Megachurch Claims Accountant Rolled It

     RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CN) – A New Jersey megachurch claims in court that its accountant bilked it of $5 million and spent the money at casinos and luxury cars.
     Agape Family Worship Center sued Donald Gridiron Jr. and the Western States Golf Association on Wednesday in Federal Court.
     Agape says it hired Gridiron, an “expert in church-related accounting matters,” in 1992. It says it paid him $5,000 a month, and raised it to $5,500 a month plus expenses in 2009.
     Agape describes itself in the complaint as “a large, nondenominational church with approximately 4,000 members.” It was founded in 1990 as The Love Church by the Rev. Lawrence Powell.
     Gridiron, of California, traveled monthly to the Agape campus in Rahway, N.J., to work with its bookkeeper, review books and records, and meet with Powell and others.
     Agape says its chief financial officer left in 2007 and was not replaced. That’s the year when Gridiron began pocketing church funds, Agape says.
     “In 2007, Gridiron began writing unauthorized checks to himself and third parties drawn on AFWC’s bank accounts, and sending unauthorized wire transfers to himself from AFWC’s bank accounts,” the complaint states.
     Agape claims Gridiron made 800 unauthorized transactions from its bank accounts, from 2007 to 2014.
     “Unbeknownst to AFWC,” it says, Gridiron also was accountant and treasurer for the Western States Golf Association, and had “exclusive access and control” of its bank accounts.
     The WSGA, based in Corona, Calif., is an association of golf clubs in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Created in 1954, the WSGA provides college scholarships and sponsors an annual golf tournament for its members.
     The church claims that Gridiron transferred $3 million from Agape accounts to himself, $1.9 million to the WSGA, and $40,000 to Gridiron’s personal American Express account.
     The lawsuit does not say why Gridiron sent money to the WSGA.
     It claims that Gridiron, 50, confessed the thefts to the Rev. Powell in March 2014, “but significantly misrepresented the total amount stolen.”
     Weeks later, the complaint states, Gridiron filed for bankruptcy. His financial affairs statement claimed more than $4.8 million in gambling winnings, “almost the exact amount that AFWC identified as funds stolen from it by Gridiron,” the church says.
     Federal agents arrested Gridiron in Los Angeles in December 2014. He was charged with wire fraud. “Gridiron is a criminal defendant in Case No. 14-6082-SCM; United States of America v. Donald Gridiron, Jr., pending in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey,” according to Agape’s lawsuit.
     The church says it was “shocked and disheartened” by the embezzlement.
     “We were betrayed by a trusted certified public accounting professional who without authorization, secretly accessed our church financial accounts, improperly took millions of dollars, and then took systematic steps to cover up his dishonesty,” Powell said.
     “I feel betrayed because this man used to be my friend,” Powell said. “It hurts, but we serve a God who will get us through this.”
     Powell said he and his congregation would pray for Gridiron.
     Gridiron also provides, or provided accounting services to one or more large churches in the Los Angeles area, the lawsuit states.
     The WSGA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
     Agape seeks punitive damages for breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, negligence, civil theft, money had and received, unjust enrichment, and receipt of stolen property.
     It is represented by G. Michael Jackson with Jones, Davis & Jackson, of Valencia.
     Agape is Greek for brotherly love, as opposed, or distinguished from, eros.

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