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Saturday, May 13, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor, disability aid, scam

An Indianapolis pastor charged this week with ripping off money intended for Indiana's poor is under investigation for receiving disability payments for which he may not have been eligible.

Rochell Johnson reportedly received more than $20,000 a year in benefits while holding two jobs -- as pastor of Greater Faith Missionary Baptist Church and bus driver for Lawrence Township Schools.

According to court records, he received the money based on conditions including sickle cell anemia and congestive heart failure.

Roger Rayl, a spokesman for the Marion County prosecutor's office, confirmed that Prosecutor Carl Brizzi has been told the Social Security Administration is investigating Johnson's eligibility. Rayl said no results of the inquiry have been received.

A phone message to the Social Security Administration was not returned. John Schwartz, attorney for Johnson, declined to comment.

Johnson's wife, Denise, also faces charges of theft and welfare fraud over allegations the couple wrongfully obtained food stamp benefits between June 2003 and July 2005. They allegedly committed the fraud despite a combined annual income of more than $100,000.

The Johnsons and the church's associate pastor, the Rev. Shedrick Footman, are accused of working with two former employees of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration to illegally obtain the assistance money. Eight other people were charged in connection with the alleged scheme.

The two ex-employees, who were criminally charged in June, allegedly provided church members with electronic cards that could be used to receive cash or food stamps.
Footman has been in trouble before.

Court records show there have been four small-claims judgments against him, and he has yet to pay about $10,000 he was found to owe.

Footman was criminally charged twice before the recent charges, accused in 1997 of check deception and in 2003 of check fraud.

On the first charge, he entered into a diversion agreement through which he avoided having a conviction on his record. The 2003 charge was dismissed after a witness failed to show up at his trial.

A woman who says she was victimized by Footman says he won her over with a good sales pitch.

Cheryl Newsom wanted to have her house renovated, and Footman, who operated a construction business, offered to do it. He drove her around to homes that he said he had rehabilitated. Newsom was impressed and hired Footman.

She took him to be a man of his word because he was a man of God.

"You put your trust in them because they're supposed to be doing it right," Newsom says. "They're supposed to be an honest person."

But Newsom said Footman fell far short of finishing the job, costing her and her husband thousands of dollars.

"He probably did about 10, 15 percent of what he was supposed to do," she said, adding that she complained to the Better Business Bureau and Indiana attorney general's office.

Melvin Earl Allen was in a hurry to get renovation work done on his rental property and said he found Footman persuasive. "He came here with a smile and talked to me. Talked like he knew what he was doing."

Allen's wife, Joan, remembers that Footman came off as a quality person.

"The way he talked to you, it was like a disciple of Jesus or something," she said.
When the work lagged behind schedule, Melvin Allen tried in vain to contact Footman.
Allen went to small-claims court and received a judgment against Footman, but he says Footman never refunded his money.

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"I didn't get no service. I didn't get my money back. Nothing."