Joliet church ordered to pay back donations from local businessman convicted in Ponzi scheme

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Thursday, September 7, 2023 11:08PM
Joliet church ordered to pay back donations from businessman convicted in Ponzi scheme
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Messiah Lutheran Church in Joliet must pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from a local businessman convicted of a Ponzi scheme.

JOLIET, Ill. (WLS) -- A church in Joliet is scrambling to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from the founder of a local business who was convicted of defrauding investors in a Ponzi scheme.

Messiah Lutheran Church leaders say they fear financial ruin for their place of worship.

In August, the congregation learned it would have to pay back over $780,000 in donations to the federal government, even though the church said it has done nothing wrong.

The church was thrust into a financial crisis after authorities said it received donations from a local company accused for fraudulent financial practices.

Kenneth Courtright, founder of Today's Growth Consultant Inc., has been convicted of wire fraud connected to a $75 million Ponzi scheme that defrauded more than 500 investors. Courtright could not be reached for comment.

In 2021, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed a federal lawsuit demanding that the church pay back to the SEC over $780,000 in donations given to them by Courtright.

The majority of the donations date back to 2010, meaning the money the church received in good faith has already been used for its ministry over the last decade. In August a judge ordered the church to pay the reduced amount of $487,000 in just over 60 days. If they don't, a $100,000 penalty will be added.

"We've paid $187,000 right away, what we had in the bank, and now we need to raise $300,000 by November 15," said Pastor Kurt Hoover.

Church leaders said what happened to them could happen to other churches and not-for-profit charities, because they say the law doesn't provide any protections to them from the wrongdoing of donors.

Illinois state law allows "claw back claims" to go back 10 years.

"They don't care if the building sits vacant. They don't care about our ministry. They don't care about our church members," said Church Council President Brian Wielbik.

The church held a meeting Thursday afternoon to inform the community about their plight and ask for their help. If the church can't raise the funds, it may have to sell its sanctuary. Messiah Lutheran Church has served its community for over 120 years.