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Couple sentenced in massive, nationwide Ponzi scheme

AP, Aug. 7, 2001
http://www.naplesnews.com/01/08/florida/d613342a.htm Off-site Link

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TAMPA An ailing, elderly minister will spend the next 27 years perhaps the rest of his life in federal prison after being sentenced Monday for orchestrating a $448 million swindle of his followers.

The scheme used Bible verses as a basis in a scheme that promised the faithful that God would double their money if they gave it to Gerald Payne's Greater Ministries.

Instead, hundreds of millions of dollars disappeared and millions more were lost in bad investments and other schemes.

His wife, Betty Payne, will spend nearly 13 years behind bars for her part in the scheme, which cost some their life savings and homes. Investigators have yet to find the missing millions which they believe might be stashed in secret, offshore accounts.

Gerald Payne, 65, waved feebly to supporters as he was led out of the courtroom where U.S. District Judge James Whittemore handed down the sentence and chastised him as a "wolf in sheep's clothing."

"The fact that you used the world of God to perpetuate a fraud is absolutely despicable," Whittemore told Payne, who has suffered four strokes while in prison.

"You know and I know there are some Bible passages that address people who use the word of God to commit crimes. You are going to have plenty of time to study those passages."

An exasperated Whittemore then turned his attention toward Betty Payne, 61. Initially, the judge took about three years off her sentence after agreeing with defense arguments that Betty Payne had a lesser role in the scheme.

But Whittemore soon added a year back to the sentence when the 61-year-old woman parroted her husband's written statement protesting his innocence and claiming their rights had been violated in their 1999 arrest and conviction earlier this year.

Anne Borghetti, Betty Payne's attorney, told the judge her client was under the control of her husband and others in the church and wasn't listening to her legal advice.

Gerald and Betty Payne founded Greater Ministries, an organization which fed the homeless and supported overseas missionaries more than a decade ago. Along with the prayers came investment programs that promised believers could double their money. Millions in cash flowed in to the church's Tampa headquarters.

The Paynes and their followers traveled the country soliciting donations, skimming "gas money" off the top of donations that amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars for their top assistants. Early investors were paid, but the scheme eventually collapsed.

Government investigators also have claimed Greater Ministries was connected to militant, right-wing groups and had a plan to buy a Caribbean Island, arm it and declare it a sovereign nation.

In March, Gerald Payne was convicted on 19 counts of conspiracy, money laundering and wire fraud. His wife Betty and church officials David Whitfield and Patrick Talbert were convicted of 16 counts each of the same charges.

Edon "Don" Hall, another church official, was found guilty of five counts of conspiracy and mail fraud and innocent on 11 other charges. Two other church officials named in the 1999 indictment plead guilty to the charges before the trial.

Hall, Talbert and Whitfield will be sentenced later this week.

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