AP IMPACT: Tragedy meant big money for NY minister

Associated Press Modified: September 22, 2012 at 11:32 am •  Published: September 22, 2012
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"I couldn't find a Catholic anywhere. The churches were closed. So the doors miraculously opened after we prayed and hit it with a hammer," Keyes said.

Yet St. Peter's Church, one of the two Keyes claimed to have taken over, was open that day, made famous as the place where firefighters carried the body of the Rev. Mychal Judge, a Fire Department Catholic chaplain killed in the lobby of the north tower.

"I don't think it's true, this whole story," said the church's senior priest, the Rev. Kevin Madigan.

There was no break-in at the port, either, said retired New York police Capt. Edward Reuss, who helped oversee staging of relief services there.

Keyes also said he set up a respite center in "The Green Tarp," a canteen that fed thousands of ground zero workers. But the Green Tarp was set up and run by celebrity chef David Bouley.

Questioned about those claims, Keyes told the AP he had only used the soup kitchen as a staging area for deliveries months after Bouley left. He acknowledged that he hadn't been involved in any break-in at the port, but said he once suggested the idea in a telephone conversation.

As for breaking into Catholic churches, Keyes said he stands by his story. But he added that the chaos of 9/11 makes it "impossible for any individual to accurately remember what happened at what time on what day and by whom."

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ACCOUNTANTS COMPLAIN

Some of the most serious complaints about Keyes' financial practices come from his former accountants.

One, Bruce Kowal, filed complaints in 2008 with New York state officials accusing Keyes of misusing Urban Life Ministries money meant to help Hurricane Katrina victims.

"Not only was this (nonprofit) plundered to fund the operating deficits of the church, the amounts were spent on personal items of the pastor's family, and thus were items of taxable income," Kowal wrote.

He attached bank records to the complaint that he said showed Urban Life Ministries paid some of Keyes' personal expenses, including his American Express bills, a monthly lease on a car his sons used while attending a private college in Florida, and payments toward the personal loan Keyes owed on the Pennsylvania property.

Kowal's complaint, obtained by the AP, said Glad Tidings church money was used to pay more than $73,000 in Keyes' credit card bills, without the minister ever providing proof that they were legitimate church expenses.

"I had repeatedly admonished the pastors that these actions were possibly illegal," Kowal wrote.

The New York attorney general's office declined to comment on what happened to Kowal's complaint.

Keyes referred questions to his lawyer, Polovetsky, who said all of the charity's expenditures were legitimate. She said a newly hired accountant had reviewed the transactions and that "any required taxes were paid."

After the AP began investigating, Keyes filed eight years of tax forms for Urban Life Ministries and three years for Aid for the World, but the records raise more questions.

Urban Life Ministries has taken credit for working on hundreds of storm-damaged homes on Mississippi's Gulf Coast and setting up a massive relief depot. Yet the organization's tax filings claim it received only $266,000 in donations from 2005 to 2008.

"That doesn't sound right to me at all. Not even close," said Keyes' brother-in-law, Mark Jones, who managed most of the charity's work in Biloxi. He said he has given Keyes financial records showing that the group spent at least $800,000.

Polovetsky said Urban Life Ministry's tax filings don't show financial activity from the Gulf Coast relief work because the money went through a separate corporate entity called ULM Relief. Jones disputed that the corporation had handled the donations.

Urban Life Ministries' newly filed IRS forms also contain no trace of a $135,000 donation made by real estate agent Karen Dome, who told the AP she gave the money to the charity after getting a $1.39 million commission for helping Glad Tidings sell its midtown Manhattan church on Dec. 31, 2007. Dome said she regularly gave 10 percent of her commissions to charity.

On Feb. 19, 2008, David Cushworth, then Urban Life Ministries' accountant, emailed Keyes a resignation letter in which he accused the minister of using that donation to pay off a second mortgage on a house he owned in Manasquan, N.J., a Jersey Shore community.

"If the New York attorney general were to ever find out, then goodness knows the kind of trouble you and the church could be in, never mind the IRS or the feds," he wrote.

The AP confirmed through public property records that the mortgage, which had a balance of $131,973, was discharged in early January 2008, but could not independently obtain records verifying Cushworth's claim that Urban Life Ministries money was used to make that payment.

Polovetsky refused to answer questions about whether the charity had paid off Keyes' mortgage, other than to say that all transactions were approved by its executive board. She added that Cushworth "was subsequently fired for incompetence and should not be deemed credible."

When Glad Tidings Tabernacle sold its crumbling Manhattan home in 2007 for $31 million, the church gave Keyes $200,000 in back pay and distributed $670,000 in "tithes," according to a financial statement recently provided to the attorney general's office by the church. It didn't disclose the recipients, but other records obtained by the AP show that Abraham Fenton, a pastor who served on the Urban Life Ministries board, received $100,000.Don Barnett, another longtime Keyes friend who has served on boards of Keyes' two charities, had $35,965 paid to seven personal credit card accounts. "Thank you for lifting me up out of this pit," Barnett wrote in a note of gratitude.

Fenton said he later returned the money. Barnett did not return phone and email messages.

Property records show that the church also lent Donna Keyes, the minister's wife and co-pastor, $950,000 to buy an 18th century stone-and-clapboard house on seven wooded acres in Stockton, N.J.

Seven months later, that loan was declared "paid or otherwise satisfied." It isn't clear from public documents whether the Keyes family paid off the loan, or if the church forgave the debt. Polovetsky declined to say, but said the transaction had been approved by the church board.

One longtime Glad Tidings board member, Louis Delgado, confirmed that the board had wanted the Keyes family to enjoy a nice house but said he understood the church would own the property, and that it also would be available to future pastors.

The church gave another $1 million in proceeds from the sale to Keys' charity, Aid for the World, which used a large portion of the gift to cover expenses related to a failed fundraiser featuring former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Today, the church holds services in a former nightclub in Harlem, after wasting $8.7 million on a failed attempt to create a new chapel inside a town house in Manhattan's chic Tribeca neighborhood.

The church began 2008 with $13.8 million in savings, according to a financial document obtained by the AP. Three years later it told a court it had only $180,484 left in cash.

The church agreed last month to cooperate in an ongoing state investigation triggered by the AP's reporting. In exchange, the attorney general's office agreed not to block release of $4.5 million in proceeds remaining from the sale of the Tribeca space.

On his website, Keyes said he is working on a new charitable project. He wants to lift people out of poverty by writing a screenplay and having big Hollywood stars shoot the movie on location in a struggling small city or town. A site has yet to be selected.

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Associated Press researcher Judith Ausuebel in New York contributed to this report.

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The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate(at)ap.org.



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