Mar 29, 2016

Bucket collectors linked to church with history of fraud, abuse

Rudy Miller 
March 29, 2016

They show up periodically along Easton-area streets with buckets in hand, claiming they need money to help homeless children.

But they'll never tell you who they are or offer specifics about where their money goes.

Only after three of them were arrested March 2 were they forced to identify themselves.

Their addresses link them to a Tampa, Florida, church with a long history of exploiting the homeless, the addicted and those with nowhere else to go.

The three cash collectors arrested in Easton carried buckets on behalf of the New Life Church. But all three live in Tampa, Florida, properties owned by the Deeper Life Christian Church of Tampa.

"I have received very serious complaints about Deeper Life," said Rick Ross, director of the Trenton-based Cult Education Institute. "The people collecting money are often mistreated, abused and exploited."

The church was found guilty of fraud in 1999 when it trafficked food stamps collected from members. A 2003 report in the Tampa Tribune describes a scheme where the church recruits the homeless and the desperate, gives them a place to live and a religious calling and sends them out across the country to raise money for the church and its founders, Melvin and Brenda Jefferson.

There are 70 Deeper Life churches across the United States and abroad, according to the church website. The church founder calls himself Bishop Melvin Jefferson, although he admitted in published reports he has no formal religious training.

Officials say there's not much they can do about people waving plastic buckets at passing motorists during rush hour in Downtown Easton.

Ross's website lists media accounts from Staten Island, New York; Columbus, Ohio; Gainesville, Florida; Germantown, Maryland; Roanoke, Virginia; and San Antonio and Wichita Falls, Texas. All of them describe out-of-towners with buckets collecting cash.

"There is no meaningful accountability concerning where the money goes, other than it appears that the Jeffersons benefit greatly from the cash flow," Ross said.

The church did not respond to multiple calls seeking comment. Dennis G. Brewer Sr. is listed as the church attorney in media reports, but a clerk at his former Texas-based law firm said he's retired and she didn't know of any attorney representing the church.

The news accounts are all from a decade ago and Ross admits he hasn't had any recent complaints about Deeper Life, possibly because they switched names from the New Life Church.

But Sara Romeo said the church is still active in the Tampa area. She runs Tampa Crossroads, which provides housing and counseling for those in need -- exactly the same kind of people exploited by Deeper Life.

She said the Jeffersons live in a mansion in the posh suburb of Brandon and fly 10 miles via helicopter to periodically tend to the flock at the inner-city church on Nebraska Avenue.

County property records list dozens of shabby properties where fund collectors live before they're sent out by the church.

"We refer to them as 'The Church of Deeper Pockets,'" Romeo said. "They're just crooks. To me, they're enslaving people."

She said she has counseled many with ties to the church during her 40-year career. One disabled man she helped six years ago was coerced into turning over his Social Security check every month to the church. He wanted to leave but was afraid.

"He was living in a three-bedroom home with nine men. There was no kitchen, but there was a hot plate," she said. Romeo sent people from her organization with him to collect his belongings and help embolden him to leave.

But the man ended up moving himself back in later that day because he was afraid of what Jefferson might do to his brother, who was also in the church, she said.

The church strongly encourages members to marry each other. Jefferson has denied arranging marriages between church members, but arranged marriages are commonplace, according to Romeo.

"On the weekend, they pair people up. They find your mate for you," she said.

Romeo said she knows of church members who agreed to marry each other after relatively short courtships. She said they're usually consummated in a trailer from which church members sell ice cream.

"When you get married you get to spend the night in the ice cream wagon," Romeo said.

Members of New Life Church walked in and out of traffic and stopped cars on Easton roads to ask for cash, police said.

Shawn Livingston is one of the three church members arrested in Easton. Pennsylvania law allows her to collect donations from motorists, but she and two men with her broke the law when they left the sidewalk and wandered into traffic to collect.

Livingston called Romeo a liar.

"I'm denying every accusation Sara Romeo made," Livingston said when reached by phone Monday.

She said the church helps people by taking them in, but she refused to elaborate on Romeo's accusations.

"Your best bet is to continue to call the church," she said. "Those accusations are not true."

Livingston and the two other church members pleaded guilty in Easton to violating the Pennsylvania vehicle code. Each paid a $5 fine plus $103.50 in court costs on March 18. They don't have to register anywhere to collect funds because religious organizations are exempt under Pennsylvania law.

Pennsylvania state Sen. Lisa Boscola said she's reluctant to impose more regulations on donations collections because the law might hamper legitimate religious organizations and nonprofit groups.

Secrecy is paramount in the church. Romeo canvasses the Tampa area each January for a point-in-time homeless count. The more homeless people she counts, the more federal aid the area is in line to receive.

All agencies in the area cooperate with her except Deeper Life, she said. In January 2015, she said her staff was threatened by church staffers when they asked questions of homeless people linked to Deeper Life.

"They would not allow us to talk to anyone," she said. "They told their people to stay inside and not talk to us."

Romeo said she tried to buy blighted homes from the church three years ago but the church refused to pick up the phone, let alone negotiate. Court records show at least two citations over the last six years for failing to pick up accumulated debris on church properties.

The church has been running for 30 years and shows no signs of slowing down. A clerk with the Tampa Police Department said there are no cases pending against the church, so the department had no comment on it.

The church is in the district of Tampa Councilman Mike Suarez. According to his legislative aide, "We are not familiar with the church and had not heard of it until we received this e-mail" from "Wish we could provide more information."

The Tampa mayor's office didn't respond to a request for comment. Nor did members of Hillsborough County Council to questions about church properties in that county.

As operator of a nonprofit agency that relies on public aid, Romeo said she has to open her books to the public. Jefferson doesn't. Romeo's properties are inspected about five to six times a year, she said; Jefferson's aren't.

"I don't understand," Romeo said. "I could become a church, I guess, and then I wouldn't be scrutinized."

No comments: