Harlem church leaders struck secret deals with developer over sales

Moujan Vahdat picked up seven churches in Harlem and Brooklyn, manipulated contracts

Childs Memorial Temple, Metropolitan AME, and Greater Bethel AME Harlem
Childs Memorial Temple, Metropolitan AME, and Greater Bethel AME Harlem (Google Maps, Getty)

Thou shalt not swindle. Or maybe, just a bit.

Three senior religious leaders with congregations in Harlem and Brooklyn conspired with a developer to sell seven churches, according to state prosecutors. An investigation reported by the Patch found leaders collected payments and gifts in exchange for the properties before developer Moujan Vahdat revised or backed down from the contracts, sometimes allowing the churches to be demolished or sit empty for years.

The three leaders pulled in a combined $2 million from the deals, according to an investigation by the New York Attorney General Lettia James’ office into the developer, who heads Elmo Realty and Empire Development Fund.

Prosecutors said the churches, all of which were part of predominantly Black denominations, were left vulnerable to the offers because of their often shaky financial situations.

However, the sales resulted in more perks for the leaders than the churches.

One church leader received $450,000 once the church sale closed, along with $440,000 in “finder’s fees” for introducing Vahdat to other church leaders. At one point, Vahdat personally gave a Bishop $610,000 between 2016 and 2017, including an envelope filled with $10,000 in cash, a Rolex watch and a designer handbag for his wife.

In return, church leaders turned a blind eye to Vahdat revising sale contracts in his favor, often squeezing the churches for more money.

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Court documents previously reported by The Real Deal show Vahdat struck a $10 million deal with the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2017. Under the deal, the developer planned to take over and demolish the property at 58 West 135th Street for a 30,000-square-foot residential building. Patch reported the church remains standing.

Two of the churches targeted by the developer were African Methodist Episcopal denominations in West Harlem and Crown Heights. In one instance, Vahdat followed through on threats to turn off off the heat at Greater Bethel AME in the middle of winter after the church couldn’t afford its new rent after closing with the developer.

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The incident, and the developer’s ignoring of requests to fix a ceiling’s caving-in before its collapse on a parishioner, didn’t deter Bishop Gregory Ingram and Rev. Melvin Wilson from helping the owner pick up another church property.

State prosecutors intervened in the dealings and reached settlements with Ingram and Wilson in 2021, which in part prohibited the leaders’ abilities to publicly discuss the investigation’s conclusions. Patch reported both appear to have maintained roles with AME churches in the tri-state area.

State prosecutors gave the churches the option to either conduct a full cash-out, where Vahdat would buy their property for an agreed-upon sum, or a “monitored performance” plan, where Vahdat would continue with the original development plan under the supervision of a third-party construction expert. Six of the seven churches chose the latter, staying in business with Vahdat.

Vahdat’s settlement requires him to make payments owed to the churches and covers their legal fees. Vahdat’s attorney brushed off prosecutors’ findings, telling the outlet the developer remains focused on “bringing vibrant new church facilities to the community.”

Sasha Jones