Famous church, besieged pastor

Nearly five years after replacing a legendary pastor in one of the nation's most prominent African American pulpits, the Rev. John J. Hunter counts his blessings.

Since taking the helm of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles in October 2004, Hunter says, he has been privileged to bring 3,000 new souls to Jesus. He and his staff have launched such new community services as a summer enrichment program for children deprived of summer school by budget cuts.

His church shines with handsome new pews and carpets, a repaved parking lot and spruced-up landscaping. The church's affiliated nonprofit corporations have brought in $4 million in new grants. And the church recently joined a $50-million deal that Hunter says could help revitalize the congregation's West Adams neighborhood and bring in income for decades to come.

"It's amazing what we've accomplished," said the 52-year-old pastor. "The overwhelming majority of people are pleased with our direction."

So why is Hunter so besieged?

Hard as he may try, Hunter has yet to escape the larger-than-life shadow of the man he replaced, the Rev. Cecil L. "Chip" Murray. Some congregants still grumble that he doesn't adequately visit the sick, throw open his office to visitors or spearhead the social and political activism on police abuse, homelessness, unemployment and other issues that, under Murray, helped rocket the church to national fame.

And Hunter has not entirely escaped the cloud of mistrust over his management of church and personal finances that has hovered over him ever since he arrived.

Accusations that he misused church credit cards for personal expenses, for instance, followed him to Los Angeles from his Seattle church. Those allegations were dismissed as untrue by the church treasurer there.

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A public apology

But similar allegations soon arose in Los Angeles, and last December, Hunter acknowledged using First AME's credit card for $122,000 in personal expenditures on items including suits, jewelry, vacations and auto supplies.

Hunter publicly apologized for embarrassing the church and says he is paying the money back.

Not everyone is mollified. More than a dozen current and former church officers, missionaries and volunteers who say they once supported Hunter have accused him of "gross financial maladministration" and asked the denomination's regional authority, Bishop T. Larry Kirkland, to remove the pastor; his wife, Denise; and six executive church officers.

In a document dated July 11, the group asked for an outside independent audit of the church's financial condition. It accused Hunter of misusing church credit cards, mismanaging his personal finances by failing to pay his federal taxes and showing nepotism by hiring his wife to run FAME Assistance Corp., the church's nonprofit economic development arm, and other affiliated social services corporations.

"We tried to give him the benefit of the doubt and work with him," said Carolyn Milligan-Hills, a 20-year church member, trustee and missionary who signed the appeal for Hunter's removal. "But it is time for us to get our church back."

Hunter dismissed the complaint as filled with "lies" and said it reflected the sentiments of just a handful of detractors in an otherwise satisfied congregation with 19,000 registered members.

The pastor and his officers said they have resolved all financial issues. Hunter said that he is paying the credit card debt in installments and that he was advised by his attorney that the payment plan did not run afoul of state law prohibiting tax-exempt organizations such as First AME from granting loans to its officers without approval of the state attorney general.

Hunter also said he had signed an agreement July 2 with the Internal Revenue Service to repay federal taxes, interest and penalties as of last December totaling more than $300,000. In a prepared statement, Kirkland said any grievances against Hunter must first go through the church's conciliation process. This would require that the bishop and other authorities meet with both sides to try to resolve the dispute.

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Bishop 'satisfied'

But Kirkland also endorsed Hunter. "Currently, I am satisfied with the direction in which the church is going, and Pastor Hunter has my support," he wrote.

Martha Downard, former chairwoman of the church's budget and audit committee, said she has agreed to the dissident group's request to testify to denominational authorities that the charges involving the credit cards and other financial issues are true.

"If there is to be any resolution to all of the unrest at FAME, church members must be told the truth so they can decide whether they support [Hunter] or not," said Downard, who resigned from her post in November after three decades at First AME because of conflicts with the Hunters over the credit card issue, his compensation and church property sales. Downard said she is willing to detail her efforts to hold Hunter accountable for the credit card spending, which the church's auditor uncovered in December 2007.

Some church members say the problems go beyond the complaints outlined in the letter to the bishop. In contrast to what many say was Murray's "open door policy," some say they have become increasingly offended by what they view as greater secrecy, reflected in a lack of information about major church projects and requirements imposed this year for employees and officers to sign confidentiality agreements.

