2 Church Officials Resign

Times Staff Writer

The president and treasurer of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel have resigned after the church’s loss of $14 million in two allegedly fraudulent investment schemes, the Los Angeles-based institution said Wednesday.

Foursquare’s board of directors last week accepted the resignation of President Paul Risser, a minister with the Pentecostal church for more than 40 years and its top executive since 1998. Risser described his departure as “in the best interests of everyone,” Foursquare spokesman Ron Williams said.

Treasurer Brent Morgan also resigned last week, the church said in a news release. Risser and Morgan could not be reached for comment.


Risser had drawn criticism from some Foursquare leaders for entrusting funds from a church foundation to Financial Advisory Consultants Inc. of Lake Forest and IPIC International Inc. of Ontario, Williams said.

Both firms recently were shut down by federal authorities, who described them as Ponzi schemes that paid big returns to certain early investors with money obtained from late-comers.

Foursquare was founded by early 20th century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, a fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal preacher who foreshadowed today’s televangelists by using radio to broadcast her gospel.

McPherson preached around the nation before establishing a permanent base in 1918 in Los Angeles, where five years later she built the 5,300-seat Angelus Temple, a landmark that still stands just north of Echo Park Lake near downtown.

By the church’s count, it has 3.6 million members who worship in nearly 30,000 churches and meeting places in 123 countries.

The $14 million in Foursquare losses represented nearly 6% of the $250 million the church received when it sold a Los Angeles radio station, KFSG-FM, to Spanish Broadcasting System in November 2000.

Williams said the church’s executive office, headed by Risser, hoped the high returns promised by Financial Advisory Consultants and IPIC International would help continue an aggressive expansion campaign “to spread the kingdom of God.”

“The idea was that this was a safe amount,” Williams said.

Risser did not seek approval from Foursquare’s board before making the investments, and church leaders were divided on whether he had the authority to do so, Williams said.

Investing donations from congregation members would clearly be out of line, he noted, but the rules for handling proceeds from the radio station sale were less clear.

Foursquare’s vice president, Jared Roth, will serve as interim president until a new president is selected in June, Williams said. Finance director Jeffrey Bird has assumed the role of chief financial officer and treasurer.

Financial Advisory Consultants, headed by James P. Lewis Jr. of Villa Park, and IPIC, headed by Gregory Setser of Ontario, are accused of swindling hundreds of millions of dollars from investors, including numerous churches, pastors and congregants.

Lewis and Setser, both of whom face multiple felony fraud counts, apparently operated independently, authorities said.

Lewis, who is being held without bail in Santa Ana, pleaded not guilty last month to federal fraud and money-laundering charges.

A federal judge in Dallas freed Setser last month on condition he wear an electronic monitor while awaiting trial at his home in Texas. Setser, three members of his immediate family and an associate have pleaded not guilty to fraud and money laundering.

Federal prosecutors and Securities and Exchange Commission investigators said Lewis and Setser practiced what is known as affinity fraud -- preying on groups of people with close family, religious or ethnic ties, who spread word of the high-yielding investments among themselves.

Many Foursquare pastors and church members lost money to Lewis, Williams said.

The victims included Luann Joan Long of Riverside, who previously had told The Times that she was forced to sell her home because she had given Lewis her entire retirement savings last spring, along with life insurance proceeds from her husband’s death -- totaling millions of dollars.

Williams said the church’s investments with Lewis and Setser were made over a period of about 18 months. He said he could not provide a breakdown of how much went money to each operation.

Risser and his wife, Marilee, are well-known to Foursquare church members in Southern California, having served as pastors of a Foursquare congregation in Santa Fe Springs for 25 years before he was elected president of the denomination in 1998.

Williams said there was no evidence that Risser, 66, had any intent to benefit personally from the investments with Lewis and Setser.

The church hopes Risser will stay on as an unofficial elder and preacher, he added.