TAMPA — Roofs leaked chronically over the community center and the 50-year-old sanctuary at St. John Greek Orthodox Church.
Money was tight. The church was still paying for an 18,000-square-foot school building.
St. John needed a little earthly assistance.
So, in May 2006, church leaders bought into a Palm Beach broker's life insurance investment program, hoping to create a $1 million endowment.
"The success of this program will put an end to our current hand-to-mouth survival," a church pamphlet stated.
Instead, the church says it lost nearly $100,000.
Last week, the congregation sued the broker, Richard M. Incandela of Wellington, along with his wife and business partner, Barbara Incandela, several companies the couple owns and two business associates.
Other nonprofits say they, too, lost money to Richard Incandela.
Incandela, in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, said he will repay the church.
"We will work closely with them to resolve any outstanding differences of opinion," he said.
According to the lawsuit, the investment arrangement worked like this: Parishioners ages 70 to 85 agreed to donate their "unused insurability" to the church. They each went through health and financial checks and signed up for a life insurance policy. It cost them nothing.
Incandela, the suit says, promised to pre-sell the policies to investors, who would pay the monthly premiums and collect the death benefit when a parishioner died. The church would make money when policies sold.
"Of course you want to leave a legacy to your church," said George Fellios, a lifetime St. John parishioner and former member of the parish council. "The ability to do that without an out-of-pocket expense – who wouldn't want to do that?"
• • •
The deals are known as life settlements. A legitimate sale occurs when someone buys a life insurance policy and then realizes years later it isn't needed.
But another practice occurs when an agent offers to take out a policy on someone with the intent to sell it to investors.
That's against Florida law, state regulators say.
The church situation raises concerns, said Steve Leimberg of Bryn Mawr, Pa., a life settlement fraud expert.
"It's a classic arrangement whereby somebody is saying, 'Buy this insurance and we'll turn around and sell it before you know it,' " he said.
Incandela said the church program is legal. He said he has several legal opinions saying as much and that Florida law allows charities to participate in life settlements.
• • •
The lawsuit says Incandela promised to take out three policies on church parishioners. Two policies worth a combined $1.6 million were issued.
In August 2006, the church made an initial deposit of $12,500. The lawsuit says one transaction went well and the church received $28,429. The suit says, "In this way, defendants gained the confidence of the Church for their further fraudulent actions."
In December 2007, the church sent checks totaling $41,174 for the first month's premium on the three policies. It sent more money after Incandela said he could double the value. The premiums were to be refunded.
The lawsuit says Incandela bounced six checks to the life insurance company in October 2008. He replaced those with checks totaling $14,485 — covering one month on two policies.
The suit claims Incandela allowed policies to lapse and has not paid the church $94,848 in refundable deposits or the agreed upon payments for the resale of the policies — about $60,000.
The lawsuit asks for three times the amount of the deposits, or $284,544.
Incandela told the Times that policies issued on behalf of the parishioners are still moving forward. He said he met with the church last week and is "disappointed that they chose to proceed" with the lawsuit.
"Were we able to accomplish the results we wanted to? No," he said. "We did raise $30,000 for them back when the markets were strong."
Russell Sibley, the church's lawyer, declined to comment, saying the lawsuit speaks for itself. Katherine Sakkis, president of the St. John Parish Council, did not respond to several phone messages left this week. Father Stavros Akrotirianakis referred questions to Sibley.
Thom Bougas, who was Parish Council president in 2006 when the arrangement was made, said the program "turned out to be something less than was advertised, at least in this case."
• • •
Fellios, 36, is an investment banker who handles a few accounts for the church.
He said many parishioners were wary of the program.
"I remember some people shaking their head," Fellios said. "It just smelled funny."
Parishioner Eftihia Sorolis, 82, of Tampa went through the background checks needed to take out a policy. When she got the final paperwork, she backed out.
"I read it over, and it didn't sound right to me," she said. "It didn't seem to me that the church was going to get the money."
It's unclear whether the church checked Incandela's own background. Incandela, 56, was convicted in 1992 on a felony charge of stealing more than $100,000. He served nearly two years of a six-year sentence in an Illinois prison before being paroled.
Shortly afterward, he was convicted in Palm Beach County on two felony counts of forgery and one felony count of grand theft.
St. John isn't the only Florida church linked to Incandela. The St. Nectarios Orthodox Church in Lakeland put down a $12,500 deposit on a policy last fall.
"We agreed to participate, but we really never got anything back," said Father Nicholas Wyborski.
Mid-America Christian University sued Incandela in May, arguing he failed to make $76,000 in premiums after the small Oklahoma City school invested in 12 life settlement policies.
The South Carolina Victim Assistance Network signed up for an online program offered by Incandela that allows groups to solicit funds from friends and family. Staffers raised $1,270, but say they never saw the money.
Shannon Forest Christian School, also in South Carolina, shut down a life settlement fundraising arrangement with Incandela after only a year. The school had offered tuition credits for families who provided the name of a candidate 75 to 85 years old.
"There was always this promise of a lot of money around the corner, but we always needed to do more to get it," said Michael Rybka, who was minister at the time at the affiliated Shannon Forest Presbyterian Church.
Brenda Hillman, head of the Shannon Forest school, said Florida investigators contacted the school recently about Incandela.
The state Department of Financial Services investigates insurance fraud complaints. A spokeswoman would not confirm or deny any investigation into Incandela or his business.
Incandela said he's resolved complaints other nonprofits had with him.
He said his company raised millions for charities — before the market crashed.
"The market is so painfully hard, we've scaled back significantly," he said. "We're all but dormant waiting for the market to come back."
He said he might consider changing careers because the business is so difficult.
Researcher John Martin contributed to this article. Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.