December 8, 2012

Lawsuit accuses pastor, wife of improprieties

While millions of dollars are unaccounted for, the couple live lavishly and the church falls into debt.

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES - As the pastor of the oldest black church in Los Angeles, the Rev. John J. Hunter earned a generous salary, lived in a $2 million home and drove a Mercedes-Benz paid for by the church. His wife earned $147,000 a year running nonprofit organizations connected to the 19,000-member congregation.

AME Church in crisis
click image to enlarge

The Rev. John J. Hunter leads his congregation in prayer at First AME Church of Los Angeles on Aug. 15. He is fighting to regain his position, despite a civil suit against him.

Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times/MCT

But over the last few years, the hilltop church in Los Angeles' West Adams district has fallen into debt.

The First African Methodist Episcopal Church owes nearly $500,000 to creditors. Some vendors say they have not been paid in more than a year.

The financial woes have sparked an ugly battle for control of the church and its nonprofit corporations.

A civil lawsuit filed by the church this week accuses the former pastor, his wife and a small "cabal" of church leaders of "holding dictatorial control over (the church) ... for their own personal gain -- both financially and for self-aggrandizement."

The bishop who oversees AME churches in the western United States abruptly transferred Hunter to a church in San Francisco in late October. But that church took the rare step of rejecting Hunter. On the day he was supposed to deliver his first sermon, church members physically blocked him from taking the pulpit.

Now Hunter is fighting to regain his position as pastor at First African Methodist Episcopal. He continues to live in the posh Encino home that the church pays for while the new pastor, the Rev. J. Edgar Boyd, lives in a hotel and is not receiving a salary. Hunter's wife, Denise, is also refusing to relinquish control of the church's nonprofit organizations, according to the lawsuit.

Hunter has had a rocky tenure at the church. Since taking over First AME in 2004, Hunter has been sued for sexual harassment, a civil claim that was settled for an undisclosed amount. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2008 that an internal audit found he charged $122,000 in jewelry, family vacations and clothing to the church's credit card. He later agreed to a nine-year repayment plan.

In interviews this week, Hunter defended his stewardship of the church and said he was "blindsided" by the lawsuit.

"My life, my ministry has been characterized by those attacking me," Hunter said. "To be then characterized as some looter and somebody who's been greedy ... nothing can be further from the truth."

Hunter denied that he took advantage of his position and said church officials approved his $239,000 annual salary and perks, which he said were not out of line for an experienced pastor in his position. He also said he's not to blame for the church's financial troubles.

"The church was struggling financially because we are in a recession," he said. "That is the challenge of those that engage in ministry."

But many at the church simply wanted him to go quietly, saying the congregation needed a fresh start.

"It just vexed my spirit that he preached this word from the pulpit and some of the things he preached contradicted his life," said Dwayne Foster, a longtime member. "The church is struggling, and he was asking people to give and tithe more while he was sitting in a parsonage in Encino and putting personal stuff on his corporate credit card."

Foster left the congregation for a year and a half in protest. He came back after the pastor was reassigned.

A 14-page civil lawsuit filed against the Hunters on Tuesday is filled with allegations of improprieties.

The lawsuit cited the sale of six parcels of church land worth $6.5 million, a transaction Hunter has publicly counted among his successes. The lawsuit alleges that "whereabouts of the sale proceeds remain a mystery."

(Continued on page 2)

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