Complaint details sophisticated scheme to defraud AMEC clergy and employees of tens of millions in retirement funds managed by the AMEC’s Ministerial Retirement Annuity Plan
Nashville, Tennessee – Today, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) General Counsel Douglass Selby confirmed that lawyers hired by the church filed a lawsuit against former AMEC Department of Retirement Services Executive Director Rev. Dr. Jerome Harris (“Dr. Harris”) and ten other individuals and entities some of which were involved in a sophisticated scheme to embezzle funds and defraud the AMEC’s Ministerial Retirement Annuity Plan. Other defendants named in the complaint are cross-defendant Symetra Financial Corporation, and third-party defendants Robert Eaton, Jarrod Erwin, Randall Erwin, Financial Freedom Group, Inc., Motorskill Asia Venture Group, Motorskill Asia Ventures 1, LP, Motorskill Venture Group, Motorskill Ventures 1, LP, and Rodney Brown & Company. The nine-count complaint (2:22-cv-02136) was filed in United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee in Memphis.
The complaint details a complex scheme perpetrated over more than two decades by Dr. Harris in his role as Executive Director of the AMEC Department of Retirement Services. Along with Robert Eaton and Financial Technologies, LLC, who were retained by Dr. Harris as the AMEC’s exclusive broker, and other parties, Dr. Harris is alleged to have used his position to “among other things, defraud and steal from AMEC.”
As part of this scheme, Dr. Harris repeatedly represented to the AMEC “a deceptive, false, and grossly inflated value for the Annuity Plan.” The discrepancy between the value of Annuity Plan funds invested in Symetra reported by Dr. Harris verses the actual value of the plan was significant. The complaint states, “AMEC learned that only about $37,000,000.00 of Dr. Harris’s previously reported $128,000,000.00 valuation of the Annuity Plan was held by Symetra.” There is no evidence that the total value of the retirement fund reported by Rev. Harris was ever the actual value of the funds. As stated in the complaint, “The $128,000,000.00 valuation reported by Dr. Harris was a baseless representation recklessly and deceptively made to plan participants without any third-party verification.”
“This financial crime has been committed against the AME Church community, and specifically our clergy, lay and Church employees,” said Anne Henning Byfield, President of the AMEC Council of Bishops. “With the help of our legal team, the AMEC community is committed to holding those responsible accountable and recovering embezzled funds.”
The AMEC has also committed to restoring the full initial investment plus interest to each retirement plan participant.
AMEC uncovered the fraudulent scheme following the 2021 election of a new Executive Director. AMEC immediately engaged experienced legal professionals and forensic experts to conduct a comprehensive and independent investigation. The findings of the investigative team led to AMEC’s decision to bring this lawsuit against Dr. Harris and other defendants. The actions of Dr. Harris and others are also the subject of an ongoing law enforcement investigation.
As a result of the AMEC investigation, and as stated in the complaint, AMEC has learned among other facts:
- “Dr. Harris and/or Eaton, without the knowledge (and accordingly, without consent) of AMEC General Board, the AMEC Commission on Retirement Services, or any other AMEC bodies or officers, created various entities that purported to either perform services for the Department or use Department and/or Annuity Plan funds.”
- “Dr. Harris, without the knowledge (and accordingly, without consent) of AMEC General Board, the AMEC Commission on Retirement Services, or any other AMEC bodies or officers, used Department and/or Annuity Plan funds to make payments to himself and other individuals.”
- Dr. Harris “deposit[ed] funds from the [AMEC] Ministerial Retirement Annuity Plan into his personal checking account.”
- Dr. Harris “invested millions of dollars from the Annuity Plan into high-risk investments,” including, among others, “Motorskill Venture Group, Motorskill Ventures 1, LP; Motorskill Asia Venture Group; and Motorskill Asia Ventures 1, LP; (collectively, “Motorskill Entities”).”
- “Dr. Harris, without any authority, used Department and/or Annuity Plan funds to issue loans to various entities, some of which have not been repaid.”
- “Information related to these unauthorized investments was actively concealed from and not disclosed to AMEC.”
- “Dr. Harris and others have continually represented to the Commission on Retirement Services, the AMEC General Board, and Annuity Plan participants a deceptive, false, and grossly inflated value for the Annuity Plan.”
The lawsuit filed by AMEC also brings claims against Symetra Financial Corporation for approving requests from Dr. Harris to electronically wire Annuity Plan funds to Motorskill Entities “without confirmation that Dr. Harris had the authority to do so.” As stated in the complaint, “from 2005 to 2021, Dr. Harris via Department and/or Annuity Plan funds paid about $37 million to Motorskill Entities.” In addition, the lawsuit includes claims against Rodney Brown and Company, an independent certified public accounting firm retained by the Department to audit the financial statements of the Department, including as recently as 2020 and 2021.