Ephren Taylor stepped up to the pulpit with the ease of preacher's son, taking the microphone at the New Birth Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the powerful pastor Eddie Long was introducing him to the Sunday morning crowd. "Everything he says is based on the word of God," Long pledged to the members of his megachurch.
But Taylor wasn't a visiting minister. He was a financial adviser, one who claimed to have made his first million in his 20s. And he promised he could do the same for his fellow Christians. "We're going to show you how to get wealth and use it for the building of his kingdom," Taylor shouted to the congregation one morning in 2009.
It was all part of what he called his "Building Wealth Tour," which crisscrossed the country touting self-improvement, followed-up with private meetings with interested investors. Some congregants from some of the most prominent mega-churches in the country, including New Birth Baptist Church and Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Texas, turned over their life savings to Taylor hoping to do good while doing well.
But the Securities and Exchange Commission said Taylor was actually peddling a Ponzi scheme that "swindled over $11 million, primarily from African-American churchgoers." Earlier this year, the agency entered a judgment against Taylor, ordering him to pay more than $14 million, which included money owed to investors and interest and fees.