Alabamian is victim of former missionary’s theft; loses health, wealth, but keeps sense of humorcomment (0)
March 6, 2014
An Alabama woman who lost her home, business and health as a result of a bookkeeper’s scam said in a new book that she never would have met the man who stole tens of thousands of dollars from her and her clients if the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) had prosecuted him for embezzling missions funds in Turkey.
Wynona Rogers, author of “Riches to Rags: One Woman’s Story of Betrayal and Redemption,” said she first met Benton Gray Harvey through his mother, who worked for her at Starfish Insurance Agency in Gulf Shores.
Harvey and his roommate started coming by her office and they became friends. She went to the office Christmas party where Harvey worked. His boss stopped by their table to tell her what a great employee he was and that she didn’t know what she would do without him.
Rogers knew that Harvey was a former missionary, but what no one told her was that in 2005 the International Mission Board (IMB) had won a judgment of $359,499.62 to recover money he admitted to stealing earmarked for earthquake relief and other purposes in Istanbul.
Wendy Norvelle, IMB spokesperson, told The Alabama Baptist that in 2003 the IMB discovered “evidence of some questionable accounting and a thorough investigation was immediately launched.” Harvey resigned during that time.
The topic also was referenced from the convention floor during the 2008 SBC annual meeting when a messenger asked about it, but little information was shared.
However, a notation was added to the public record of his resignation, noting that he had failed to observe the lifestyle expected of an IMB missionary, Norvelle said.
“To IMB’s knowledge, no prospective employer of Mr. Harvey ever contacted the IMB to ask for a reference; had such a reference been sought, the IMB would have provided its opinion that Mr. Harvey would not be a good fit for any position involving financial responsibility,” she said.
Norvelle also noted that IMB trustees and staff carefully studied every legal option available to address the accounting discrepancies that occurred on Harvey’s watch, including seeking criminal prosecution. There were several factors that convinced the IMB that seeking prosecution was not a viable option, including the fact that Harvey’s service was overseas and the funds were taken overseas. Prosecution in the United States was not an option because U.S. courts did not have jurisdiction over the overseas events. Also Harvey had already returned to the U.S. from his overseas service, so the country where he served lacked jurisdiction over him. “The fact that money is not accounted for is not enough (to prosecute),” Norvelle said. “Clear evidence of criminal intent is required.”
The IMB decided the best course of action was to pursue civil court remedies to recover the money. This was done and Harvey signed a promissory note, which he later defaulted on and a default judgment was entered against him in Richmond, Va., Norvelle said.
“Because this default judgment was a matter of public record, it would ordinarily appear when running a background and credit report on Mr. Harvey,” Norvelle said.
Rogers said it never occurred to her to do a background check before hiring Harvey as her bookkeeper. He volunteered to help take care of her dogs and every morning brought her coffee. Afterward her health started to decline.
“I got to the point I was so weak I couldn’t keep anything down,” she said. “I went from a size 14 to a size 2. I was a walking stick.”
Rogers said she has reason to believe Harvey was putting arsenic in her coffee to get her out of the way so he could sell bogus homeowner policies to at least 118 customers. Harvey pleaded guilty in 2011 to a single count of misappropriation of insurance premiums in exchange for a lighter sentence by cooperating with federal law enforcement in another investigation.
Prosecutors wouldn’t share the nature of that cooperation, and a U.S. district judge withheld a separate indictment detailing the remaining crimes of which Harvey was accused. The plea bargain called for a minimum sentence of two years in federal prison, but when Harvey failed to appear for his sentencing hearing the judge increased it to three and a half years. He is now serving prison time.
That left Rogers responsible for all the customers to whom Harvey sold policies without her knowledge and kept the premiums for himself. She testified at a 2009 hearing in Mobile that she had spent more than $450,000 repaying victims. She was ordered to pay a $36,000 fine and adopt multiple accounting controls or else lose her license to sell insurance.
After the case received publicity, the IRS got involved, and she discovered that Harvey had shredded checks she wrote to pay her taxes. She owed them $26,000 that she had to borrow from her mother.
“I went from being worth $4 million dollars to 68 cents,” Rogers said.
“I blame the International Mission Board,” she said. “If they had put him in prison, I never would have met him. If they had done the right thing — because one of the Ten Commandments is ‘thou shalt not steal’ and he stole” — things would have been different, she said. “They just chose to look the other way; turn a blind eye to it.”
Rogers said she never expected to write a book, until someone else mentioned it. A couple came by her office one day and Rogers asked them if they wanted a refund or needed insurance, and the wife said: “No, you already paid us back. We just want an update on what’s going on in your life. I said, ‘Why would you want an update?’ She said, ‘Because you’ve got the most interesting life of any person I’ve ever met. You need to write a book.’”
“I said, ‘I ain’t writing no book,’” she said. “But I started doing it for therapy. I wanted to find some humor in what happened in the day. I never really planned on writing a book. I did it for my own sanity.
“Then eventually I had to sell my business because I wasn’t making enough to pay rent and gas and all that, so when I moved in with Mom I decided that lady was right and I needed to write a book.”
She said she never expected the book to be published. Another thing she never expected was being invited to share her story in churches and other venues.
New perspective on a lot of things
“I took speech in college, and all I had to do was speak five minutes to get an ‘A,’” she recalled. “I got up, and I had a poster of a shark, and I pointed to it and I said, ‘Stay out of the water’ and I sat down.”
Recently Rogers said she was invited to speak for 15 or 20 minutes and didn’t think she could do it. “Well I talked 45,” she said. “I couldn’t shut up. It was all about the book and they had questions.”
Rogers said a lot more happened that didn’t make it into the book. “Frankly I got tired of reliving it,” she said. “I mean, every time I wrote it I cried.”
“I did solve one thing,” she said. “He took away my money. He took away my health. But one thing he couldn’t take from me was my happiness. That was up to me.”
“Falling down is not the sin,” she said. “The sin is not getting back up. If you just let it beat you down you can’t do that. You’ve got to dream big and work hard and never give up. That’s my theory anyway. It may not be everybody’s, but it’s mine.”
Rogers said she hopes the book, written in a style using what she calls “redneck humor” for perspective and a motto of “keep it light,” will give hope to others who are going through hard times.
“Bad things happen to good people, and if you hit bottom the only way you can go is up,” she said. “Don’t give up. Keep trying.”
Rogers said both she and her husband are currently seeking a job. “I’m doing OK on book sales, but it’s not enough to pay all the bills,” she said. “I actually went on food stamps a couple of months ago. I didn’t have a choice. I never thought I’d be the type person to end up broke, poor, on food stamps, going to food banks, and it’s all thanks to Benton Gray Harvey Jr.”
Rogers said she is already thinking about a sequel. “I’m going to get my money back one book at a time,” she said.