7/12/09 – MSNBC: Followers of Tony Alamo selling suspect goods

July 12, 2009
By JON GAMBRELL – Associated Press

FBI: Alamo’s followers sell suspect goods

Evangelist Tony Alamo once said God never wanted his ministry to be poor, but money raised by his followers only seems to go his way.

As Alamo, 74, faces accusations he took five preteen girls across state lines for sex, he presides over a multi-million-dollar empire held in his followers’ names. Trucking companies, residential property and a number of questionable ventures fund the work of his 100 to 200 acolytes.

“A substantial amount of income is generated that’s utilized for the organization, all of which is controlled by Mr. Alamo,” FBI agent Randall Harris testified at an October bond hearing. “However … none of that property ever shows legally as being in his name.”

Government agencies show Alamo built his fortune on the backs of his followers, setting them up in commercial operations rather than rely on donations like traditional ministries. By the 1980s, the Labor Department said Alamo had to pay his followers at least minimum wage; the IRS later laid claim to millions of dollars in taxes.

At the end of a four-year prison term for tax evasion in 1998 — after the government seized assets and courts rejected his charity status — Alamo paid $250,000 to cover a fine and penalties.

“How in the world could Mr. Alamo come up with a quarter of a million dollars … when the entire time he hasn’t been able to work, he hasn’t held a job other than what he may have been employed in inside a federal penitentiary?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyra Jenner asked during Alamo’s bond hearing last October.

At its height, Alamo’s ministry owned gas stations, a hog farm, grocery store, restaurant and concert venue in Alma, a town near Dyer. Alamo’s Nashville, Tenn., clothing store catered to celebrities who bought elaborately decorated jean jackets. His line also carried sharkskin boots, leopard-skin jackets and sequined gowns popular with musicians at the Grand Ole Opry, which Alamo occasionally haunted in the 1980s.

His wife Susan once arrived for an interview wearing a floor-length red-and-white dress and lynx jacket. “God wants his children to go first-class,” she once said.

But life at the Alamo compound could be paradise or hell, depending on who you ask. Alamo and his wife enjoyed a heart-shaped pool near a mansion in Dyer, but federal agents said they found followers’ sleeping bags in a meeting room. Marshals said some workers earned $5 a day, with shifts lasting as long as 20 hours.

In the latest case, prosecutors allege girls under age 18 were taken across state lines from the current compound in Foulke and raped or sexually abused between 1994 and 2005. A trial starts this week.

If convicted, Alamo faces 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each of 10 counts.

Whether all the business ventures linked to Alamo are legal isn’t known.

Peter N. Georgiades, a Pittsburgh lawyer who sued Alamo on behalf of ex-followers in the 1990s, said ministry workers accepted donations of food near its expiration dates, wiped off the dates and resold items to grocers. “It’s plain, flat-out fraud,” the lawyer said.

Mary Coker, who helped ex-followers contact federal agents before a recent raid, said the ministry has been selling outdated government-donated food since it moved to Fouke in the 1990s.

In March 2007, FBI agents arrested Leslie Ray “Buster” White at the flea market he ran in Texarkana, Texas, and seized $100,000 after charging him with selling counterfeit goods including CDs, shoes and handbags. White, who has identified himself as an associate pastor at Alamo’s church, pleaded guilty to trafficking and was initially sentenced to 180 days of house arrest.

On June 30, he was ordered into jail for eight weekends after health inspectors and the FBI said they found copycat designer labels and outdated food, over-the-counter drugs and cosmetics at the flea market.

Investigators say invoices listed Action Distributors and SJ Distribution as sellers of the goods. Court documents and testimony during Alamo’s criminal detention hearing in October said both companies are owned by Tony Alamo Christian Ministries members.

White denounced his association with Alamo and the ministry in December, but his lawyer won’t say whether he is cooperating with the government.

Also in 2007, FBI agents questioned Thomas Scarcello, who helped incorporate an Alamo-linked charity at Fort Smith, after he was found in a warehouse filled with Tempur-Pedic mattresses intended for Hurricane Katrina victims. A lawsuit says $7 million worth of donated mattresses were offered for sale from trucks and elsewhere until a federal magistrate stopped their sale.

In a deposition, Scarcello denied Alamo had any connection with the businesses, then claimed his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination when asked about his business finances or where he kept his records.

Ernest Peia, a wholesaler, testified in a deposition that he bought clothes, food and candies from Scarcello. Among businesses operated by the Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation, Arkansas records show, are the Alamo Candy Co. and Wholesale Candy.

Two Fort Smith trucking companies are registered in followers’ names: Action Distributors and Advantage Food Group. Federal transportation records show those companies logged more than 1.1 million miles in 2006 and 2007. The FBI said those companies likely have as many as 30 tractor-trailers.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks Alamo’s church as a hate group, said it had no estimate on its net worth. Even the FBI acknowledged in court that it has trouble untangling a web of related businesses, though there’s no question about who is in charge.

“It’s my understanding from the interviews we’ve conducted that hardly a penny is spent without ultimately (Alamo’s) authorization,” Harris said at Alamo’s hearing last fall.

In: 2009 - (Trial year)

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