|Posted on February 1, 2011 at 5:19 PM|
Update from COGWA
"Update Regarding False Allegations Against CGWA. Today, the appropriate agency of the State of Florida contacted legal counsel for the Church in writing, and following their review of the Church's February 1, 2011 response to the fraudulent consumer complaint, the matter has been promptly closed, in favor of the Church. The Church will continue with its investigation to identify the harasser and will take appropriate steps to address any and all acts of harassment and defamation. The Church will also cooperate with any investigations by law enforcement to identify the suspect."
February 1, 2011
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Division of Consumer Services
Re: Complaint From Sarah A. Luther Against
Church of God, a Worldwide Association, Inc.
Dear (name withheld):
Please be advised that this office represents Church of God, a Worldwide Association, Inc. (“Church”;), a Florida not-for-profit corporation. This communication is offered in response to a January 24 complaint against the Church by an individual who goes by the name “Sarah Luther” (Sarah). By all appearances, Sarah Luther is a phony name, and the Church is presently unable to ascertain her true identity.
The allegations made in the complaint are outrageous, false, and defamatory. Basically, the individual has made up these allegations out of whole cloth, and this appears to be a simple prank designed to harass innocent people. I realize that you do not often get situations that simple. Often times, agencies such as yours will receive consumer complaints that may have a kernel of truth, or some side of the story that is open to interpretation. This is not one of those complaints. This is complete fabrication designed to harass the Church, damage its reputation, and interfere with its finances. Unfortunately, the individual who filed the complaint has also wasted the time of your agency by causing you to take time away from your legitimate complaints and investigations.
For the past few weeks, Sarah has been emailing various congregants and ministers around the country who either are, or plan to be, associated with the Church. We have become all too familiar with her antics. In each instance, the individual uses her fraudulent name and does not disclose her true identity. Each time this is done, a variation of the same sensational allegation is offered to the recipient (essentially, she is alleging that “officials” with the Church stole donations from another church organization). Even today, my office has received several calls and email messages from pastors from around the country concerning this ongoing harassment.
To be sure, please refer to the data she provided under the “Consumer Information” section of the complaint. The address she provides, 104 E. Main St., St. Petersburg, Florida 32040 is a nonexistent address (a simple Google search will verify). Also, the zip code “32040” is not even in the St. Petersburg area. Rather, the zip code is for a small town named Glen St. Mary, Florida, near Jacksonville. Thus, in addition to fraudulent allegations, “Sarah” has given you a fraudulent name, a fraudulent street address, and a fabricated e-mail address which has been constructed for the purpose of propagating defamation and harassing communications. If we identify this individual, the Church will be vigorously pursuing appropriate civil and criminal remedies in a court of competent jurisdiction.
In our investigation, we talked to the pastor of the Tampa Bay congregation of the Church, Mr. David Treybig. Mr. Treybig was also the pastor of the United Church of God congregations in the Tampa Bay area for approximately ten years prior to December, 2010. He does not know an individual by the name of Sarah Luther. We have no donors or congregants by the name.
I will now turn my attention to the substance of the allegations. The stated product or service involved is “assistance to ministers.” The date of the alleged offense is June 1, 2010, and the amount she gives as being in controversy is $150,000.00. You should note that the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, Inc. was not incorporated until December 23, 2010, which is approximately six months after the date of the offense which she gave. Thus, even based on the fraudulent information she has provided, the allegations are impossible. An entity is not capable of stealing money before it even exists. Further, the first organizational and planning meeting for the Church was on December 20, 2010. This entity was not planned or approved prior to that date. Finally, the figure “$150,000.00” appears to be yet another fabrication. In order to explain these figures and other allegations, Sarah’s true identity will have to be ascertained, and she will need to be interviewed. Unfortunately, she appears to have quite an imagination.
Going further to her allegations, Sarah states the following: “Multiple sources indicate that the Church of God—a Worldwide Association (cogwa) may have diverted a portion of donations sent to their previous employer, United Church of God (UCG) while they received a paycheck from UCG. It is believed these funds were used to finance their new organization, cogwa. Monies illegally set aside constitute one definition of embezzlement or theft by deception. (This complaint was completed at the recommendation of the Florida Attorney General).”
As these allegations are defamatory, it is understandable that this individual fails to identify her “multiple sources.” She also fails to identify the “previous employer” of the Church. She does offer a delusional and speculative (yet unsupported) belief that certain funds were used to finance the Church, and she goes on to offer the unsupported legal opinion that her allegations amount to embezzlement or theft by deception, which are allegations of criminal activity. Of course, the complexion of the latter allegations only raises the stakes for our anonymous complainer, as the inference of criminal activity makes the false statements defamatory per se (damages to the plaintiff are presumed in situations of defamation per se. See, e.g., Fun Spot of Florida, Inc. v. Magical Midway of Cent. Florida, Ltd., 242 F. Supp. 2d 1183 (M.D. Fla. 2002); Thompson v. Orange Lake Country Club, Inc., 224 F. Supp. 2d 1368 (M.D. Fla. 2002).
As a former prosecutor, I occasionally had the distinction of interviewing delusional individuals such as this who would fabricate patently ridiculous allegations and then ask me to act upon them. Thus, it is no surprise that the Florida Attorney General sent this individual elsewhere when she took her fish story to them. However, I would be surprised indeed to learn that they asked her to present her pitch to your agency and waste its resources.
You may be interested in noting that the Church was incorporated as a result of a disagreement with another church organization. Following a good faith disagreement with the leadership of the United Church of God, a contingent of pastors from that church organization voluntarily resigned (December 2010) and took steps to form the Church. However, in the process of doing this, the pastors left everything behind and did nothing to disturb the assets of their former organization. As is typical in church schisms and splits, some congregants chose to remain with the established organization, while others decided to associate with (and support) the newly-formed organization. In the case of the Church, congregants and donors who identify with the mission and cause of the Church have seen fit to voluntarily donate to the Church. It is likely that others, who continue to support the mission and leadership of the established organization, have continued in their financial support of that organization. Obviously, the Church does not sanction any unethical financial dealings. The leadership of the Church is unaware of any situations that would be even remotely consistent with the anonymous individual’s false statements. However, be advised that no such behavior would be tolerated or allowed within the Church. Interestingly, the separation between the United Church of God and the Church has been generally peaceful and respectful. While some individuals have been angry and hostile regarding the separation, these occasions have been isolated. For the most part, a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation has prevailed between the two entities. Nearly all of the ministers and congregants in the two entities continue to have friends and family in both church organizations.
In conclusion, it is regrettable that the Church has been put into a position of having to respond to bizarre, ridiculous, and defamatory allegations such as this. It is also disappointing to realize that the resources of the State government have been wasted in furtherance of what appears to be a prank designed to harass individuals who are simply trying to worship and conduct their lives in peace.
Occasional harassment like this is to be expected by organizations such as the Church. Once a defendant is identified, the Church will be pursuing appropriate legal remedies in order to compel this individual to cease and desist from his or her wrongful acts, among other possible remedies. As you stated in your January 27, 2011 letter that accompanies the fraudulent complaint, it is the province of your office to protect businesses, including not-for-profit organizations, from groundless complaints. The Church respectfully asks that you seek any appropriate remedies against the anonymous individual who entered this groundless complaint. If you have any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to contact me for further discussion.
Very Truly Yours,
Jason M. Ranew
Attorney at Law