of any impacted retirement funds,” the statement said. “We are also committed to making every fund participant whole by restoring their full investment plus interest.”

Attorney Greg Francis, who is representing Jackson, the Florida pastor, said he hoped the lawsuits will eventually be consolidated.

Jackson, 72, told The Associated Press in a phone interview that he feels betrayed.

“When you take advantage of my money, you lose my trust,” Jackson said. “You lose the trust of your employees.”