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California launches probe into alleged scam targeting churches

Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown says dozens of African American churches were defrauded of thousands of dollars over lease agreements for computerized advertising kiosks that were supposed to be free.

November 21, 2009|By Ann M. Simmons
  • The Rev. Clyde W. Oden Jr., senior pastor of L.A.'s Bryant Temple AME Church, shows the kiosk he says has cost his church thousands of dollars. "We did see content. It's just that the content never changed," he says. "Ultimately, the charade began to become clear."
The Rev. Clyde W. Oden Jr., senior pastor of L.A.'s Bryant Temple AME… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

State Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown said Friday that he is investigating an alleged scam that forced more than 30 African American churches in Southern California to pay thousands of dollars for substandard computer equipment that was supposed to be free.

The computer kiosks were pitched as high-tech devices that could serve as electronic message boards, print retail coupons from local businesses and generate advertising revenue, Brown said at a news conference attended by several clergy whose churches were targeted.

"The promise was that the churches involved would be able to attract more customers," said the Rev. Clyde W. Oden Jr., senior pastor of Bryant Temple AME Church in Los Angeles. "There was a promise for more advertising down the road."

Once the churches agreed to house a kiosk, the alleged scam artists -- who originally said they would cover all leasing costs -- presented them with lease agreements for as much as $45,000 a year.

The leasing companies named were Balboa Capital Corp., Banc of America Leasing and Capital LLC and United Leasing Associates of America Ltd.

In many cases, the kiosks did not work, clergy members said.

Will Wilson, corporate communications manager for Banc of America Leasing, confirmed that his company purchased several leases from Balboa Capital Corp. but was unaware any might be fraudulent. He said he never had any contact with the four people at the center of Brown's probe -- Michael Morris, Willie Perkins, Tonya Wilson and Wayne Wilson.

"We are fully cooperating with the investigation," said Will Wilson, who is based in Charlotte, N.C. "We find the alleged actions alarming, and in no way condone such actions."

Wilson said Bank of America is the parent company of Banc of America Leasing and Capital LLC.

The other leasing companies did not respond to requests for comment or could not be reached.

Brown also is investigating the role the leasing companies may have played in facilitating the alleged scam.

Even after learning of the alleged misdeeds, the companies continued to enforce the terms of the leases, and filed lawsuits against some churches to collect payments, interest and late fees, Brown said. The companies have been served with investigative subpoenas.

Churches in Compton, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena and Pomona were among those targeted by the four individual suspects who also are suspected of targeting dozens of churches in at least 10 other states.

Oden said the deal was presented to his church in 2006, and the kiosks appeared to work for a short time.

"We did see content. It's just that the content never changed," he said. "Ultimately, the charade began to become clear."

For months, Oden said his church pooled funds amounting to about $20,000 to pay down its lease.

Gayle Davis-Culp, senior pastor at Holy Trinity AME Church in Long Beach, said her church lost $7,000 to $9,000 on the kiosk service.

"People who are predators know exactly what to do with people who want to do right," she said. "We were looking at ways to support our congregation. But instead of being supported, we were used."

ann.simmons@latimes.com

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