Sometimes you come across a story that's just so bizarre and filled with so many absurd details that you have to double check to make sure it's actually true. Plenty of bloggers have been fooled by satire. There's the pro-life blogger who fell for an 'op-ed' in The Onion. The title, I'm Totally Psyched About This Abortion, turned out not to be a clue. While we're on the subject of people falling for satire, check out Landover Baptist's hate mail page for all the people who think it's a real church. Sometimes, it's not idiocy that makes us fall for this stuff, but acting on our first reaction and not stopping for a moment to think. It's kind of the moral of this story.
So, just to be on the safe side, I ran this one through a google news search and, yeah, it really happened. We'll start where I found it; a small town paper in Kelowna, British Columbia.
The Daily Courier:
They thought they were hand-in-hand with the Lord, but investments by members of a Kelowna church were tied to corn liquor, condoms, over-the-hill drums of paint and organized crime.
Members of the Christian evangelical New Life Church will get about one-third of their money back from a bogus investment plan that scammed them out of $1.3 million.
Under a deal brokered by the B.C. Securities Commission, two principals in the fraud have agreed to pay $500,000 in restitution to investors, most of them members of the church.
The church had been pulled into a scam by a very shady bunch of hucksters with a list of investments. John DeVries, Ernest Reed Grafke, Ralph Bromley and Wesley Campbell convinced the church to invest in a company called Amber Enterprises. The idea was that they'd make millions in an import/export business called IPIC Investments, supposedly out of California. The list of investments were crazy, but the church went along with it all because they were told the company had been "sanctioned by God."
And that was enough to get New Life Church to invest in an unregistered company with no prospectus and buy a strange list of items for importation. Some of these investments actually existed, but were crap; others were entirely made up. The fact that televangelist/faith healer/notorious scam artist Benny Hinn was in on the deal should've clued them in that this wasn't on the up and up. The whole thing was a Ponzi scheme. The worthless investments were a front.
The godfather of the whole scheme was IPIC's Gregory Setser and the list of 'investments' included:
-50,000 litres of corn liquor stored in Panama.
-Seven million condoms from Brazil.
-A $1.2-million paint factory in Panama that never manufactured or sold anything.
-A worthless Tasmanian oil and gas project.
-A record company that was to “ignite the singing career” of Setser’s daughter. It lost $780,000.
-Some 450,000 gallons of obsolete paint that cost $3 a gallon to dispose of under California state law.
-A bottled water company in Panama with plans to use nothing better than Panamanian tap water.
-A concrete block plant that never produced a block.
Booze and condoms doesn't seem like the sort of investment that would be 'sanctioned by God,' but there ya go. Let me save you the cipherin'; it would cost $1.35 million to dump all that paint alone.
And Benny Hinn? He doesn't come up in the Daily Courier story, but the Dallas Morning News brings him up:
Between 2001 and 2003, initial investors, such as televangelist Benny Hinn, were paid by later investors in a classic Ponzi scheme. Once he ran out of investors, Mr. Setser's swindle collapsed, losing at least $60 million.
Once the government seized control of Mr. Setser's empire, Mr. Hinn returned $165,000 in profit that he made off a $300,000 investment. His ministry never invested any money.
Mr. Setser used his connections to people such as Mr. Hinn to lure hundreds of other investors. His family, in return, enjoyed what prosecutors described as an "utterly grotesque lifestyle," including multimillion-dollar homes, a 100-foot yacht, a helicopter and luxury cars.
Whether or not Hinn was in on it is unclear. I'm guessing yes. Americans United's Rob Boston calls him "a man widely considered to be one of the biggest charlatans among the television evangelists." Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Hinn's trustworthiness.
Facing 385 years in prison, Setser got a little desperate. While the judge asked lawyers whether giving Setser a lighter sentence would allow the "slightest faint hint of hope that he would ever get out of prison," prosecutors played a tape detailing his plan to break out of prison. DMN again:
FBI Special Agent Matt Segedy said [the tapes] chronicled conversations from July 2006 to Jan. 9 between Mr. Setser, his wife, and a man who purports to be a U.N. diplomat. The "diplomat" claimed that he could get 19 "commandos" to help break Mr. Setser out of prison.
Agent Segedy said the man "surfaced late in the IPIC investigation" but did not elaborate. The man is not affiliated with the U.N., the agent said.
The agent told prosecutor Jeff Ansley during questioning that Mr. Setser was also heard constructing a plan to solicit money from other Seagoville [Texas prison] inmates' families.
Obviously, there were no UN-backed commandos -- Setser, the con man, was being conned.
You really have to wonder where everyone's head was at while all of this was happening -- booze and condoms sent by God, a commando raid on a minimum security prison, and a church in a town in BC. It's all so crazy.
I said earlier that the moral of this story was to stop and think a moment and not act on your first impulse. But there's more to it than that -- don't trust televangelists any farther than you can throw one and always be skeptical of someone who tells you they know what God wants. Instead of earthly rewards, you may wind up with 450,000 gallons of worthless paint.