Apostolic pastor faces financial, legal battles

Showell: Extent of his problems comes as a surprise to detractors as well as supporters.

November 06, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Bishop Franklin C. Showell has long espoused the view that the church's concern should extend beyond the spiritual needs of its congregation - and for a time he seemed to successfully practice what he preached.

As an assistant pastor at the First Apostolic Institutional Faith Church in the 1980s, he helped create more than 250 units of low-income and senior housing in impoverished Baltimore neighborhoods; more recently, as head of the church founded by his family, he helped set up an affiliated day care center.

At the same time, he purchased several properties throughout the city for himself, most notably a funeral home that has given decades of service to families of African-American professionals.

But now the pastor of the prominent east-side church is facing legal and financial battles on several fronts as he fights to maintain control not only of the small empire of nonprofit and for-profit enterprises he has built up over 20 years but also of his personal finances. Among his problems:

City housing prosecutors are battling in court to get him to repair blighted properties in historic Washington Hill that are owned by the church's development arm, or turn them over to someone who will.

The federal government is threatening to foreclose on two low-income elderly housing complexes controlled by nonprofit corporations he heads.

Creditors have foreclosed on several properties he owns, including Nutter Funeral Homes in West Baltimore.

He has filed for personal bankruptcy, listing liabilities of almost $1 million in excess of assets; those liabilities include unpaid federal and state taxes of nearly $400,000.

The state has filed criminal tax charges against him for failure to turn over $32,537 in taxes withheld from employees of Nutter Funeral Homes, which lists Showell as president.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said criminal charges are filed in cases where there is a long-standing pattern of failure to pay taxes and would not be withdrawn even if the overdue assessments were paid off.

"If a persistent, delinquent taxpayer has been referred to us by the comptroller's office, we intend to pursue the case to conclusion," Curran said.

It is unclear what, if any, impact Showell's problems are having on the 3,500-member congregation. But in at least one instance, the church authorized a $100,000 interest-free loan in an attempt to bail out Showell's funeral business, records show.

`All being worked out'

Showell said after a brief court appearance yesterday that he was moving to resolve his problems.

"It's all being worked out," he said, declining further comment.

In an earlier telephone interview, Showell said he was negotiating to retain the funeral home property and expressed concern that any article by The Sun would harm Herbert Nutter, who founded the business more than 40 years ago and remains active in its operation. Showell said he would soon pay off the overdue withholding taxes that led to criminal charges, and he criticized the newspaper for examining his financial problems.

James L. Rouse, a lawyer who represents Showell in several matters, said his client's financial problems "aren't connected with the church."

"He's a businessman as well as a pastor," Rouse said yesterday. "As a businessman, he's going to face some problems."

The extent of Showell's problems comes as a surprise to both his detractors and his supporters. The former portray him as a man with neither the will nor the ability to live up to his obligations; the latter, including a veteran state legislator from East Baltimore, characterize him as a well-meaning victim of circumstances and of his own good intentions.

"We are just amazed that he has so many financial problems and the house of cards hasn't fallen," said Maureen Sweeney-Smith, executive director of Citizens for Washington Hill. The group has sided with the city in an effort to force Apostolic Community Development Corp. - which is funded by the church and operated by Showell - to fix or get rid of its blighted properties.

"He keeps making promises, and we know he doesn't have the money," she said.

Del. Clarence Davis, who has known Showell since the two were schoolchildren on the east side, expressed shock and dismay at his problems.

"I can't think of anyone more decent than him," Davis said. "You can rest assured that my faith in him is such that anything that I can do to help him, I will."

John F. Settles, a real estate developer who helped Showell develop affordable housing in the 1980s, said that First Apostolic was involved in community development long before the term "faith-based initiative" was in vogue and that Showell should be supported in his efforts, not vilified.

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