Church Leader To Plead Guilty In Fraud Case

TAMPA – A city clergyman who prosecutors say wanted to finance a lavish lifestyle plans to plead guilty Friday to federal charges he bilked banks of millions in fraudulent loans.

Michael Wayne Lewis, 43, a bishop at the Harvest Fellowship Bible Church on North Nebraska Avenue, signed a plea agreement this month admitting he obtained 48 loans totaling more than $9 million since July 1999.

Lewis agreed to plead guilty before U.S. Magistrate Douglas N. Frazier in Fort Myers to one count of conspiracy to defraud and eight counts of money laundering. He has agreed to cooperate with investigators and pay restitution.

According to the plea agreement, Lewis’ name appears on more than 30 Florida corporations, including churches.

According to an indictment handed up in October, Lewis forged signatures of other ministers and pastors of churches he associated with to obtain loans in those churches’ names without the pastors’ knowledge.

AmSouth, the primary victim of the alleged scheme, sued Lewis in March 2004, saying he headed a conspiracy involving front organizations and at least six other conspirators.

The lawsuit says the conspiracy involved a “large number” of people, “all of whom appeared successful but earnest, coupled with sophisticated PowerPoint presentations.”

According to the plea agreement, Sean White, an associate of Lewis, agreed to cooperate with the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service. White said Lewis told him to change the numbers on accountants’ reports and submit the changed reports, under the accountants’ letterhead, in a loan package, the agreement says.

The defendant is accused of borrowing against nonexistent equipment and using inflated real estate appraisals to support loans, according to the AmSouth lawsuit. Some loans were supposed to fund building improvements that were never done or equipment that was never purchased, the lawsuit says.

A prosecutor has said Lewis was convicted of fraud in 1990 and sentenced to eight months in prison plus three years of probation.

According to the lawsuit filed by AmSouth, Lewis has been a founding officer or director of more than 23 nonprofit corporations and two for-profit corporations in Florida within the past three years. “Since leaving prison, Lewis has used multiple Social Security numbers, including the Social Security numbers of deceased persons,” the lawsuit says.

According to the plea agreement, an unidentified witness helped investigators record a conversation with Lewis in February 2004. During the conversation, Lewis admitted obtaining fraudulent loans and that what he had done was wrong, according to the agreement, which also says Lewis went on to say he believed what he had done was criminal only if victims pressed charges.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Tampa Bay Online, USA
Apr. 21, 2005
Elaine Silvestrini, The Tampa Tribune

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday April 22, 2005.
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