A former member of Greater Salem City of God testified Monday that pastors Anthony and Harriet Jinwright ran the church with near-total authority, at times publicly rebuking anyone who dared challenge them.

Regina Childs, who joined the church in 1996, said even the church’s governing body, its board of directors, at one point dared not meet unless the Jinwrights approved.

“There was not an expectation to question… not necessarily to question, but to challenge Bishop,” she said of the church’s senior pastor, Anthony Jinwright.

Childs, who said she has worked at Wachovia for 40 years, said Anthony Jinwright appointed her to the church’s board of deacons. She also served on its board of directors and finance ministry, which included the budget committee.

During her years in leadership, she said, the church rarely took in enough money to cover expenses. But it wasn’t until the church faced mounting financial problems in 2004, she said, that some lay leaders were willing to challenge the Jinwrights’ authority.

Anthony and Harriet Jinwright are on trial in federal court facing charges of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy.

Prosecutors allege that they failed to report about $1.8 million in taxable income between 2001 and 2007. During that time, the indictment alleges, the Jinwrights received more than $5.3 million in payments and reimbursements from Greater Salem, not including gifts and cash given to them by church members.

During Childs’ testimony Monday, defense lawyers occasionally raised objections, arguing that the testimony involved issues of church governance, not criminal wrongdoing. But Judge Frank Whitney said he would allow the testimony on grounds that it addressed the government’s charge of conspiracy.

Childs said repeatedly Monday that she loves and respects the Jinwrights. She also said she did not relish having to testify in their trial. She said she left Greater Salem because she didn’t like the “exposure” she faced over financial issues.

According to documents presented by prosecutors Monday, Greater Salem wrote checks from its operating account to the Jinwrights totaling:

  • $644,886.22 in 2002
  • $747,596.57 in 2003
  • $788,186.81 in 2004
  • and $747,374.76 in 2005

It was unclear whether those totals included the Jinwrights’ salaries. Earlier witnesses testified that salaries at the church generally were paid from a separate payroll account.

In addition to luxury vehicles leased by the church, Anthony Jinwright also got a housing allowance, which, according to the indictment, increased from nearly $130,000 in 2001 to more than $160,000 in 2007. He also received annual bonuses totaling about $125,000, the indictment alleges.

In March 2002, faced with mounting expenses, the church took out a $600,000 loan to cover some of its debts, according to evidence presented in court Monday.

“On a pretty regular basis, the amount of debt owed was higher than the amount of money coming in,” Childs said. “We didn’t have enough money to always cover the bills coming in.”

Anyone who challenged the Jinwrights, Childs said, was subject to “rebuke.” That sometimes meant being called out on Sunday morning from the pulpit.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Brown asked Childs whether directors ever talked of trying to reduce some of the church’s expenses, including Anthony Jinwright’s salary.

Childs said no.

“There were at least a couple of time I can recall where Bishop shared that he couldn’t afford it (a pay cut) because of his personal expenses for his lifestyle,” she said. “So, the expectation was that his salary was off limits.”

Childs said the Jinwrights did not allow directors to discuss with the congregation what was said in meetings and that financial records presented to the church were sometimes altered to cover up losses. (An earlier witness testified that Harriet Jinwright personally altered one year-end financial report.)

Prosecutors presented evidence Monday showing that Greater Salem made cell phone payments for both Anthony and Harriet Jinwright, as well as for their daughter, and bought pagers for the couple’s funeral home business. In 2005, evidence showed, the church approved an $8,000 trip for the Jinwrights.

How did such expenses affect the church’s cash flow, Brown asked Childs at one point.

“It didn’t matter,” she said.

Brown produced internal documents showing that Greater Salem in 2005 claimed $2,142,125.28 in income and $1,816,777.97 in expenses – a $325,347.73 surplus.

“It’s not accurate,” Childs said.

In 2004, as the church slid toward financial troubles, Childs said, directors began to meet without the Jinwrights’ approval.

Childs said that although Greater Salem members would line up to tithe, some would later stop payment on their checks or the checks would bounce. Others would simply give empty envelopes, she said.

According to one document presented, the church one year paid more than $96,000 in bounced check fees.

At one point, she said, deputies from the Mecklenburg sheriff’s office came to Greater Salem to repossess the church’s vans because of late payments. To prevent the repossession, she said, Anthony Jinwright paid $21,000 from his own assets and told directors he expected to be repaid.

Childs said Jinwright was visibly angry because he had not been told that the church was behind in its van payments.

Asked why Anthony Jinwright was not told, Childs said office staff may have been afraid to give him bad news.

Contrary to previous testimony, Childs said it was not the congregation’s idea to lease a 2001 Mercedes-Benz S500 for Anthony Jinwright’s pastoral anniversary. She said that Harriet Jinwright suggested the lease at a board of directors meeting and that the suggestion was approved.

Interesting asides:
–When court adjourned for lunch Monday, Harriet Jinwright greeted Childs warmly and the two spoke briefly. The two were seen entering the same uptown restaurant separately. Anthony Jinwright also was seen entering the restaurant. It was unclear if any of the parties ate together.

–Prosecutors told Judge Whitney that they expect to wrap up their case Wednesday. Harriet Jinwright’s attorney said he expects to call two witnesses and will need about a day. Anthony Jinwright’s lawyers said they will need “several days” to present their evidence.

–Judge Whitney is expected to tell jurors today that the trial will enter a fourth week. It had been estimated to last about three weeks. Court will be in recess on Monday while Whitney attends a military court martial at Fort Gordon in Georgia.

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