A class-action lawsuit has been filed against the African Methodist Episcopal Church in an effort to recover millions of dollars in pension savings due to nearly 5,000 eligible retirees.
The AME Church lost at least $90 million — about 70 percent of its retirement fund — because of irresponsible investments, according to the suit.
The financial disaster has many retired and active pastors, bishops and others worried that they can no longer rely on pension checks owed to them. Church officials halted payouts earlier this year and now are seeking ways to restore them, at least partially.
The lawsuit, prepared by the firm Kantor & Kantor of California in partnership with the AARP Foundation, was filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland.
Defendants include Jerome V. Harris, former executive director of the church’s Department of Retirement Services, and South Carolina Bishop Samuel L. Green, former chairman of Retirement Services’ board of trustees. Also named as defendants are the church’s general board and council of bishops, which have broad control over church affairs.
Harris previously had been sued in July 2006 by Dorsey McCullough for alleged mismanagement of annuity funds, but the case was dismissed on a technicality in U.S. District Court in Tennessee.
Green assumed the helm of the AME Church’s 7th Episcopal District, which oversees nearly 600 churches throughout South Carolina, in 2016. An email sent to his account requesting comment went unanswered.
The AME Church first reported to church members that it had discovered “a material loss in the value of one or more of its departmental investments” on Oct. 7. Specifics were not provided. And church officials have continued to withhold details, citing an ongoing investigation.
The Wall Street Journal in March reported that the church had suspended retirement payments and initiated an investigation into missing funds that included federal law enforcement. The church considered the problem “a possible financial crime,” according to the Journal.
As many as 5,000 people are directly impacted by the sudden freeze in retirement payments. Active pastors also are affected since they have not been able to submit “hardship requests,” which enable them to draw a portion of their pension savings to pay for housing, education, medical procedures or other necessities.
The class-action suit alleges that Harris had been granted “sole authority to invest tens of millions of AMEC clergy’s and other Church servants’ retirement savings in a questionable and potentially unlawful purchase of undeveloped land in Florida, a promissory note to an Illinois installer of solar panels, and an even more foolish investment in a now non-existent capital venture outfit.”
The result of these “imprudent, extraordinarily risky investments” was the loss of more than $90 million in retirement savings, affecting “all Bishops, General Officers, College Presidents, Deans of Theological Seminaries and Itinerant Elders” and ordained individuals with pastoral assignments, the suit stated.
At a General Board meeting held on Jan. 31 this year, officials reported that just seven months earlier the pension plan account had a value of nearly $127 million, that more than $90 million had gone missing, and that only Harris knew the details, according to the suit. Church officials at this meeting also announced that Harris had emptied his office and disappeared.
A criminal investigation soon ensued to examine how and why tens of millions of dollars were transferred from Symetra annuity investments into the venture capital company Motorskill Ventures Group and the Financial Freedom Fund, and into a questionable land deal in Key Marco Island, Fla.
On March 30, the Rev. Jeffery B. Cooper, general secretary and chief information officer of the AME Church, distributed a statement from the Department of Retirement Services updating members on the “devastating news that the AME Church ... may have been the victim of a financial crime.” The message contained few details and little new information, citing the federal investigation, but assured investors that current funds are secure and new contributions are held in an escrow account.
“In addition, the Department of Retirement Services resumed certain distributions to fund participants in early March 2022, including IRS required minimum distributions and payments for hardships, retirement, and designated beneficiaries,” Cooper wrote.
An email requesting comment was sent to Cooper on April 5 but got no response.
Dara Smith, senior attorney for the AARP Foundation, said the lead plaintiff is retired Presiding Elder Cedric Alexander of Maryland but that all eligible retirees are part of the class unless they purposefully opt out.
“What we’re seeking is full restoration of the retirement fund, plus enrolling anyone who should have been enrolled,” Smith said. “We just want to make people whole. ... The goal here is just to get people what they were promised.”
The AME Church retirement plan requires the institution to contribute 9 percent of each participant’s total wages, not to exceed $20,000 a year. Each participant can make an additional 9 percent contribution with no limitation.
Smith said church retirement plans generally are exempt from federal law, including any requirement to secure federal pension insurance, though they can choose to do so.
In this case, it appears the AME Church did opt to adhere to the requirements of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, she said. Its pension plan documents state that the plan “shall be consistent with and comply with all requirements of ... ERISA.”
The 1974 federal law sets standards of protection for participants of private retirement plans, including provision of details about plan managers and their decisions, a grievance and appeals process, and the right to sue in case of breaches of fiduciary duty.
ERISA generally does not apply to churches, according to the Department of Labor. Should the court determine that the AME Church is not bound by the law’s rules, attorneys will resort to Tennessee state law, where the AME Church is headquartered, Smith said.
The class action, filed on March 22, now must be reviewed and approved by the court in order to proceed with the lawsuit.