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Saturday, February 02, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor Charged With Grand Theft

Miami-Dade Police say Pastor Gaston Smith used your tax dollars for his own personal vacations, grant money that was supposed to go to the low-income community he has spent years serving, but Friday a new name that is already involved in scandal came up in the investigation.

Officers arrested Smith Thursday night. He's a well respected figure in the Liberty City community, but police say he stole from the very community he has been honored for serving.

Smith has received awards and commendations from a number of institutions, including Congress and Miami-Dade County. He is the senior pastor at the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City, and he has spoken out on many social issues in the past.

But police say, while he may be well-respected, he is a thief. They have charged him with 2nd degree Grand Theft.

The police investigation reported that in July of 2005, Rev. Gaston Smith deposited the grant funds into a Washington Mutual bank account in the name of Friends of MLK, Inc.

"Our investigation revealed Reverend Gaston Smith made the following unauthorized expenditures," said Dir. Robert Parker of Miami-Dade Police Dept. "To the tune of $10,356.50 in ATM cash withdrawals at various locations throughout Miami-Dade County, Broward County, Orlando, the state of Texas, and Las Vegas, Nevada."

He added, "$5,076.73 in purchases for airline tickets, car rentals, hotel accommodations, and classes at the University of North Florida."
The remaining balance is still under investigation and was reportedly used for various other purchases not within the scope of services articulated in the grant agreement.

His lawyer, Michael Tein, denies the allegation.

"Not a penny, not a nickel, not a dime," said Tein. "Every single dollar is accounted for 100 percent."

Tein is so adamant his client is innocent that he may file a federal lawsuit against the police department accusing them of violating the pastor's civil rights. Tein is also upset police made the arrest, because he says the state attorney was not on board.

The report added that a Friends of MLK Board Member was not aware that the agency had applied for or received the grant. It also wrote that another Friends of MLK Board Member was asked by Rev. Smith to sign blank checks that required two signatures and was not aware how the grant funds were utilized. He also had no knowledge that Rev. Smith possessed an ATM card that gave him unsupervised access to the funds.

Sources also say that $4,000 of that money was written in checks to Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones's company, Karym Ventures Inc. That was in 2005, when she worked part time for the city. Spence-Jones is already investigated by the State Attorney's Office for allegations of accepting money for her votes approving the construction of a condo project in Coconut Grove.

Her lawyer told CBS4 that she did consulting work for Friends of MLK.

"Michelle performed services for 'Friends of MLK', which is a separate non-profit, pursuant to a contract. She did everything she was supposed to do. It was a legitimate contract, she didn't do anything wrong."

CBS4 News got a hold of the grant contract Smith holds with the county. The documents showed his non-profit group called "Friends of MLK" promised to use $25,000 of tax money to improve Liberty City. That money was supposed to be used to buy flyers and posters for community outreach. Friends of MLK was also supposed to start up an Internet website to promote local efforts. They also promised to use that money to coordinate an MLK fundraiser, and to coordinate a senior citizens community garden.

Sources close to the investigation say he didn't do any of it, and they say he kept most of the cash.

"Kathy Fernandez-Rundle listened to us, carefully considered this, and while the issue was sitting on her desk, the Miami-Dade Police Department abusively went to arrest a man who was completely 100 percent innocent," said Tein. "How dare they go and arrest him, without checking their facts, without looking at the math, without caring whether he's actually innocent."

The State Attorney's office says that the police department has the right to act on its own if necessary.