Rocky finances, unbuilt churches

Bankruptcy: Local congregations are among creditors trying to recover money paid to a clergyman-builder.

March 06, 2002|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

It was a sign on a vacant lot - "New Church" - that brought leaders of Supreme Highlights Ministry and the Rev. Gene C. Bradford together in October 1999.

Members of the small Pentecostal congregation needed a new sanctuary. Bradford, who had built several Randallstown-area churches and was about to begin another on the Liberty Road lot, said he could give them one.

Impressed by his presentation, the congregation paid Bradford $340,000. But Supreme Highlights never got its church.

Today, the congregation is among 31 creditors trying to collect from Bradford in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. A Randallstown real estate investor, builder and Baptist minister, Bradford owes $2.1 million to churches, mortgage companies, construction suppliers, government agencies and former lawyers.

Supreme Highlights is one of two churches that have sued Bradford. The other, Lamb of Life Baptist Church, says it is owed $79,000.

Church leaders say they were duped by a man they believed to be a smart businessman and a spiritual leader.

"I have never in my life met anyone with the courage to use God's name in building churches and not carry out his ministerial duties," says the Rev. Thomas Prioleau, who heads Supreme Highlights.

But Bradford says he is not responsible for his financial problems.

He blames "lawless lawyers" who sued him on behalf of the two churches. He blames a racist society that ignores his accomplishments as a builder and is unwilling to lend capital to black entrepreneurs like himself.

Bradford says his financial problems began last March when his line of credit was cut off.. But there is evidence that his difficulties started before then.

Leaders of Blessed Trinity in Pikesville say that construction was delayed on their new church during 2000 because Bradford had cash-flow problems.

He completed the building, but he didn't finish the parking lot and refused to repair a defective handicap-access ramp or replace warped doors, says Karen Thompson, a board member who helped to coordinate construction.

"We don't attribute the delivery of our building to Gene Bradford, but to the grace of God," said Thompson.

Despite the lawsuits and financial setbacks, Bradford says he offers a unique service - building small churches for religious groups with little capital.

Bradford says he will repay creditors after he comes up with a reorganization plan. He filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December.

"I'm taking all of the risk," he says. "The only thing they're doing is putting up a number of dollars to get a church at half the price. There's nobody [else] on Earth who can do this."

Builder and minister

Bradford, 60, is a tall man who speaks with confidence, whether he's using the language of a real estate agent or quoting Scripture.

He says he has built seven churches since 1994, mostly on the west side of Baltimore County. He's been building and renovating houses since 1973 and has been a Baptist minister since 1980.

Bradford runs his business out of a modest office in his Randallstown home, where the walls are decorated with photos of churches and homes he's built. Shelves are filled with books on religion, along with copies of the Baltimore County Code and the county's zoning regulations.

In recent years he has operated under the corporate names of the Gospel In Action Inc., Hope Inc. and Equity Building Corp.

Gospel in Action and Equity Building are defunct for failing to file state tax returns.

During the past five years, while building churches, Bradford has also been buying and selling more than $1 million in residential real estate, mostly on the county's west side, according to land records.

Among the properties is a vacant, vandalized house in the 6400 block of Liberty Road that he bought in October 2000 and registered as the office of a new corporation, Adelphi Construction Consultants. He lost the house to foreclosure a year later.

Bankruptcy records show Bradford has no regular income, though he says he owns $2.6 million in real estate. He also owes a total of $75,000 to the Internal Revenue Service and the state for six years of unpaid taxes, and $180,000 to construction supply companies.

In addition, he owes Baltimore County $101,000 for road, water and sewer construction at Woodlawn Manor, a small housing development that Bradford failed to complete in the late 1980s. He built 14 homes there.

"Those poor people moved in and were stuck, so the county paid for the roads, the water and sewer," says Arnold Jablon, director of the county's Department of Permits and Development Management.

Bradford says the project languished because the county took too long to approve his plans and his financing fell through.

Though Bradford has had problems, some praise his work.

"We had a wonderful working relationship. He brought changes in a timely fashion and was quick to respond," says the Rev. Matthew Riley of St. Phillip's Baptist Church in Woodlawn. Riley's congregation bought the church that Lamb of Life had ordered.

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