Celebration Church pastors deny misuse of PPP money

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JACKSONVILLE, Florida. – A spokesperson for the founding pastors of Celebration Church, one of the largest churches in the Jacksonville area, said the couple did not misuse Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) money of the government, as the church alleges in a court filing.

Stovall and Kerri Weems are in a legal dispute with the church they founded in 1998. The dispute involves allegations of financial misconduct and fraud.

The Weems filed an injunction suit against Celebration Church. The injunction said one of the church trustees was improperly billing the church for construction-type services at its Honey Lake Farms property in Madison County. The injunction said the trustee began feeding lies to other trustees and senior church members and convinced them that Stovall Weems had been at fault, resulting in his suspension. The Weems also said they were threatened with arrest if they entered church property.

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READ: Stovall and Kerri Weems injunction

Celebration Church filed a motion to dismiss the Weems’ injunction and said trustees sought an investigation into the founding pastors when they discovered the Weems “engaged in a series of questionable financial dealings at the without the knowledge of the board or without permission” in early 2021. The petition outlines four areas of concern:

  • Several large transfers to new for-profit entities that the Weems intended to run in the future

  • Church’s purchase of a parsonage (in which Stovall and Kerri Weems were to live rent-free) for $1,286,863.30 that a company solely owned by Stovall Weems had purchased four months earlier for $855,000

  • Advancement of nine months’ salary to Kerri Weems and seven months’ salary to Stovall Weems in violation of Florida statute and the church’s own internal policies, although neither Stovall nor Kerri Weems perform the duties of the offices that would have justified these salaries

  • Improper use of over $1,000,000 in PPP loan proceeds to fund Weems managed entity Honey Lake Farms, LLC and to purchase TurnCoin, an illiquid speculative digital currency

READ: Celebration Church’s motion to reject

The News4JAX I-TEAM took a look at what Celebration Church received in PPP money, which was distributed to help businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It was approved for $2,153,702 on April 6, 2020. Here’s how Celebration planned to use the money, based on the lender’s data at the time the loan was issued:

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  • Payroll: $1,615,276.50

  • Rent: $269,212.80

  • Utilities: $269,212.80

Celebration Church in Jacksonville (Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax – All rights reserved.)

Weemses spokesperson describes use of PPP money

The News4JAX I-TEAM has asked a spokesperson for Stovall and Kerri Weems to specifically address allegations of misuse of PPP money. Where did the PPP money go? Sara Brady gave the following response on behalf of the Weems: “The motion to dismiss alleges that over $1 million in PPP money was used to fund Honey Lake Farms, LLC and purchase Turncoin. Neither claim is true.

No PPP funds went to Honey Lake Farms, LLC. Honey Lake Farms, LLC (which is different from the nonprofit Honey Lake Farms, Inc.) is a for-profit entity that was formed on the advice of Church attorneys at Holland and Knight. It is a non-operating entity to which no money has ever been transferred and, in fact, has never had a bank account.

No PPP funds were used in the Turncoin investment. The Church’s audited financial statements for 2020 certify that the Church has used PPP funds in accordance with their legally authorized purposes. The administration of the Church’s PPP funds was controlled by the Church’s Chief Financial Officers. The 2021 PPP funds have been entirely depleted by Church payroll. Neither the PPP funds nor the Turncoin investment had anything to do with Pastor Stovall’s payday advance.

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Pastor Stovall has invested approximately $100,000 in Turncoin, an SEC-approved investment, in an effort to create a retirement fund for longtime employees of Celebration Church. Currently, this investment is worth more than $1.5 million. Pastors Stovall and Kerri never intended to receive any money from this investment. Restricted use of these funds is documented with the Church’s Human Resources Department. – Sara Brady, spokesperson for Stovall and Kerri Weems

Sky 4 photo of Stovall and Kerri Weems’ home (Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax – All rights reserved.)

