TAMPA — As a church pastor, Greg Sims showed love and kindness and understanding to everyone he met.
He reached out to troubled boys, taking them to church, attending their ball games, helping them with homework.
He led Crossroads Church, a small congregation in Dade City that, by all accounts, loved him like family.
He also stole money — more than $800,000 systematically and surreptitiously embezzled from a union investment fund he worked for.
And for that, a federal judge on Tuesday sentenced Sims to 21/2 years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release. He also must repay the roughly $813,000 in restitution.
"You are a good person, somebody who's lived a very good life," U.S. District Judge Virginia Hernandez Covington told him. "But you committed a very grave error."
Sims, 38, pleaded guilty late last year to theft or embezzlement of an employee benefit plan. According to court records, Sims began working for a company called Antares Staffing in late 2007. Antares was a subsidiary of Medical Mutual Services LLC, which managed health, welfare, pension and vacation funds for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 915, based in Tampa.
Sims' responsibilities included keeping financial records, reconciling accounts and issuing checks. He worked for Antares until January 2009, when he was fired. In June of that year, records say, an audit of International Brotherhood funds turned up 11 checks from the union's accounts to Crossroads Church on Clinton Avenue totaling $813,142.17.
To try to hide his embezzlement, Sims manipulated the bookkeeping to show payments to entities other than Crossroads Church, records say.
Robert Miles, an attorney for the union, said insurance covered the losses, but the union members still suffered. In order to break even on the budget from the year it lost money, the union had to increase insurance premiums, co-pays and deductibles. Some members couldn't afford the rising costs.
"There are (members) there that don't have coverage," said Tom Withers, the union's benefits consultant.
The description of Sims' crime contrasts sharply with the emotional, deeply remorseful man who stood in court Tuesday with three dozen church parishioners behind him in support.
One woman described how Sims never judged her for her past but welcomed her unconditionally to Crossroads.
Another man said he admired how Sims admitted his wrongdoing to the church members rather than trying to hide it.
Sims' wife, Lisa, described his unyielding love for his own children, ages 11 and 8.
"He's just a man that made a big mistake," Lisa Sims said. "He did not practice what he preached."
Through it all, Sims held his face in his hands and wept.
He spoke, too, telling Covington that the theft began when he and his family were having trouble making payments on properties purchased when the economy was stronger. From there, he said, that single thought "opened up a chasm" in him.
"I strongly apologize for not having the moral fiber that I let on that I had," he said.
He thanked his parents, his in-laws and his "church family" who gave him love and support — "that which I did not deserve."
The judge said the case reminded her of her favorite Bible dictum: "To whom much is given, much is expected."
Sims did not come from a broken home or drug-dealing parents. His advantages of family and opportunity, Covington said, should have held him to a higher standard.
"When people to whom much is given break the law, we just suffer the consequences," she said.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected] or (727)-869-6245.