Virginia Pastor Terry Wayne Millender and his wife, Brenda Millender, were found guilty of a $2 million fraud scheme targeting their own church’s congregation.
The Millenders didn’t just rip off their church members through tithes or calls for donations or by selling giant buckets of food; they actually conducted a complex Nigerian oil scheme. Seriously.
The prosecution said Brenda and Terry, the former senior pastor of Victorious Life Church, encouraged churchgoers to invest in their company, Micro-Enterprise Management Group (MEMG), which they claimed was a Christian group that helped poor people in developing countries.
The Millenders recruited investors by emphasizing its Christian mission and use of the funds to help the poor, promising guaranteed rates of return, assuring investors that the loans’ principal was safe and backed by the assets of MEMG. The jury found that these representations were false and fraudulent, and that the money was actually used by the Millenders to conduct risky trading on the foreign exchange currency market, options trading, payments towards the purchase of a $1.75 million residence for the Millenders, and other personal expenses.
The Millenders also falsely assured victim-investors that they would get their money back and blamed delays on the 2008 financial crisis. Even worse, once MEMG failed, the couple created another entity called Kingdom Commodities Unlimited (KCU), which they said specialized in brokering Nigerian oil deals.
The Millenders, who have now been found guilty by a jury, will face up to 20 years in federal prison when they are sentenced in 2018. It’s possible that they could get less time, depending on what the judge decides.
Multiple victims entered into loan agreements with the Millenders, totaling over $600,000. Like the MEMG agreements, the KCU agreements lured prospective investors into giving the Millenders money by promising high rates of return and short term loans. The Millenders used the KCU lenders’ money to pay for their rent and golf trips, as well as a birthday party and other personal expenses.
The longer the sentence, the better for everyone else. These people have shown they’ll commit the same scam and victimize the same people, given the opportunity. By imposing the maximum sentence, or at least something close to it, the court could make sure they don’t turn back to a life of crime, aided and abetted by religion.
While critics will say it’s not unusual for religious leaders to con gullible followers into handing over their money to finance their lifestyles, it’s not often we see those leaders convicted of a crime. That’s usually because those televangelists and megachurch pastors are careful not to go overboard with promises. They say God will eventually reward them or that the money is helping the ministry in some vague undefined way. The Millenders took that to another, very illegal, level.
While it would be nice if this conviction put, shall I say, the fear of God in other Christian con artists, it would be even better if those gullible followers realized they were being duped. That’s not entirely out of the question. When we first heard about the Millenders’ arrest last year, one member of the congregation told a reporter he knew something fishy was going on when he saw Terry driving around in a $100,000 car. (“Come to find out now, it was actually part of our money.”) Unfortunately, I fear that guy is in the minority and others will attribute this conviction to “Christian persecution” rather than reality.
Other churches could go a long way toward preventing this sort of robbery by simply being transparent about their finances — just like other non-profits.
(Image via Shutterstock)