CHICAGO, IL- The slogan plastered outside the Rev. Clarence Smith Jr.’s storefront church on Chicago’s West Side promised to make the “ministry meaningful to the imperfect man.”
It turns out Smith has been far from perfect himself; based on allegations from federal authorities.
Smith, who has led the New Life Impact Church in the Lawndale neighborhood for years, has been indicted on charges alleging he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from a federal program intended to feed needy children, spending the money on a $142,000 Bentley luxury vehicle and other personal expenses.
Neighbors originally thought that the pastor was coming to share some wealth and do some good.
“He was coming around in Jordans and Bentleys and new cars,” Ravin Cosey said. “I’m like, wait a minute. Pastors don’t do that.”
It’s not the first time that Smith, 45, has been accused of financial malfeasance.
Nearly a decade ago, he pleaded guilty in DuPage County to using forged signatures to swindle an elderly man’s estate out of more than $100,000, court records show.
That conviction should have made him ineligible to access the program.
But Smith lied in his application. One of the certifying statements says:
“I certify that neither the institution nor any of its key individuals has been convicted during the past seven years of any activities that indicate a lack of business integrity.
Lack of business integrity includes fraud, antitrust violations, embezzlement, theft, forgery, bribery, falsification or destruction of records, making false statements, receiving stolen property, making false claims, obstruction of justice, or any other activities indicating a lack of business integrity as defined by the State Agency.”
In the years since, Smith has struggled financially at times, public records show.
In 2012, four years before purchasing the Bentley, Smith filed for personal bankruptcy, claiming he had only $20 in cash on hand and owed more than $80,000 in restitution from his DuPage conviction, according to court records.
He has been sued by at least two food supply companies for defaulting on contracts and currently owes more than $8,000 in overdue property taxes on his one-story brick church in the 3500 block of West Cermak Road, records show.
On a recent afternoon, the building appeared to be vacant, with the faded white tarp bearing the church’s name and slogan barely legible.
Reached by telephone earlier this week, Smith referred questions to his lawyer, Timothy Roellig.
According to WGN, Roellig did not return multiple messages.
Smith, meanwhile, continues to actively promote the church on Facebook, posting lengthy videos of himself preaching and urging followers to come to worship. A Facebook post earlier this week appeared to refer to his legal troubles.
“One of the worst things in the world is not to learn from your prior mistakes,” he wrote Monday. “GOD has me doing a self-evaluation on where I messed up prior, so I won’t do the same in the future.”
Smith remains free on his own recognizance after pleading not guilty in November to four fraud-related counts in U.S. District Court.
Free on his own recognizance, even though he is on probation for other financial crimes convictions.
Walk me through that one.
The charges marked the latest in a long line of Chicago-area preachers who have been accused of stealing from their congregations or social programs.
Smith’s case is startlingly similar to charges brought against Herman Jackson; a Cicero pastor convicted in 2015 of submitting false documents to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in state subsidies for day care centers.
Jackson, too, was accused of using the stolen money to purchase a brand-new Bentley. He was later sentenced to five years in prison.
The indictment against Smith alleged he defrauded the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program that is administered locally by the Illinois State Board of Education and intended to provide meals for children in impoverished neighborhoods.
As a sponsor of the program, New Life was responsible for feeding children at various locations in the city and billing the state for the services, according to the indictment.
Instead, over a yearlong period beginning in October 2015, Smith vastly inflated the number of meals he was serving, billing the state nearly $1 million that was paid out in two installments in July 2016, according to the charges.
Smith deposited the checks into New Life’s bank accounts and then withdrew it in cash at ATMs or by writing checks to pay for personal expenses, according to the charges.
On July 21, 2016, less than a week after receiving the second check from the state in the amount of $825,695, Smith purchased a 2015 Bentley Flying Spur luxury sedan in suburban Des Plaines using a $142,000 cashier’s check, according to the charges.
Smith hid the fraud by falsely claiming to the state Board of Education that records of how many children he’d fed “had been damaged in a flood and were no longer available,” the indictment said.
At the same time Smith was allegedly overbilling the state for the meals, he was being sued in Cook County Circuit Court by a number of food vendors who alleged he’d stiffed them on bills, court records show.
One company, Reinhart Foodservice LLC, won a $512,000 judgment against Smith in 2015, records show. Another, C&C Dairy Inc., accused Smith in a 2016 filing of failing to pay for more than $45,000 worth of dairy products and supplies, the records show. Both lawsuits have since been settled.
On social media, meanwhile, Smith portrays himself as a holy servant of the community, posting on Facebook about never looking down on those in need “because God never looked down on us.”
“We can no longer impress the community with talk, but IMPACT the community with our walk,” Smith wrote in one post from 2015, the year his fraud on the food program allegedly began.
On the November day he surrendered to authorities on the fraud charges, Smith posted a selfie from the stands of a sporting event, writing:
“Even After A Crazy 72 hours I’m gonna enjoy this game and my life.”
According to court records in DuPage County, Smith pleaded guilty in 2011 to a felony charge of financial exploitation of the elderly.
Prosecutors said he created a bogus document in June 2001 giving him unauthorized access to a credit union account of an acquaintance who had died months earlier. Smith then wrote a series of checks to himself from the account totaling $106,736, the records show.
Smith was sentenced to six months in jail and ordered to pay full restitution to the victim’s estate, records show. He was also given two years of probation.
Court records show Smith has repeatedly been accused of falling behind on his restitution payments. In fact, Paul Darrah, a spokesman for the DuPage County state’s attorney’s office, said prosecutors have sought to revoke Smith’s probation for failing to pay off the restitution.
Since he still owes restitution, Smith remains under the court’s supervision and regularly appears at the county courthouse in Wheaton to obtain permission to travel, records show. He frequently travels for “religious purposes” or “speaking engagements,” including to Cleveland, Orlando and Denver, court documents said.
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