"I believe God's spirit is about transparency. Confidentiality agreements totally contradict that and threaten people's employment," said Dawn Kirk Alexander, another longtime member who supports the request for an audit.

Hunter's critics say they are also troubled by the appearance of a conflict of interest over two business loans involving FAME Assistance Corp. and Randolph C. Dillon, the husband of Irma Brown Dillon, a top church officer and Los Angeles County Superior Court judge. Randolph Dillon said he took over the first loan in 2005 after buying the original loan recipient, Base Architecture & Engineering. He said he took out a second loan for $250,000 from First AME in January to support the firm's expanding business at Los Angeles International Airport.

The first loan was for the same amount and was repaid in 2007, Dillon said, adding that he saw no conflict of interest. Hunter said neither he nor his wife was involved in either loan decision. He said both were appropriately made, albeit without his knowledge, by the nonprofit corporation's business loan committee.

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Internet attacks

Hunter is sometimes the subject of Internet attacks, including unflattering posts from bloggers such as Morris O'Kelly, a Los Angeles writer whose "Mo'Kelly Report" posted a county document in April showing that the church owed $51,000 in unpaid taxes on the $2-million Encino property the Hunters chose for a parsonage. A county tax official said the current bill is $32,000; Hunter said the church plans to refile for a tax exemption, which the county assessor's office confirmed it denied last year.

Hunter must also contend with constant comparisons to Murray. In his 27 years at First AME, Murray transformed a small congregation into a civic powerhouse with a passionate social gospel that pushed the church to build 2,000 units of low-income housing, provide thousands of jobs, expand feeding programs, educate youth with college scholarships and rally the community over police abuse, gang warfare, the AIDS crisis and other pressing issues. The efforts brought in thousands of new members -- and visits by the likes of President Clinton and entertainers Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.

Hunter said he has tried to forge his own path, focusing first on his congregation's spiritual growth. But he said the church has remained committed to its social mission by providing shelter and $75,000 in aid to Hurricane Katrina victims, sponsoring forums on African American enrollment problems at UCLA and holding job fairs and a gang summit, among other things.

The emphasis on spirituality has won such fans as Clarence Daniels, a Los Angeles entrepreneur who said Hunter has restored a better balance between spirituality and activism. He said he nearly left the church before Hunter came because he believed the focus had tilted too heavily toward politics.

In a seven-hour interview and presentation last week, the Hunters and their staff stressed the progress they say First AME and its affiliates have made under their leadership. The pastor was flanked by several senior church officers who expressed support, along with a dozen administrators who gave briefings on the housing, health, transportation and business programs operated by affiliated nonprofit corporations.

New initiatives include a $2-million grant from Wachovia Bank to reach out to small businesses, a $500,000 state grant to promote better nutrition among African Americans, and environmental and transportation programs. The church has also started a "FAME stimulus package" to help struggling congregants pay their rent, utilities and other expenses.

Hunter said he was particularly excited about the church's summer enrichment program. The program has enlisted 75 church volunteers to help more than 75 children, who last week were busily engaged in solving pre-algebra problems, rehearsing a play and other activities.

In the meeting last week, Hunter also brought in a community partner to detail the $50-million project that First AME has joined to construct two office buildings.

In November, the church and FAME Assistance Corp. sold six parcels for a total of $6.5 million to a joint venture they launched with Morgan Stanley, economic development firm Genesis LA and the South Central Los Angeles Regional Center, which serves the developmentally disabled. The deal will give First AME 18% of the for-profit venture's proceeds and the right to buy back the property with the regional center in seven years for $5 million.

The project was approved by the church's board, but Hunter said the partners wanted to lay more groundwork before fully unveiling the details. The information void, however, has fueled rumors and questions about how the property sale proceeds have been spent.

"I would argue the church has made one heck of a good deal," said Norie Harrower, president of Genesis LA, who first approached the church about the project. "It will do wonders for this community."

Melville Perry, a longtime church officer, said it also took Murray several years to ride out initial criticism over his changes in the church. "There are a lot of us proud of our church and of Rev. Hunter," he said.

But whether Hunter will ever be able to win over his critics and pull together the storied church remains an open question.

"Leadership inevitably alienates people, because you have to make decisions that anger people," Hunter said. "But I'm always open to reconciliation and healing."

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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