The leader of the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church has released a statement on Monday detailing how a local congregation has lost $274,000 to theft. Bishop Laurie Haller called upon churches within the denomination to take a closer look at their financial statements and processes in case they were a victim of theft or fraud.
"I am writing to address an unpleasant and uncomfortable topic: fraud and embezzlement in one of our beloved churches in the Iowa Conference," Haller wrote in a statement released on Monday, as reported by the Christian Post.
"I encourage you to review your church's procedures for counting offerings, accounting for donations, authorizing expenditures, reconciling accounts, and financial reporting. Review your safeguards against embezzlement and fraud."
The bishop underscored the importance of having "good internal controls" to protect the integrity and reputation of those who control the church's finances. She added that having such people in place means that they "care about the church's ministry and the people who support it with their prayers, labor, and money. It shows that accountability, responsibility, and transparency are important."
Haller also highlighted how fraud and embezzlement, among other crimes, is are not tolerated by the church. She went on to comment on the actions of the people of First United Methodist Church of Mason City, who were victims of the fraud for their "prompt, thorough and professional response."
Just last week, a 47 year old woman by the name of Melissa Noland was sentenced to 27 months in prison and ordered to pay restitution to the church for stealing at least $274,000, which she used to pay for student loans, and credit card debts. Noland was employed by First UMC from January 2015 up to January 2019, after which she was terminated from her job when her thefts were discovered.
Before she was sentenced, Noland entered a plea deal to one count of wire fraud in May this year. The U.S. Department of Justice explained that the church employee executed the theft in several ways, including writing checks to herself using the church's checkbook, using church bank accounts to pay for her credit card bills, and making excess payroll distributions to herself.
According to the DOJ, the case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Anthony Morfitt and investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Mason City Police Department. Statistics showed that the church often loses an average of $120,000, but up to 80% of church fraud cases do not get reported.
Just this September, NBC 6 South Florida reported that a bookkeeper was found to have stolen up to $391,889.45 of the church's funds throughout his career as a treasurer and bookkeeper for Centro Cristiano Restauracion Divina church on West Copans Road. Abraham Velazquez-Velazquez, a 36 year old who worked at the church between 2014 to 2019, was the sole person in charge of depositing the church's weekly offerings and paying its bills.
However, Velazquez-Velazquez had a debit card linked to the Pompano Beach church's Wells Fargo bank account, which he used for unauthorized purchases and cash withdrawals. The theft only came to light when the church's pastor kept receiving emails from the landlord about late payments.
The church expected to have saved $247,000 in the bank account, but only had about $1,200. Velazquez-Velazquez was arrested on a grand theft charge.