Amazing Disgrace

Joel Levitt's crusade to right an old wrong gets him banned from Calvary Temple.

"I felt an obligation," Levitt says. "The church is basically debt-free now. I couldn't see how a Christian could stand in that $10 million building and not try to pay these people back, especially if the pastor and the Board of Elders said we would."

Levitt waded through court records to obtain a list of Life Center investors. He estimates that there are still between 200 and 300 investors and their spouses who'd suffered losses totaling more than $1 million, including some who hadn't participated in the lawsuit. At his own expense, he mailed out surveys and received more than seventy responses. Several reported that they'd been contacted by Blair in 1991 and promised full restitution if they approved the Second Mile settlement. But church officials couldn't find any trace of fundraising efforts since that time.

"For seven years, none of them contacted these people," Levitt says. "To me, Blair's speech about paying these people back was nothing but a bait and switch to get them to agree to the settlement."

Since the Second Mile campaign had never been officially closed, Levitt decided to make several small donations to the campaign to see what would happen. A church attorney mailed his checks back to him and asked him why he was attempting to revive a project that had been settled by court action years ago.

Undaunted, last summer Levitt began to request church financial records related to the Second Mile campaign. In the military, he'd been trained as a chapel management superintendent, auditing church records, and Colorado law allows members of a church that is set up as a nonprofit corporation, such as Calvary Temple, to inspect the organization's financial records of the past three years. Church officials would later claim that Levitt "employed what may be deceit" to obtain older documents as well, but Levitt says that the staff readily offered him access to the materials, including board minutes dating back to 1975.

Levitt's requests prompted the church leadership to form a committee to review the Second Mile campaign. The group essentially confirmed Levitt's findings: that Blair and the board had issued statements of intent to repay the full amount, yet no funds had been raised since the settlement. But the committee also noted that the membership of Calvary Temple, once one of the largest churches of its kind in the country, had dropped dramatically since the Life Center collapse and was only half of what it was in 1991. "It seems clear that the congregation today is utterly inadequate to address this need," the group concluded. It recommended that the church take no further action to repay investors.

At Calvary's annual business meeting last March, the congregation voted 173-4 in support of the committee's position. Despite this overwhelming defeat, Levitt vowed to continue a petition drive to direct the board to repay the investors. He also brought several former investors to the meeting, including 94-year-old Nellie Moorehead, but they weren't allowed to address the group.

If she'd had the chance to speak, Moorehead says, she would have told them that she sank $10,000 in Blair's dream three decades ago and has managed to get barely half of it back over the years. "I wanted to tell them that if they were good Christians, they would want to pay the money back," she says.

There may have been little support for Levitt's position among the congregation, but the resistance was even stronger among the church's former and current leadership. In April, after repeated requests, Levitt was finally granted a meeting with Charles Blair, now retired, and his wife, Betty Blair. The pastor emeritus did not respond to Westword's request for comment about the meeting, but Levitt says the encounter was a revelation to him.

Blair admitted that he hadn't contacted any of the aggrieved investors in the past eight years, Levitt says. He and his wife also denied speaking with investors during settlement discussions--despite newspaper accounts to the contrary and the recollections of the people Levitt had surveyed.

"I showed him a letter he signed in 1991," Levitt says, "promising that he was going to work as hard as he could to repay them. He told me, 'I didn't mean to pay back the people who sued. Why would I do that?' He said that these people were hidden enemies of the church and that they should be my enemies, too. He said that all distressed investors who didn't sue were repaid, with a few exceptions, and that's an absolute lie.

"I confronted him, probably like no one confronted him. He got up and prayed. I told him he had to make restitution, and he said something like, 'Oh, I'd give a couple of bucks.'"

By this point, Levitt's investigation had expanded. He was now requesting information about the salaries of pastors and other staffers, prompting church officials to consult with their attorneys about what the law required them to release. He was also asking questions about the church's relationship, if any, to the Byrum advertising agency; Blair had once testified in court that he'd given the for-profit operation to the church, but church officials say the two entities aren't related.

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