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Pastor's apology from the pulpit

First AME's John J. Hunter says he regrets embarrassment caused by the publicity over alleged misspending.

December 01, 2008|Teresa Watanabe | Watanabe is a Times staff writer.

The pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles apologized to his congregants Sunday for any embarrassment caused by disclosures that he had used church credit cards for sizable personal expenses and had failed to pay federal taxes for several years.

Pastor John J. Hunter, 51, used church credit cards to pay for at least $122,000 in personal expenses, including family vacations, clothes, jewelry, bikes and auto supplies, The Times reported Sunday. He and church finance officials said he had signed an agreement to repay the money and instituted stricter accounting policies, such as spending guidelines and more frequent audits, to guard against future problems.

Hunter also told The Times that he is working with federal tax officials to repay back taxes, penalties and interest amassed over 17 years, which have resulted in federal tax liens of more than $309,000 against himself and his wife, Denise Brown Hunter. He explained that he had legally opted out of the Social Security system several years ago, as ministers are allowed to do, but that the IRS had no record of it and assessed the taxes.

On Sunday, before more than 6,000 congregants at three services, Hunter acknowledged that he had made mistakes and that it was "disconcerting and embarrassing" to see private church matters aired publicly. But he assured his flock that he had done nothing criminal and was working to resolve the problems, and that the church remained financially strong.

"I stand not as a perfect servant but one who tries to be a faithful servant," Hunter said, drawing scattered applause and murmurs of approval from congregants at the 10 a.m. service. "Our church is in sound financial condition. We are solid, perhaps more so than we have ever been. Our future is bright."

Hunter took the helm of First AME, one of the oldest, largest and most prominent African American churches in L.A., in 2004 after the retirement of the Rev. Cecil L. "Chip" Murray. The church drew national, and even international, attention for its passionate social gospel that advocated political activism, social justice and assistance to the needy through church development of affordable housing, job training and other services.

Hunter's remarks drew mixed reactions.

"Am I disappointed that he used church credit cards for some personal expenses? The answer is obviously yes," said Kerman Maddox, a longtime church member and Los Angeles public relations executive. "Am I happy he took responsibility for it? Absolutely."

Maddox said the majority of church members supported Hunter and credited him with helping increase membership, among other things. On Sunday, more than 20 new members stepped to the front of the sanctuary and received blessings and welcome from Hunter and the congregation.

Dewey Rhodes, 54, an L.A. business consultant, said he trusted Hunter to do the right thing in resolving the issues. Rhodes said he had heard "buzz" about alleged financial improprieties since Hunter was appointed but had always dismissed them as groundless and did so again Sunday.

"He's an honest, straight-up person and wouldn't abuse anything," Rhodes said.

He added that Hunter was always at the church, preaching at three services each Sunday and looking in on choir practice, various church meetings and other activities. "He's the best."

Other congregants said they questioned how the credit card spending, which occurred between January 2005 and January 2008, could have slipped by church finance officials for so long. It finally surfaced this year during an independent audit and an investigation into Hunter's financial affairs by the Internal Revenue Service. IRS officials have declined to comment on the investigation.

"If there was any misuse of funds, I would be concerned," said Don Lee, a 60-year-old transit worker. "But I trust that our finance officials will take care of it."

Hunter's remarks did not satisfy everyone, however. One longtime member, who asked for anonymity to avoid retribution, said she had hoped that Hunter would have clearly apologized for his inappropriate credit card use rather than for the embarrassment caused the church. But Hunter more explicitly apologized for his "indiscretions and mistakes" at the noon service, said Irma Brown Dillon, a church finance official.

Another member, who asked to remain anonymous, said she was distressed by accounts of Hunter's spending when many of his congregants were poor.

"You are eating, wearing and driving our money," she said. "I am very hurt."

She said she would do her best to move forward.

"We could not be Christians without embracing forgiveness," she said. "But truth has to be part of forgiveness."

--

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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