A former Augusta minister was sentenced to more than 12 years in federal prison Thursday for his role in a scheme that cashed almost a half-million dollars in stolen tax return checks.
Judge J. Randal Hall said Jesse J. Flournoy III played a leading role in the fraud by receiving stolen checks from a source in Atlanta, forging the signatures, obtaining false power of attorney forms and ordering a co-defendant to cash the checks at a Columbia County business.
His co-defendant, Shonta Merriweather, was sentenced in February to 54 months in prison for her part in the scheme after pleading guilty to the charges.
Flournoy, who was a preacher at a Wylds Road church in Augusta, maintained his innocence even after a jury found him guilty in October on 22 charges, and he did not admit his participation until recently.
“I am deeply sorry for putting a burden on the government by going to trial,” Flournoy said tearfully before receiving 148 months in prison and being ordered to pay $450,000 in restitution, to be shared with Merriweather.
Apologizing to the Internal Revenue Service, his victims, family and friends, and asking for mercy from the judge, Flournoy, a father of eight, said he planned “to be a positive role model to my children and others in the community.”
Defense attorney John Taylor said Flournoy acted blindly throughout the scheme – which ran from September 2011 through January 2012 – and thought of it as a way to earn easy money without realizing the human impact.
“He didn’t realize stealing from the IRS is stealing from people,” Taylor said. “The idea was steal from a faceless entity that nobody seemed to like.”
The scheme helped the players collect more than $450,000 in treasury checks, although the U.S. district attorney’s office was only able to show evidence that $94,000 was in fact stolen.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Troy Clark argued not all the individuals whose identities were stolen were able to be located and that “we can not assume simply because a check does not come back that it is good.”
It is still not clear how much of a cut Flournoy received in the scheme, but Clark said he was a leader by knowingly recruiting others to participate, forging signatures on the checks and creating fraudulent tax returns. Charges have not yet been filed against Flournoy’s connections in Atlanta or any individuals besides Merriweather who may have facilitated the fraud locally.
Among about 15 friends and family present, the Rev. A.L. Cutler testified that Flournoy is a good man who got off course.
“Good people sometimes do bad things,” Cutler said. “I’m a good man, but sometimes I stub my toe.”