Federal probe rocks Seventh-day Adventist Church

Lake Region Conference accused of financial irregularities, immigration violations.

South Bend Tribune Staff Writer

BERRIEN SPRINGS -- The Lake Region Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is under federal investigation in connection with misuse of funds and illegal immigration activities, which could threaten the organization's nonprofit status.

The following people were put on paid administrative leave in the wake of auditing and illegal immigration practices in the Lake Region Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, based in Chicago.
  • Hugo Gambetta, vice president for multicultural ministries. He was stripped of his ministerial credentials and license on Friday. He had been on paid administrative leave since July 11.
  • Treasurer Leroy B. Hampton resigned last week after his July 11 suspension.
  • Four pastors, all ministers in Chicago churches, are on paid leave: Ciro Aviles, Osmin Hernandez, William Rojas and Alfredo Solis.

The revelations shocked many of the estimated 730 delegates who attended a special meeting Sunday at Andrews University.

"There's been a lot of instances of lying and a case of personal enrichment," Walter Wright, president of the Lake Union Conference, told delegates.

Most delegates knew about the financial crisis and poor internal audit.

That news was relayed to about 25,000 churchgoers in 109 worship centers in the Midwest on July 16.

Many knew that the conference's vice president of multicultural ministries, a treasurer and four pastors were on paid administrative leave in the wake of the Lake Region Conference audit.

But the harsh reality, voiced by Wright, silenced many delegates who earlier in the morning raised serious objections about the competency of conference leaders and lack of input they have in selecting leaders.

Many, such as a woman from a church in Cassopolis, said they felt disenfranchised.

Late in the afternoon the gymnasium where delegates met fell silent when Wright began talking about federal authorities being on the doorstep of Lake Region Conference leaders. He noted that the ramifications of the inquiries could affect the entire church.

"The effect can be devastating," Wright said.

"If the church loses its tax-exempt status because of things in our conference, that is a real possibility," he told delegates.

According to an internal audit of the conference in 2003 about $18 million in assets were understated or not reported to the government.

The conference also did not report financial statements of "at least six charitable gift annuity agreements" in 2003 and 2004. The result means that in those two years auditors could not "reasonably determine" the conference's total assets and liabilities, according to a memo dated February 2005 to the executive committee of the Lake Region Conference.

Wright also told delegates the church's employment of immigrants who may be in the country illegally has raised eyebrows of federal officials.

"What if the Department of Homeland Security comes into our offices and says we're going to close you down because you're not reporting illegal aliens and they threaten our national security?" Wright asked.

Then he answered his own question.

"That can happen because of our conference," he said.

Wright made it clear the conference is "cooperating with all federal entities" while the investigation continues.

In a separate interview, Gary Burns, director of communication for the Seventh-day Adventist Church Lake Union headquarters, could not elaborate about alleged illegal immigration practices of the church.

Burns said the Seventh-day Adventist church is a world church, headquartered in Maryland, with operations in 200 countries.

Wright's Lake Union Conference is the parent organization of the Lake Region Conference and four other conferences.

Only the Lake Region Conference, which is championed as a multicultural ministry with growing Hispanic membership, is embroiled in the financial irregularities and alleged immigration violations.

The Chicago-based Lake Region Conference was organized in 1945.

Wright remained optimistic that the conference would survive.

"Look at our dear friends, the Catholics," he said.

"We can't shuffle people. They didn't act when they should've," he said referring to Catholic leaders who sometimes moved priests to new parishes instead of punishing them for sexual misconduct.

"We won't do that," he said