DALLAS (BP)–The church-starting fund scandal that cost the Baptist General Convention of Texas $1.3 million over six years was anything but a new story to Emilio Azael de la Garza.
De la Garza, a member of Southmost Baptist Church in Brownsville, discovered the scam in November 2001. According to a BGCT-commissioned report released Oct. 31, de la Garza recognized plans to call cell groups “churches” and collect support money from the BGCT as fraudulent.
“Mr. de la Garza confronted the sponsoring pastor of his ‘churches,’ Aaron de la Torre, and said he [de la Garza] was returning the money,” investigator Michael Rodriguez said in presenting the report’s findings to the BGCT executive board Oct. 31.
In an interview with investigators earlier this year, de la Garza said when he found out about the scheme and confronted de la Torre with his allegations he was presented with copies of monthly reports.
“Monthly funding requires monthly reports,” lead investigator Diane Dillard explained. “But these reports were fabricated. There was no offering, there were no baptisms and, in some cases, no attendance at all.”
The report also says Emilio Azael de la Garza’s pastor, Cuauhtemoc de la Garza, met with then-BGCT church consultant David Guel a week later, and Guel tried to talk the pastor into converting the cell groups that de la Torre had misrepresented as churches into autonomous churches. Cuauhtemoc de la Garza refused, and his church returned $3,900 of BGCT funds that had not been spent.
According to the report, neither the returning of the funds nor the fact than an active FBI investigation was underway prompted an inquiry into how the church-starting program was being run in the Rio Grande River Valley. To remedy the situation, BGCT Executive Director Charles Wade has called for the creation of the position of independent auditor.
At the time, according to report, Cuauhtemoc de la Garza returned the money to the BGCT, de la Torre was involved in a scheme with McAllen pastor and church-starting expert Otto Arango to divert BGCT money intended for church starts to Arango’s Institute for Church Starting and into cash in de la Torre’s pocket.
In an interview with investigators, Guel said he had been instructed by BGCT Church Starting Center director E.B. Brooks to relax the normal regulations surrounding the disbursement of church-starting funds for four pastors in the Rio Grande Valley: de la Torre, Arango, Armando Vera and Eliud Guzman.
Under normal circumstances, all requests for church-starting funds would have required that the church consultant, the sponsoring pastor, the pastor of the new church and the director of missions for the local Baptist association to meet and submit the request for funds to the state missions committee once the association approved the request.
In the cases in question, the local association’s oversight function was largely bypassed, according to the report. The lack of oversight resulted in sponsoring churches being able to submit as many as 15 new “churches” on one day for state missions funding in a city with a population of less than 10,000, Hidalgo, Texas.
When people within the Rio Grande River Valley Baptist Association complained to BGCT headquarters about what was going on, their concerns went unheeded, the report stated.
“Employees knew of complaints but didn’t investigate the claims,” Rodriguez said. “Their response and follow-up was inadequate.”
When interviewed about the failure to oversee the program more closely, former Church Starting Center director Abe Zabaneh said he authorized the bypass because he felt the association’s concerns were unfounded.
“This was usually treated as an issue of jealousy among pastors in the Valley,” Dillard said. “There was a critical breakdown in communication between people who had concerns and people who were responsible for overseeing the program.”
The report states that Zabaneh also only reluctantly and at the last minute provided documents related to the scandal to the internal investigation. Zabaneh resigned earlier this year. Guel and Brooks retired from the BGCT in 2005.
Allegations of financial malfeasance first surfaced in relation to Arango’s rather plush lifestyle.
“He lives in an exclusive neighborhood in McAllen, drives a Jaguar and his wife used to drive a Range Rover,” Rodriguez said. “That kind of spending made some people think he may have been engaged in questionable activities.”
Rodriguez said Arango claimed legitimate income of more than $14,000 per month, which would have more than paid for his lifestyle, but the investigators lacked the ability to verify his claims because they did not have subpoena power.
The rift between the pastors who had been granted special privileges from BGCT employees and the rest of the Rio Grande Valley Baptist Association became so large that the pastors moved to create their own association, the Borderlands Association, in 2003.
To date, no civil or criminal action has been taken against any of the pastors involved in the scheme, but BGCT officials did not rule out the possibility that such action could be taken in the future.