In the Name of the King

The leader of a church that's drawn presidential hopefuls and the devout is enveloped in scandal.

At a budget hearing in September 2004, MMAP awarded the pastor-run Friends of MLK group an economic development grant of $25,000. While Smith was the president and director of the group, two other Miami preachers were named as partners in its incorporation files: Revs. Vinson Davis and Joaquin Willis.

Willis, the well-respected 60-year-old pastor of Liberty City's Church of the Open Door, hedges gracefully when asked about the original intent of the organization. "Every year, there was a celebration of Dr. King's birthday on Martin Luther King Boulevard," he explains. "As far as I know, all we were trying to do was provide support for that cause and promote the memory of King. We never did discuss how this thing was going to be funded. To be honest, I wasn't as detail-oriented and aware as I should have been."

Smith's guidelines for how to make use of the MMAP cash weren't exactly stringent. The "project description" filed with MMAP was vague: "Promotion of the principles and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." According to a grant proposal, the MLK fund's $25,000 would be spent on four areas: "development of promotional material," building a website, coordinating a fundraising reception, and setting up a community garden for senior citizens.

Pastor Gaston Smith proclaims his innocence and calls his grand theft charge a point of prayer: "I ask God, 'Why me?' He says, 'Why not you!'"
C. Stiles
Pastor Gaston Smith proclaims his innocence and calls his grand theft charge a point of prayer: "I ask God, 'Why me?' He says, 'Why not you!'"
The IRS investigated Smith after politics and religion mixed during the 2004 presidential election: Sen. John Kerry stumped at Smith's pulpit, flanked by retired Rep. Carrie Meek and Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
The IRS investigated Smith after politics and religion mixed during the 2004 presidential election: Sen. John Kerry stumped at Smith's pulpit, flanked by retired Rep. Carrie Meek and Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

None of that happened. Instead, unbeknownst to his partners Davis and Willis, Smith procured a debit card connected to the nonprofit's Washington Mutual bank account and treated it like his own personal travel fund, prosecutors say. Over a span of three months, he paid for plane tickets, hotel rooms, and car rentals for trips to Atlanta, Memphis, Dallas, and New York City. He withdrew $10,356.50 in cash from ATMs, including 20 withdrawals of $400 or more. In September 2005, he took $500 from a bar-side cash machine at Las Vegas's posh casino nightclub MGM Grand Zuri.

Most signifigant to investigators, Smith gave checks for "consulting fees" totaling $8,000 to Karym Ventures Inc., a company owned by Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, a member of his church. Asked about the nonprofit, Smith declines to answer. "My lawyers have actually told me not to even touch it," he says.

He was more forthcoming during a secretly recorded October 9, 2007 interview with authorities three months before the MMAP raid and four months before his arrest. He claimed that then-mayor's aide Spence-Jones urged him to found Friends of MLK, even suggesting the name. "Pastor Smith, we need an advocate group in the community," the reverend quoted Spence-Jones as telling him. "You're the person for the job."

Smith told investigators: "I remember that discussion taking place before grant money even came up."

Spence-Jones then wrote the MMAP proposal for Smith, prosecutors say, and then-commissioner and longtime ally Barbara Carey-Shuler helped push it through.

The pastor told investigators the $8,000 paid to Karym Ventures was for Spence-Jones's marketing work: She helped get donations from Burger King Corp. and former baseball star Mo Vaughn.

"Did she earn $8,000, in your opinion?" prosecutor Scruggs asked.

"Uh, in hindsight, I'd say no," Smith replied.

The pastor fairly seethed during his conversation with the investigators. "Now that I've had the chance to think through this and look at the documents," he said, "I feel completely violated... It's almost like date rape."

Just after 6 p.m. January 31, 2008, Miami-Dade detectives pulled over Smith in his luxury SUV after tailing him throughout the day. They seized the permitted .38 Smith & Wesson he had in the car and cuffed him. Charged with felony grand theft for misusing public funds and released on $7,500 bond, he later rejected a misdemeanor plea deal that would have required him to pass a polygraph test.

Smith's lawyers say he has done nothing wrong. The travel expenses were for religious conferences where he promoted Friends of MLK. The cash withdrawals were to pay the organization's lone employee, part-time Friendship Missionary receptionist Maude Sherrod. He treated the $25,000 as "seed money," says Guy Lewis, a former U.S. attorney who represents Smith. "I'm not going to get into the details of the case, but I will tell you that Pastor Smith is as honest as the day is long," Lewis says. "The allegation that he somehow pocketed or stole this amount of money is ludicrous, and we have our own forensic accountants who will show that if we do go to trial."

Reverend Willis says he believes Smith intended to pay back whatever money he borrowed. "It certainly wasn't his brightest or his finest moment," the 60-year-old pastor says of Smith. "Sometimes in our haste, moving too fast, we make mistakes we're not proud of. I absolutely believe he's innocent of any legal charges."

But Smith's problems don't stop at the grand theft accusation. As part of its investigation, the State Attorney's Office subpoenaed his tax receipts and banking records. Since becoming Friendship Missionary's pastor, he has filed his taxes as a self-employed "consultant" to the church and declared earnings ranging from $30,654 in 2003 to $54,500 in 2007.

Scruggs believes Smith has taken improper deductions, counting as business expenses costs that are actually covered by the church. In 2007, for example, he deducted more than $2,000 for "clergy uniform expenses" and ended up paying only $2,082 in taxes. "He didn't buy the clergy's uniforms," Scruggs says with an exasperated head shake. After combing through Smith's personal banking records and taking into account "love offerings" and other cash donations from church members, Scruggs estimates that in 2007, the pastor made "around $120,000" — more than twice what he declared. "We've passed on our observations to the IRS. They're very interested." (Tax documents show the agency placed a lien — an official garnishment of wages and assets — on Smith and his wife Kimberly in 2000 and again in 2006, seeking back taxes for three years prior, totaling just under $3,000.)

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