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BGCT reports $1.3M fraud, mismanagement in church funds

DALLAS (BP)–Phantom churches and ignored accountability standards cost Texas Baptists more than $1.3 million between 1999 and 2005, according to a report presented to the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ executive board Oct. 31 in Dallas.

Allegations of fraud and mismanagement in the BGCT-related church-starting operations in the Rio Grande River Valley attracted attention from the FBI as early as late 2000, according to the report.

In listing various other oversight miscues in the case, the report states that “the allegations by federal authorities of fraud did not generate an internal [BGCT] investigation of these issues.”

According to the report, investigators sought FBI files relating to the case through a Freedom of Information Act request, but the request yielded no documents.

Of 357 churches started in the Rio Grande River Valley from 1999-2005, 258 were started by pastors Otto Arango of McAllen, Texas; Aaron de la Torre of Hidalgo; and Armando Vera of Pharr. Five of those 258 churches which were reported to the BGCT are still in existence today, according to the report.

“If you’ve ever tried to start even one church, you know how hard it is,” BGCT-commissioned investigator Michael Rodriguez of Brownsville, a former federal prosecutor, said. “So 258 churches started in six years is a staggering number to be started by three people.”

According to the report, de la Torre said he and Arango would submit fraudulent paperwork to the BGCT with names of new churches under the sponsorship of his church and receive a one-time startup gift from the state convention. Then, de la Torre would write a check to Arango’s Institute for Church Starting for the amount of the gift. Arango would then write a check to de la Torre for one-half the amount of the gift.

“De la Torre would cash the check,” Rodriguez told the BGCT executive board. “Then he would walk out with the cash.”

When Rodriguez and lead investigator Diane Dillard, a Brownsville attorney, questioned de la Torre earlier this year, he immediately confessed to his part in the scheme, but Arango was less forthcoming, Rodriguez recounted.

“Pastor de la Torre immediately said, ‘This was a mistake,’ and admitted that some of the churches they reported to the BGCT existed only on paper,” Rodriguez said. “Dr. Arango at first said that there was not a 50/50 split, then he admitted that he would deposit the checks, but denied that it was 50 percent. Finally, he admitted that he couldn’t refute the 50 percent figure.”

For his part, Arango said he was not “escaping the decision to take the money for printing new [training] materials to advance the ministry,” Rodriguez said, with Dillard pointing out that the money ended up in the bank account of Arango’s institute rather than with the churches the funds were intended to help.

“Our investigation had no subpoena authority, so we had to rely upon voluntary cooperation and couldn’t verify what we were told,” Rodriguez said. “The BGCT has spent more than $170,000 reprinting Dr. Arango’s materials, however.”

Vera, meanwhile, admitted to having commingled convention church-starting funds with other missions money, according to the report, but said he had no part in the 50/50 split between de la Torre and Arango.

“It appears that Pastor Vera and his wife misunderstood the guidelines for using convention church starting funds,” Rodriguez said. “But none of the churches which Vera started ever received the money. They were given ministry packets which included Bible study materials and coffee pots and other items.”

Later, former BGCT church consultant David Guel told investigators that BGCT Church Starting Center director E.B. Brooks had relaxed the regulations on church-starting funding for the three pastors in the Rio Grande Valley, Rodriguez said. Guel retired from the convention after the preliminary report on church-staring in the valley was reviewed earlier this fall by executive board leaders; Brooks retired in 2005. Abe Zabaneh, BGCT church-planting director from 2002-05, resigned this fall as well.

“Much of this investigation turned on how one defines what a church is,” Rodriguez told the executive board. “The BGCT only funds new entities that intend to become autonomous local churches -– not cell groups or home Bible studies or satellite campuses of established churches.”

Reports of fraud that were coming in from the valley prompted a search for the pastors of the new churches, according to the report. Of 42 valley pastors chosen to be interviewed, investigators found only 13 and eight of them denied being pastors at all. A total of five of the churches were deemed to be legitimate autonomous Baptist churches according to convention guidelines. The rest, if they existed at all, were home Bible studies or other ancillary functions of autonomous churches, such as children’s programs in homes. All of the legitimate churches came into existence under Vera’s leadership.

The missing money also has prompted calls from some quarters for the ouster of BGCT Executive Director Charles Wade, but members of the convention’s executive board said that would not happen.

“I believe that, as the executive board just agreed, Dr. Wade should remain as CEO at this juncture,” BGCT President Michael Bell said. “This is not the train that Dr. Wade should be carried out on.”

Bell went on to say he is certain the board will look into the matter further especially in light of Wade’s annual evaluation scheduled for the next board meeting in February. But Bell said he does not believe that the situation by itself is sufficient for Wade to be removed as executive director.

Executive board chairman Bob Fowler also expressed support for Wade.

“His leadership in this issue has been brought into question by the results of this investigation,” Fowler said. “He has been wounded by what has happened.”

For his part, Wade apologized personally and on behalf of the BGCT staff.

“I and my staff did not handle the church starting questions in the valley in a careful and thorough manner,” Wade said in a statement. “I regret that, and I apologize to every person in the valley whose cautions and questions and frustrations were neither fully heeded nor resolved. I also apologize to all Texas Baptists for the poor stewardship of their church starting gifts.”
With reporting by Matt Sanders.

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  • Samuel Smith