Divine finance called a scam

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The three men, claiming to have been rescued from financial ruin by divine intervention, went to homes and churches across North and South Carolina spreading tales of financial rescue.

With an investment of just pennies on the dollar, they promised an end to credit card debt, mortgages and hefty car loans.

And word of the “Three Hebrew Boys” spread. Small meetings in living rooms grew to fill church meeting halls and hotel ballrooms, with followers wooed, authorities now say, by promises of massive returns from investments in foreign currencies.

Tony Pough, Timothy McQueen and Joseph Brunson - three men who attend church together - created their endeavor in 2005 and named it after a tale in the Bible of three people who were thrown into a fiery furnace but spared because of their faith in God. Stories of their investment plan spread quickly, thanks to believers who recruited new clients on military bases and in churches.

By the time authorities moved in, at least 7,000 investors from two-dozen states had handed over $80 million. But barely any of it was invested - less than $40,000, according to state and federal officials - while the three men bought a jet, luxury cars and tickets to football games, court documents show.

A federal grand jury indicted the men on 35 counts of mail fraud Friday, and they were charged with securities fraud in state court in September.

A judge has frozen $17 million the Hebrew Boys had in bank accounts, and that money remains in limbo as the men await trial, which means investors aren’t able to collect any money until the case is resolved.

But some of their so-called victims have become their staunchest defenders, holding rallies in support of the men who face decades in prison if convicted.

One investor, Henry Lewis, said he had no problem until the state got involved. Mr. Lewis refused to say how much he invested but said the men kept every promise to pay him back before the money was frozen.

“I was looking for financial freedom. I’m tired of being in debt,” said Mr. Lewis, of Ladson, S.C.

Authorities said they aren’t surprised by the fierce defense of the men, in part because they enlisted respected pastors, deacons and retired soldiers to help pitch the plan. They also relied on trust built around race - the three defendants are black, as are about 90 percent of their investors, authorities said.

“That’s the nature of a well-organized scam. You recruit highly regarded and trusted members of a specific community and get them on board to endorse your product,” said Mark Plowden, a spokesman for South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster.

The men pleaded not guilty to the state charges and an initial federal charge filed last month.

Mr. McQueen refused to talk when reached at home. A phone message for Mr. Pough was not returned. No one answered the door at an address Mr. Brunson left on his bail forms in a subdivision along a golf course.

Their attorneys either did not return messages or declined to speak about the case.

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