The former executive pastor of Sonrise Church in Clovis was sentenced in federal court on Friday to over seven years in prison for a real estate scheme that defrauded church congregants and others, U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott announced.
Sherman Smith, 74, previously pleaded guilty to committing wire fraud. According to court documents, he made appeals from the pulpit, via email, and in person for money to pay off the church’s mortgage and fund an income-generating development benefiting the church.
“Mr. Smith is a con-man and a thief,” said U.S. District Judge Dale A. Drozd. He sentenced Smith to serve seven years and 3 months in prison and pay $2,187,000 in restitution, according to a Justice Department news release.
Smith defrauded investors out of more than $2 million dollars, the release said. He collected cash, checks, and rolled-over retirement accounts to fund the church’s project, but he did not disclose that he was using the money for personal expenses, to operate a publishing business, and to invest in foreign ventures, officials said.
“Smith’s actions in this case went far beyond ‘misappropriation,’” Scott said. “In asking for church donations to support his scheme, he targeted widows for their deceased husband’s life insurance money; he asked for money to be withdrawn from retirements accounts; he damaged marriages and family relationships; he took away parents’ dreams of affording college for their children, and he destroyed lives.”
Previously Served Time for Securities Fraud
Friday’s sentence is the second federal sentence for Smith, who previously served 37 months in prison for securities fraud that caused a loss of over $5 million with 38 different victims, Scott said.
“Smith abused his trusted role as executive pastor of a community church by diverting funds intended to help the church and congregation to fund his personal and business expenses,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Sean Ragan. The agency investigated the case.
“While today’s sentence offers some justice to Smith’s victims, many face a long journey to financial recovery from the hardship this scheme created. We ask the public to commit to researching all financial investment opportunities, regardless of who is proposing or coordinating the investment,” Ragan said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura D. Withers prosecuted the case.