A 120-year-old Illinois church could be forced to shutter and sell off its assets if its members fail to raise $300,000 in the next month to pay off a $487,000 federal court judgment against them to recover “long gone” donations a businessman convicted of running a Ponzi scheme poured into their coffers over 10 years.
The church, Messiah Lutheran Church in Joliet, said they had no idea they were benefiting from the ill-gotten gains of convicted fraudster, Illinois resident Kenneth D. Courtright III.
The Securities and Exchange Commission said Courtright and his company, Todays Growth Consultant Inc., raised at least $75 million from more than 500 investors throughout the United States and abroad in a Ponzi-like scheme from at least 2017 through at least October 2019.
Courtright and his company reportedly defrauded these investors through false promises on returns while using the proceeds from his Ponzi scheme to pay his personal expenses, including his mortgage and private school tuitions for his family.
Now, the court is seeking to recover the funds Courtright spent, including the donations he made to charities.
Messiah Lutheran Church explained on a website they established for a fundraising campaign at www.savemessiah.org that they received a total of $780,000 in donations from the businessman over the 10 years his benevolence lasted, but they already spent every dime of the money.
“Of course, we don’t have that money,” Beth Hohisel, leader of Messiah’s litigation committee, said in a video appeal posted on YouTube. “We have used that money in our ministry, we’ve paid our staff, we’ve sent our youth to youth camp, we kept the lights on in our building. That money is long gone.”
She added: “When we tell someone what’s happening to our church, the first response generally is, how can that be? That doesn’t even seem fair at all.”
Attorney James Murphy from Mahoney, Silverman & Cross said in a statement that there was no wrongdoing on the church’s part.
“Unfortunately, Illinois law, under which the SEC Receiver’s lawsuit is brought, allows for the claw back of donations to charities based on the misdeeds of the donor. This type of lawsuit can be brought against any non-profit organization in Illinois,” Murphy said.
The church explained that the SEC was “unrelenting in demanding a large payback from Messiah Lutheran,” and the $487,000 is due by Nov. 15.
To honor the demand, the church said on its website that it emptied its Building Fund in order to make a $187,000 payment on the judgment on Aug. 28, and now they are out of options to pay the remainder of the money.
The church says if they are unable to pay the remainder of the judgment by Nov. 15, the amount they owe will increase to $587,000 by the court. The church’s assets can then be frozen, and a forced sale of their property executed.
“The SEC Receiver has made it clear that she does not care if Messiah losses its home and She does not care if Messiah’s congregation is left without a place to worship,” Brian Wielbik, president of Messiah’s Church Council, said in a statement. “It’s a true David versus Goliath story.”
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