Weemses spokesperson on buying waterfront property

Celebration Church said in its motion to dismiss that the board had no knowledge of nor given permission to purchase property designated as a church parsonage for the Weems.

Duval County property records show Weems Group, LLC, which is registered with Kerri Weems and managed by Stovall Weems, according to the Florida State Corporations Division, purchased a home on Shellcracker Road in the area from Black Hammock Island to Jacksonville for $855,000 in February. 2021. Four months later, in June 2021, property records show Celebration Church purchased the home from Weems Group, LLC for $1,286,900.

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The Weems’ spokesperson released this statement to News4JAX on Thursday regarding the purchase of this property: “Pastor Stovall’s parsonage allowance, as approved by the board, was approximately $1.3 million, which included the price of the property and expected improvements. The Weems Group LLC purchased the home for $855,000. As envisioned from the start by all parties involved, the house required various updates and repairs. Consequently, the Church purchased the house from the Weems Group for $1.3 million. The difference between the two prices (approximately $400,000) was used for updating, repairs and ordinary housing expenses such as furniture and landscaping. This transaction was completed transparently and in accordance with the amount approved by the Church Compensation Committee. – Sara Brady, spokesperson for Stovall and Kerri Weems

The News4JAX I-TEAM reached out to Celebration Church to see if they had a response to the Weems’ spokesperson’s statement on Thursday. A church attorney issued the following statement: “Celebration has not filed this lawsuit and does not intend to litigate it through the media. The church’s investigation uncovered sufficient documentation to support the positions in its motion to dismiss, and Celebration remains convinced that the truth will eventually prevail. — Lee Wedekind, attorney for Celebration Church

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Celebration Church released a statement to News4JAX on Wednesday for our initial report on this matter: “Celebration Church has grown and prospered since Pastor Tim Timberlake became the spiritual leader of the church in September 2021. The Celebration Board recently suspended Pastor Stovall Weems pending an investigation into certain decisions made by him in early 2021 that were not in the best interests of the church and were not approved by the board. As this investigation is still ongoing, the church does not intend to comment further on this matter at this time. The celebration prays for a resolution for all parties involved, and is confident in God’s plan for the church and that ultimately the truth will prevail. We remain focused on advancing the kingdom of God. –Wayland Wiseman, Executive Pastor, Celebration Church

In 2021, Stovall Weems transitioned from senior pastor to founding pastor. Tim Timberlake was named Weems’ successor to lead the nearly 12,000-member church.

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Stovall and Kerri Weems issued a statement to News4JAX on Wednesday: “We could never have imagined that the church we have created and nurtured for nearly 25 years would be taken over by individuals who we believe put their individual interests in power and money before their duties to Celebration Church and its mission. We have nothing to hide. We are facing retaliation and have been denied a proper investigation in accordance with long-standing church policies. In the meantime, the substantive allegations made in our complaint regarding financial improprieties perpetrated by current board members have remained unaddressed. We reject the totally unfounded and false allegations made against us. Celebration Church members have the right to know what is going on in their church and we have the right to be treated fairly.

The Weems filed a request on March 15 for Celebration Church to produce the following documents within 30 days:

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  • All Board minutes, agendas and resolutions, and drafts thereof, of Board meetings held between January 1, 2017 and present

  • All documents relating to Pastor Stovall and Kerri’s compensation packages from 2017 to present, including but not limited to written agreements and records of payment from the Church to them

  • All records relating to the church’s 2021 purchase of the parsonage from an entity controlled by Pastor Stovall, as alleged on page 9 of the motion to dismiss

  • All documents supporting your allegation that Pastor Stovall made “several significant transfers to new for-profit entities that the Weems intended to manage in the future,” including, but not including limited to bank statements and written communications.

READ: Stovall and Kerri Weems request to produce

No criminal charges have been filed in this case. A civil court hearing is scheduled for May 20.

Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax – All Rights Reserved.

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