By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
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Carter had a vision called the Family Life Center — a new campus to house a gymnasium for kids and classrooms for adult education. Carter believed the center would help New Mount Olive expand its mission to the community. No trustees questioned him; they just wanted to know how they were supposed to pay for a complex that, according to some estimates, might cost the church $23 million.
Trustees went looking for ways to trim the $3 million church budget, which led Mullins to a discovery that, due to built-in annual raises, New Mount Olive was paying some of its staff — like secretaries and bookkeepers — salaries out of proportion to their qualifications. Those cuts were easy to make. It was harder, says Mullins, to cut portions of the budget that involved Carter. About $450,000 was spent to televise Carter's sermons, which aired internationally on the Word Network and locally on WSVN. Eventually, the trustees would succeed in trimming $100,000 from that figure. Carter wasn't happy.
Trustees say that during a one-month period around 2001, Carter succeeded in getting his pay raised from about $100,000 to $200,000. He requested $400,000 to make up for having no equity in the church-owned home where he lived. And he asked for a $100,000 gift to help him make the down payment on a new house. The trustees gave him the $100,000 down payment but refused his request for $400,000.
On the Thursday evening of June 22, 2006, the New Mount Olive trustees joined other church officials for a meeting in the church chapel. With its wan lighting, bare white walls and seating for several dozen, the chapel sits across the corridor from the main sanctuary, where padded pews for several thousand face Carter's pulpit.
In the months before this meeting, relations between Carter and a segment of the trustees had grown even more strained.
Carter never attended the trustees' meetings. But Everett Howard, the church's administrator, represented Carter there. A group of trustees believed that Howard, at what they assumed was Carter's request, had circumvented the board of trustees in a few important financial decisions. He had, for instance, signed a contract with a cell phone company seeking to install a tower on New Mount Olive property. Some trustees argued that if they had known about the deal, they would have negotiated a better payout. The contract's execution, they said, violated church bylaws.
A more contentious issue was Howard's use of church funds to purchase land just east of the church to construct Carter's long-sought Family Life Center. The church still had not raised enough funds to build it. Trustees were incensed, not just because they weren't consulted, but because they say the church paid more than the land's assessed market value. A group of trustees sought to have Howard dismissed. But they say Carter stood in their way.
Howard declined to comment for this story. New Mount Olive attorney Eugene Pettis says he doesn't know whether Carter hired Howard or directed Howard to make contracts and land deals, but Pettis says that if the trustees objected to Howard's performance, they had the power to dismiss him.
Around the same time, trustees hunting for new revenue streams had begun asking questions about why the church's tape ministry reported such low sales. The tape ministry sells DVDs and VHS tapes of Carter sermons for $10, CDs for $7, and audio cassettes for $5. They're advertised during televised sermons and are available online, after Saturday and Sunday services, and at national conferences where Carter appears. "I was usually in the foyer (after service) and had the opportunity to view the transactions at the tape desk," says one former church activist. "Tape sales were very, very good every month. And you're telling me the tape ministry was only making $400 a month?"
For years the church's annual audits had been performed by Shawn Davis & Associates, a Hollywood-based firm whose managing partner, Davis, is a New Mount Olive member. No trustees accused Davis' firm of misconduct, but given their wariness about Carter's influence, a majority of trustees moved to hire Fort Lauderdale's Sharpton Brunson & Company, whose analysts had no relationship with the church, to perform an audit.
By the time of the June 22 meeting Sharpton Brunson had already been paid $5,000 by the church and were beginning to scrutinize the church's ledger. A more controversial matter was a motion made at that meeting by trustee Nathaniel Green, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who had a particularly acrimonious history with Carter. Green moved that the church prepare a retirement package for Carter, then 59, and begin to consider the way it would choose his successor.
Tony Franklin, a former trustee, sensed danger. Carter and his loyalists might interpret Green's motion as an indication that the trustees expected to find evidence of corruption, evidence which would force Carter to resign. Franklin guessed Carter would react explosively when he heard the news. He says he hoped to preserve some shred of civility between the trustees and Carter, if that was possible. Carter was out of town, but Franklin called the pastor that night. "I personally wanted to make sure that he heard correctly what happened at the meeting," says Franklin. He thought he had succeeded.