ROME — “It’s not a law against riding in a Cadillac if you don’t want to ride in a Volkswagen,” said Abraham Kennard in his opening remarks as he began defending himself against 132 criminal counts brought against him by the United States government.
The 46-year-old charismatic preacher is charged with swindling more than 1,600 churches out of more than $8.7 million. The criminal charges include mail fraud, income tax evasion and money laundering.
Kennard fired his lawyer, Michael Trost, on Monday and is being allowed to defend himself, but U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy appointed Trost as stand-by attorney.
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“This isn’t an indictment, but a theory they’re using to judge people,” Kennard said of the charges against him. “They’ve mistaken a dream for a scheme. The intents in a man’s heart will prove whether he’s guilty or not.”
Kennard, who refers to himself in the third person as Dr. Kennard and says he has three honorary doctorate degrees, peppered his remarks with emotion and spiritualism. His voice rose and fell dramatically like the preacher he is, whispering one moment and rising to a crescendo the next.
“These people [referring to the government’s lawyers] want to nail me to the cross,” he told the jury, “but people can be wrong. They don’t know the intentions of my heart.”
Kennard’s reference to riding in a Cadillac was in response to a charge that he used money invested by church members in corporations he set up to live a wealthy lifestyle.
The federal government has seized, among other things, 20 cars, including Cadillac Escalades, Cadillac Sevilles, Cadillac Devilles, Mercedes Benzes and others plus a Harley Davidson motorcycle and four jet skis.
The government said Kennard spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renting private jets and limousines as he flew and drove across the country, giving presentations to churches and their members, promising them his investment scheme would net them fabulous returns.
Federal prosecutor Russell Phillips opened his case by describing to the jury in broad strokes what he hopes to prove.
“This is a con man who has taken approximately $9 million from churches in 41 of 50 states,” Phillips said. “Some of these churches had as few and 15 to 30 members. They were so poor, they had to hold their services in somebody’s house. Many of the pastors who were swindled had to work two jobs and tend to their churches on the weekends.”
“He [Kennard] told them Merrill-Lynch and Price Waterhouse investment firms were backing him, and that’s not true,” he said.
Earlier in the day, one of Kennard’s co-defendants, Jannie Trammel, agreed to plead guilty to charges that she aided Kennard’s scheme. She will be sentenced April 15 to 36 months in prison if the court approves the deal.