A Joliet church’s financial quandary is being viewed as a learning lesson for all nonprofits in Illinois and a potential action item for Illinois lawmakers.
Messiah Lutheran Church in Joliet received more than $780,000 from a Minooka man’s business between January 2010 and September 2019. It turns out that money was generated by a $75 million Ponzi scheme Kenneth Courtright conducted to cover massive business losses.
In July, a federal jury convicted Courtright of seven counts of wire fraud related to the Ponzi scheme. He faces up to 20 years in prison when sentenced Oct. 4.
Messiah got a notice from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that it was seeking the $780,000 on behalf of the investors who lost money in the Ponzi scheme run through Courtright’s business, Today’s Growth Consultants, LLC.
Negotiations got the figure being sought to $487,000 and Messiah made a payment to the SEC receiver of $187,000 in August, but that still leaves $300,000 due by Nov. 15 or the SEC will tack another $100,000 onto the balance.
The church has raised $60,000 toward that remaining balance.
“We understand what the other side needs to do. It is just unfair to the church,” said Brian Wielbik, president of Messiah’s Parish Planning Council. “And at the end of the day, who loses? The church loses. The SEC and the receiver do not care.”
He said the money donated by Today’s Growth Consultants was taken in and used to cover church expenses.
“We are a nonprofit. In theory, nonprofits do not make profits,” Wiellbik said. “The money comes in and goes out.”
Wielbik noted that the church has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the Courtright case.
He said the biggest factor in the church being hit with the huge required SEC payment is because Illinois does not limit how far receivers can go back in pursuit of money, a practice known as “clawback.” Other states have limits on how far back money can be reclaimed. Minnesota, for example, has a two-year clawback law on its books, Wielbik noted.
“We did nothing wrong in accepting that money,” Wielbik said.
He said church leaders will meet with local state representatives and nonprofit officials on Thursday, Sept. 21 to share Messiah’s story.
“What we will tell them is that this can happen to any nonprofit in the state of Illinois,” Wielbik said. “I hope someone will grab the banner and change the law.
“Like other nonprofits, we receive gifts all the time. Our job is to minister. We use our money to give back and serve. There is nothing we can do to change the law.”
Nonprofits should make sure they do research on their big donors, said Dan Lippold, a Darien-based financial planner for 27 years.
“Nonprofits need to do due diligence. If the money is coming from a broker, check the person out to see if they’re legitimate,” said Lippold, director of advanced planning with First Command Financial Services Inc.
He noted that certified brokers are registered with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.
The FINRA BrokerCheck can be found at https://brokercheck.finra.org/.
Kenneth Courtright is not listed on the FINRA BrokerCheck site.
“That was their first mistake,” Lippold said of Messiah’s taking money from Courtright’s company.
Lippold said nonprofits, as well as individual investors, can also check the Securities and Exchange Commission for financial information filed by a company. The SEC website is www. sec.gov.
There are no financial records filed with the SEC for Courtright’s’ company, Today’s Growth Consultants, LLC.
He noted other professionals, such as insurance agents, have licensing bodies as well. Whether a nonprofit or an individual investor, it is worth doing research, Lippold said.
“You work your entire life to put money away. Be careful who you work with,” Lippold said. “The personal things you don’t talk about are religion, politics and money. However, when you are talking about your life savings, you need to ask questions. What has this person done? Get reference checks.
“That is what it all really is about. The (Messiah Church) story is an unfortunate one, but hopefully it is a lesson learned for nonprofits. What is the golden nugget from this? Do due diligence.”