(RNS) — The pastor of a megachurch in West Palm Beach, Fla., is refusing to hand over $1.7 million despite claims by federal prosecutors that the funds belong to people caught up in a $30 million Ponzi scheme run by a former church director.
According to the Palm Beach Post, U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg ordered $1 million in assets belonging to Winners Church, a suburban congregation in West Palm Beach, and to church pastors Fred Shipman and Whitney Shipman frozen.
Those assets will remain frozen until Rosenberg issues a ruling on their disposition.
According to a dozen lawsuits recently filed in Florida and elsewhere, the men were actually running an elaborate scam. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission announced on Tuesday (May 21) it was shutting down the operation, describing it as a Ponzi scheme.
On Thursday, Amie Berlin, an attorney for the SEC, told U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg that the church and the Shipmans should return the funds, given that the SEC can retrieve money for victims of the scheme.
But Carl Schoeppl, the lawyer representing the Shipmans and the church, argued Winners Church can’t be forced to turn over the money because it’s a nonprofit religious institution.