In one of the most dramatic moments yet in the Jinwright trial, an Atlanta accountant on Thursday reluctantly told the court why, after two years of auditing the books at Greater Salem City of God, he refused to perform that service a third year.
Getting Robert Howze to talk about his decision, however, took some effort by Assistant U.S. Attorney David Brown.
During his introduction to the court some nine hours earlier, Howze, a preacher himself, had described his CPA work as a “ministry.” He said he had worked with more than 100 black churches all over the United States.
After observing how few were competent in financial management, he said, his priorities shifted from making money to helping churches “come into compliance with fiscal stewardship.” On his website, he dubs himself “The Pastors CPA.”
Howze (photo above) said he met Bishop Anthony Jinwright in 2001 while attending a conference in Chicago. Some while later, he said, the Greater Salem pastor called, asking Howze to help his Charlotte church establish a nonprofit arm to receive federal, state and private grants.
The IRS had been slow in granting Greater Salem tax-exempt status because of concerns related to its finances. Among those concerns, Howze and others have testified, was whether or not Jinwright was, in the eyes of the IRS, unduly profiting from his work at the church.
One of the first things Howze did for Greater Salem, he said, was to conduct a “salary analysis.” He said he compared Jinwright’s total pay package to the pay received by pastors at similar-sized churches whose books he had audited.
Howze said he concluded that Jinwright’s pay was “higher than the medium” but not outside of a “safe harbor range” that the IRS would apply to churches of Greater Salem’s size, income and number of “giving units.”
It was revealed in later testimony, however, that the salary figure Howze was given to use in his analysis -– about $210,000 –- was far less than the $600,000-plus that federal prosecutors allege was closer to the true figure.
Howze also did not include $128,000 earned by co-pastor Harriet Jinwright. Howze said that had he known about the co-pastor’s pay, that money would have been included in his calculations. And if the government’s pay estimates for the Jinwrights were correct, he said, the amount of their compensation would have given him concern.
On the stand, Howze was a cautious witness. He did not make statements lightly and appeared to think through – and even overthink – even some of the most basic questions. Countless times throughout the day he asked lawyers to prod his memory of events that occurred in the early 2000s.
Both the prosecution and defense praised his apparent honesty.
After helping Greater Salem complete its application for tax-exempt status, Howze said he was hired to audit the church’s financial records for 2003. He was hired again for 2004.
Howze testified that he found Greater Salem’s books to be factually accurate, but along with each audit, he said, he issued a “management letter” to Greater Salem’s board of directors and to Anthony Jinwright outlining concerns he had. Chief among those concerns were issues relating to the church’s handling of various aspects of the Jinwright’s compensation.
Howze said he identified several areas where compensation was not being counted as taxable incomes for the couple. He said he also found that church resources were being spent in ways that did not benefit Greater Salem. And, he said, the church kept a checking account that was being used for “non-ministry expenses.” His testimony did not reveal how that account was used.
Many of the concerns Howze noted in his management letters were similar or identical to those found two years earlier by a consultant from the Tennessee firm Chitwood & Chitwood, one of the earlier witnesses in the Jinwright trial.
Howze said he outlined for Greater Salem directors, and separately for Anthony Jinwright, some of the issues his audit had uncovered. (He said he did not recall speaking directly to co-pastor Harriet Jinwright but said she may have been in one of his meetings with directors.)
“I explained the difference between reportable compensation and gifts,” he said. “…I made the statement, ‘Churches can’t give gifts.’ ”
Howze told the jury that, in his mind at least, he had eliminated any “gray areas” concerning how certain compensation should be handled for tax purposes.
But even after issuing a second management letter outlining the same concerns noted in the first letter, he said, little if anything had changed at Greater Salem. It was then, Howze told the jury, that he notified Anthony Jinwright that he would not return for a third audit year.
“Tell the jury why you did not go back to Greater Salem Church,” prosecutor Brown instructed Howze.
The witness paused.
“I did not think that I could be effective in doing what I was trying to do… My level of effectiveness had diminished… My season had passed… I felt like the church did not have the infrastructure to do what needed to be done… In their inability to solve their problem, the problem wasn’t addressed.”
Moments earlier, Brown had reminded Howze of a conversation the two of them had when Howze arrived in Charlotte earlier this week from Atlanta. And in response to Brown’s prodding, Howze had reminded the prosecutor that he (Howze) had shared information during that conversation that he did not want to reveal in court.
Now, with the jury before them, the two men were at a deadlock.
“Mr. Howze, what did Mr. Jinwright tell you after you issued your second management letter?” Brown continued.
Howze paused. He appeared visibly upset. He drank from a cup he had been handed earlier.
“He said he wanted to get it right,” Howze said. “…I never remember him saying anything other than ‘I want to get it right.’”
Again Brown insisted:
“Mr. Howze, when you elected not to go back to Greater Salem Church to conduct a third audit, what was your conclusion about Mr. Jinwright’s willingness to get it right?”
“My decision not to go back was a business decision,” Howze insisted. “An audit ought to get easier year by year. If they don’t, that should be a red flag…”
Clearly not satisfied with Howze’s response, Brown continued to press.
Ed Hinson, one of Anthony Jinwright’s defense lawyers, rose to object, insisting that Howze had answered Brown’s question and that the prosecutor was now badgering the witness.
Judge Frank Whitney called a sidebar.
The lawyers returned to their seats and the judge to his bench.
“Mr. Howze,” Brown said, “you understand the question.”
“Yes,” the witness whispered.
Brown repeated the question, this time more slowly, more deliberately:
“When you elected not to go back to Greater Salem Church to conduct a third audit, what was your conclusion about Mr. Jinwright’s willingness to get it right?”
The witness grew fidgety. He gazed down toward his lap. He rubbed his eyes. The jury and gallery sat motionless, all eyes fixed on Howze.
“That the ministry either didn’t have the capacity or the willingness to make the changes,” he said at length.
“Thank you, sir,” Brown said. “I appreciate that.”