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Tampa Bay lawsuits reinforce virtue of keeping faith and investments separate

I met a very smart and wealthy man last year who lives in the Tampa Bay area and who admitted doing a very dumb thing. He let down his guard and committed $500,000 to invest in a "sure thing" promising big returns in a very short period of time.

Why? Because the person urging him to make the investment was affiliated with his church. The investor trusted, without asking basic financial questions as it turns out, because he was among friends of his own faith. He lost his sizable stake.

I'm working on the story that will tell this man's tale. Let it serve as a timely reminder to us all. What happened to him happens a lot more often than we realize.

Never pay where you pray. Never seek compound returns where you seek communion. Never invest where you invoke.

There's a good reason Ponzi scheme master Bernie Madoff targeted his fellow Jewish faithful. They lowered their guard around Madoff.

That scenario resurfaces in recent Tampa Bay lawsuits brought by investors who claim they were hoodwinked by giving funds to invest to religious figures in their lives. It's no coincidence these folks invested during a recession. They were hungry for better returns amid declining stock markets and bank CDs paying puny returns.

In 2007 and 2008, Tampa's Bruce Panks purchased $425,000 worth of investment contracts from a Tampa business called CSO Industries run by Charles S. Owens III. Owens has divinity degrees from Tyndale Theological Seminary in Forth Worth, Texas, and was a member of Countryside Christian Center, a Clearwater church. Another local investor, retired businessman William Tayler, also put up $100,000 at Owens' suggestion.

Panks and Tayler are two of 18 investors who in January sued Owens for defrauding them. The suit mirrors one in 2009 by St. Petersburg retiree Shirley Broderick, who says she lost life savings of $220,000 through Owens.

Owens has declined to return the bulk of the funds, indicating the economic downturn keeps him from returning the money. In some cases, Owens has told investors they had committed in writing not to withdraw their funds for several years.

In a separate lawsuit filed in December, a Clearwater investor says a Christian radio talk show host defrauded him.

In 2007, Robert Craig started listening to a radio talk show called It's God's Money on WTBN-AM 570. He says he contacted the show's host, developer and financial adviser Gary Gauthier, seeking advice on a safe investment for his $60,000 — at the time in an ING annuity.

Gauthier, the lawsuit says, told listeners they could invest "God's money" through him.

According to the lawsuit, Gauthier and partner David Dreslin persuaded Craig to buy $71,000 in notes from their company, USA Investments LLC, in exchange for a "guaranteed" 8 percent annual return.

Craig says he lost his principal on "grossly unsuitable" investments for someone wanting retirement income.

In so many ways, it seems so logical to invest your money with those you trust the most. And aren't those folks who believe like you do, who demonstrate their piety, the most trustworthy of people?

Do yourself a favor. Separate your church from your investments. Your faith and wallet will both thank you.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay lawsuits reinforce virtue of keeping faith and investments separate 02/15/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 15, 2010 7:30pm]
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