A Bishop who formerly oversaw the First Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which covers Bermuda and much of the north-eastern United States, was among several high ranking clergymen charged with receiving more than a million dollars in ‘kickbacks’ from a New York real estate developer, according to a recent Religion News Service (RNS) report.


The RNS report, citing information filed with the New York state’s attorney general, noted retired AME Bishop Gregory G.M. Ingram as being among a group, that also included former Ingram subordinate, First Episcopal District Presiding Elder Melvin Wilson, as having accepted money from the sale of distressed church properties to Mr Moujan Vahdat.


Mr Vahdat was said to have purchased the properties with the intention of converting them into lucrative properties.


The story told of Bishop Ingram having reached a settlement, calling for the repayment of $600,000 in “finder’s fees” he got from the sale of the church properties, while the bishop also agreed to sell a Rolex he got as a kickback.
Meanwhile, Elder Wilson likewise settled in the amount of $300,000.


The RNS story went on to tell of how the church’s Council of Bishops condemned the actions of their clergy colleagues following the settlements, which were reportedly signed in 2021, before being made public in late August.


The Council of Bishops were quoted in a statement dated August 31, saying, “As a result of the findings of the Attorney General of New York and the signed agreement of the two AME clergy persons, the Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church expresses our disappointment and condemns the inappropriate practices of our colleague and the former presiding elder in the New York Conference, who currently pastors in the New Jersey Conference.


It was also reported that the had ordered that Bishop Ingram still listed as a bishop on the AME’s national website “refrain from taking part in bishop meetings or other denominational events until 2024”, while any further discipline against Mr Wilson was to be decided by the new bishop of the First Episcopal District.


Bishop Ingram and Mr Wilson’s involvement was only the tip of the ‘iceberg’ in regard to deals with the developer, with other church denominations also reported to have had similar dealings.


Furthered the RNS report: “According to the settlements, Vahdat allegedly gave a Church of God in Christ pastor and his wife hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks for the sale of the historic Childs Memorial Temple COGIC in Harlem. That pastor and his wife are not named in the settlements. However, in 2021, the New York state attorney general sued COGIC pastor Kevin Griffin, saying he had allegedly received $900,000 from Vahdat, including $450,000 from the sale of Childs Memorial.


“In an affidavit filed in February, Griffin, who denies any wrongdoing, said he took no part in the vote to sell the church. He also said that he might receive finder’s fees from the developer for other church sales.


“The settlements with the attorney general’s office cover the acquisition of seven churches — five from the AME and two from COGIC — beginning in 2013. Vahdat’s companies purchased six of the churches and obtained a 99-year lease on one of the buildings. The idea was to take over older church buildings that were already heavily leveraged, according to the settlements. Those buildings would then be demolished and replaced by multi-storey buildings, which would contain a sanctuary for the church to worship in, with the rest controlled by the developer.


“Vahdat enlisted the aid of clergy to identify and secure the buildings. “This was complicated by state law governing the sale of church buildings, which is highly regulated. According to the settlements, any sale must be approved by a state court or by the attorney general’s office.


“Six of the church sales had been through the approval process. “However, the attorney general’s office then became aware that the documents used to gain approval had been altered afterward. That led to an investigation which found that Ingram and Wilson had used their leadership positions for personal gain, shepherding the sales through the approval process, which required a vote by the congregation’s leaders, the local district and the state-wide annual conference, led by Ingram.


“Before his retirement in 2020, Ingram played a prominent role in the AME, serving as host bishop for the denomination’s 200th anniversary.
As church leaders, Ingram and Wilson were charged with protecting the church property which according to AME rules is held in trust for the denomination. New York state law requires that non-profit leaders recluse themselves from any transactions in which they have a personal interest.


“According to the settlement, Ingram misused his authority because he ‘authorized or caused to be authorized what were supposed to be arms-length sale transactions to the Developer with full knowledge of the personal financial benefits he was receiving from the Developer at the same time.’


“Wilson turned down a job offer from Vahdat, according to his settlement, saying that staying in his leadership role at the church would be better.”


“As part of his settlement, Wilson agreed to repay $200,000 in restitution over a period of 10 years, in quarterly payments of $4,750, with an additional $101,075 in restitution suspended. If he pays off the first $200,000 on time, he will not have to pay back the suspended amount.


“Ingram agreed to pay back $610,000, including an initial payment of $120,000 and the remaining amount due by 2023. Vahdat also agreed to fulfil his contractual agreements with the churches or allow them to back out of their contracts.


“The two are barred from holding leadership positions in any non-profit but can remain as ministers under the settlements.


All the settlements, which were signed in 2021, remain in force, according to a spokesman from the attorney general’s office.


“A former bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church a separate denomination from the AME  was indicted early this year in connection with $14 million in alleged fraud from the sale of church buildings. Staccato Powell was ‘disrobed’ in a 2021 church trial for allegedly altering church deeds and transferring them to an entity he controlled.”


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