updated 2/7/2005 4:30:13 PM ET 2005-02-07T21:30:13

A preacher was convicted Monday of stealing nearly $9 million from hundreds of small, black churches across the country that were promised hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for small investments.

Abraham Kennard was found guilty in U.S. District Court in Rome of all 132 counts, ranging from mail fraud to tax evasion. Prosecutors said he ran a pyramid scheme largely meant to take advantage of a tight network of black preachers.

Jurors deliberated for only a few hours, after having to start over when one of the jurors fell ill. They had begun deliberating on Friday.

“I know you can see clearly it was a scheme, all right. And for some 1,600 churches, it was a nightmare,” prosecutor David McClernan told jurors during closing arguments last week.

Kennard, 46, of Wildwood, Ga., countered he was not guilty of anything.

No ‘law against riding in a Cadillac’
“It’s not a law against riding in a Cadillac if you don’t want to ride in a Volkswagen,” Kennard, who represented himself, said in his opening remarks. Michael Trost, who served as Kennard’s standby counsel, said he believed Kennard intended to help the churches.

Prosecutors said Kennard claimed his company was developing Christian resorts around the country. He told preachers that for a fee of a few thousand dollars, their churches could be “members” of his company. In return, he promised that in time the churches would get a grant or a forgivable loan of up to $500,000.

The scheme spread as the trusting ministers told their friends, relatives and fellow pastors, prosecutors said.

‘It was about trust’
“It wasn’t about ignorance. It was about trust,” said the Rev. James Cane of Victory Worship Center in Birmingham, Ala., one of several preachers who testified for the government.

Kennard’s brother, Laboyce, was also found guilty Monday of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Prosecutors said he accepted more than $360,000 from his brother.

Laboyce Kennard’s attorney, Giles Jones, said Thursday that his client was only trying to start his own business and had no knowledge of his brother’s church enterprise.

The Kennards’ cousin, Jannie Trammel, and stepbrother Alvin Jasper also were indicted but pleaded guilty and testified at the trial. Lawyer R. Scott Cunningham is charged with money laundering, but will be tried later.

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