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In July that year, Powell left, and after a trial sermon, Smith was voted pastor by the congregation. Smith says he quit a lucrative hotel position to chase his calling.
The reality might have been less altruistic. In May 2002, Smith was sued for $5,000 in "contract indebtedness" by his employer and then-owner of the Royal Palm, Starwood Hotels & Resorts. Within a month, the new preacher settled the suit, agreeing to pay back the money in installments, court records show. Most of the case file has since been destroyed, and Smith's general manager at the time, Jesse Stewart, declined to comment. But Richard Scruggs, an assistant state attorney familiar with the lawsuit, says Smith was caught pilfering from the company. "From what I understand, he was caught with his hand in the cookie jar somehow, and rather than press charges, because it was such a small amount, they took it to civil court," Scruggs says. "You know how much of the $5,000 he's paid back to the hotel? Zero. But they know they'll be chasing him forever, so I think they're just chalking it up as a loss."
One of the reverend's attorneys, Michael Tein, denies the litigation had to do with Smith leaving the hotel business. "There's absolutely no evidence... Pastor Smith did anything illegal," he declares. "Just because somebody settles a lawsuit does not admit liability. Sometimes time and expense can cause a defendant to decide to settle even if they're innocent of all wrongdoing."
Public records indicate Smith's money troubles continued that year. In October 2002, according to a Broward County suit, he was evicted from his Pembroke Pines apartment around the same time he moved into the church-paid Miramar house where he still lives. (Reached by New Times, the owner of Pembroke Landings Apartments says he doesn't recall his former tenant.)
And in 2007, Capital One was awarded a judgment against Smith in a Plantation court after he failed to pay $3,015 he'd racked up on a platinum credit card. Interestingly, in the 2004 application for that card, Smith wrote he had an annual income of $70,000 — but claimed in taxes that year to have made only $28,641, according to returns later subpoenaed by the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office.
But even as he struggled privately, Pastor Smith was a smashing success in the pulpit. His congregation has more than doubled to 3,000 since he took over, he says, and the church has become so popular with politicians — before every service, Smith invites "all candidates for public office" to stand up and accept applause — that, in 2004, the IRS took exception.
In September that year, presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry dropped by Friendship Missionary on a Sunday, joined by Congressman Kendrick Meek and Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. When Kerry commandeered the pulpit to stump for votes, it posed a possible violation of Friendship Missionary's tax-exempt status. The IRS launched an investigation but eventually dropped it.
Smith's most important role was as the community's symbolic protector. When children were murdered, he prayed with their parents and performed the burials, including the 2006 ceremony for Carol City High academic standout Jeffrey Johnson Jr. The Miami Police Department appointed Smith as the official chaplain, and he met with cop brass to hash out community initiatives and bury deceased officers. And this past January, when Sharpton again flew to Miami to speak out against the "Stop Snitchin'" trend in the wake of a Liberty City dice-game shooting that left nine teens riddled with bullets, Smith stood at his side at Friendship Missionary.
"If anybody comes to us with a domestic violence situation, or maybe they've been evicted and have no place to live, we tell them to call Pastor Smith," says Eric Thompson, an activist and Liberty City Community Revitalization Trust board member. "Somebody gets killed, people will call him before they call the police. Very few pastors in this community actually reach out to regular folk from the housing projects, and he does that."
It was a little-known nonprofit called Friends of MLK Inc. — founded by Smith and two other pastors in 2004 to revitalize Martin Luther King Boulevard, the long-blighted main artery of Liberty City — that would lead to his mug shot being plastered on the nightly news.
When a team of state and county investigators descended on the Flagler Street offices of the Metro-Miami Action Plan Trust (MMAP) and seized all of its files in December 2007, few familiar with Miami politics were surprised.
Founded in 1983 in the aftermath of the Liberty City riots, MMAP is supposed to spend its $12.2 million county-funded annual budget on cash assistance for small businesses and down payments for low-income homebuyers. It also oversees Teen Court, a rehabilitation program for youth offenders. But for more than a decade, MMAP has been dogged by charges of corruption and mismanagement, which include an administrative officer serving time for accepting bribes in 2002. Last year, a scathing county audit resulted in the dissolution of its board of trustees. Now its future is in doubt.
The raid was part of an investigation that will eventually lead to "several indictments," says State Attorney's Office investigator Bob Fielder. Caught in the net: Rev. Gaston Smith, arrested a month after the raid on a charge of grand theft. "Pastor Smith just had the pleasure of being one of the first to be charged," the detective says. "His case is just a very small piece in a much larger picture."