ATLANTA — Ephren Taylor riveted audiences at mostly black churches with a list of his accomplishments and an uncanny business sense. He had the blessing of top clergy as he gave financial seminars from the pulpit, promising rock-solid investments – only many of the churchgoers say they haven’t seen a dime.
Two lawsuits filed last month claim the 29-year-old was a con artist who targeted worshippers in at least five states on the East Coast since 2004, swindling tens of millions of dollars in a Ponzi scheme.
“He knew if he went to a Christian African-American and said, ‘I can take your hard-earned investment money, and you’re going to earn more money, but more importantly you’re going to do good for your church and community,’ that they would fall for it,” said Cathy Lerman, an attorney who sued Taylor in North Carolina.
Taylor resigned last year as chief executive of holding company City Capital. He was tapped as its leader at 23. Worshippers would often be asked to invest in real estate and businesses tied to the company.
The Secret Service and the secretary of state’s office in Georgia, where the other lawsuit has been filed, are investigating. Taylor has not faced any criminal charges.
Lawyers suing him say they don’t know his whereabouts, but he sent The Associated Press a statement after a reporter contacted him through his Web site. He said he planned to use his own money to help those who feel “negatively impacted.” He criticized his detractors and compared himself to other financial heavyweights who were “crucified” amid the economic downturn.
“Sometimes people will participate in a game they don’t have a stomach for, and when it goes south, they put the blame on those that led that game,” he said.
In late 2009, Taylor came to an Atlanta megachurch with his pitch, according to the Georgia lawsuit. Flanked by Bishop Eddie Long, he told the 25,000-member congregation that his investors would buy can’t-miss real estate.
“He pushed all the right buttons,” said Lillian Wells, who said she lost $122,000.
Wells is among 10 New Birth Missionary Baptist Church members suing Taylor, Long and the church. It claims Long abused his spiritual authority and “coerced” his parishioners into investing at least $1 million in Taylor’s fund in 2009.
The bishop has declined to comment on the lawsuit, but he urged Taylor in a video posted this year on YouTube to “do what’s right” and repay the money with interest.