A church, its shell companies and a plan to have rapper Flo Rida plug high-end bubbly

The middleman was ecstatic. An American archbishop was not only looking to move some money offshore, he was looking to move all his finances abroad.

“He says he feels he can swing his council or synod to establishing his whole banking empire as he envisions it and he wants to set up also an insurance company, various offshore companies,” wrote Michael O’Mara in a Sept. 8. 2015, email to a London-based offshore services provider. “I am trying also to sell him some of the recent companies you sent me with bank accounts to act as his holding companies.”

It’s not every day that a church, enjoying tax-exempt status in the United States, is seen as a viable candidate to buy offshore shell companies with their own bank accounts, which can give the appearance of a longstanding business.

The COO of one of those church-affiliated offshore businesses at one time had reached out to none other than Flo Rida, the Miami-born rap artist, trying to swing a deal to have him invest in a brand of high-end champagne called Billionaires Row. Flo Rida’s lawyer said no and the plan fizzled. But more on that in a bit.

The email about the archbishop’s offshore shell companies is part of a giant leak of more than a million documents from Formations House, a London-based financial services firm with clients across the globe, including some in the United States.

Other leaked documents show that Archbishop Timothy Paul, the senior pastor of the Christian Cathedral in Springfield, Mass., purchased an official-looking insurance company, a Swedish investment trust and even a faux bank — one in name only — in Gambia.

In interviews, he acknowledged spending tens of thousands of church dollars on offshore companies — but says he never used the shell companies.

Emails show O’Mara, who works out of an English seaside hotel room on behalf of Mediterranean Corporate Services, tried to sell the archbishop on religious-sounding names for his offshore entities — names like Alliance Parish Banking Ltd. or Alliance Congregational Bank & Trust Co.

But the archbishop settled on Dominion Global Investment Capital Trust, serving as its president and taking the name, he said, from the book of Genesis.

Dominion Global had a COO, William Benson, a brash New Yorker with a love of the limelight and a trail of unhappy business associates. They describe Benson as a frequent name-dropper, who boasted of his relationship with an archbishop, with Flo Rida and with the socialite Paris Hilton.

Dominion Global wasn’t a bank of the conventional sort, with checking accounts, tellers and the like. Nor did it grant commercial loans to real-estate developers.

When McClatchy and the Miami Herald called to check its operational hours, the call was put through to a man with a thick New York accent who said it wasn’t “that kind of bank.” Anyways, he said, the bank itself is in London.

When a reporter visited the bank’s listed address in lower Manhattan, in a swank high-rise glass tower at 17 State Street, Suite 4000, on the Hudson River, that suite wasn’t an actual bank either.

The guard there pulled out clipped-together paperwork listing hundreds of companies that together share the suite’s office space under a flat monthly fee.

Two young women answer the phones, the guard offered, but there isn’t anyone else there. It was a virtual office, a fancy address that gives the aura of a real brick-and-mortar company.

PIERCING THE VEIL

The archbishop’s offshore business was among the intriguing narratives found in 10 years worth of Formations House records obtained by the anti-secrecy group Distributed Denial of Secrets and shared with investigative journalists, including those at McClatchy and the Miami Herald.

Journalists collaborated for months and on Dec. 4 began publishing under the #29Leaks hashtag, a reference to Formation House’s tony address at 29 Harley Street in London. Reporters found Iranian oil companies dodging sanctions, a Miami resident busted in a DEA sting and a plan for industrial-scale cannabis farming in Cameroon.

Formations House chief Charlotte Pawar said in emailed responses to questions that the leaked records were stolen and that she was subjected to extortion but did not provide evidence of that.

The leak, combined with the recent Panama Papers and Paradise Papers leaks, gives added momentum to legislation now in the U.S. Senate that would end anonymity by requiring greater disclosure of the true ownership of shell companies in the United States.

“99.99 percent of Americans don’t own offshore companies but the few that do try to tell you how legitimate it is,” said Edward H. Davis Jr., an asset-recovery lawyer with Sequor Law in Miami. “The reality is the entire offshore system is designed to avoid detection of the existence and movement of wealth.”

The Formations House leak adds a new wrinkle to the global debate, in part because it was based in London, not Panama or the faraway Seychelles, another haven for companies seeking tax avoidance. And it went beyond offering shell companies, but also faux banks that mimicked financial institutions but weren’t regulated or required to have a minimum amount of cash on hand.

These bank-named shells can issue loans, mortgages to their members and even credit cards as if they were a normal bank, according to promotional materials.

The Formations House documents provide insight into how these financial instruments are used. One email referenced a giant global gemstone wholesaler “sitting on a huge pile”, who sought three “banks” for internal operations, insisting on the humorous names Tightwad International Bank Ltd., Tightwad Bank International Co. Ltd. and Tightwad Global Bank Ltd.

SHELL COMPANIES FOR GOD

Archbishop Paul is not an archbishop in the Roman Catholic Church or the Anglican Church, the common associations with that rank of clergy. Paul said that 20 years ago he adopted the name of St. Paul when he was consecrated as an archbishop.

He leads a freestanding Christian denomination that voted him archbishop and patriarch of the International Holy Communion of Churches, which he said involves roughly 700 churches that together count 4.6 million followers. Like the Russian or Greek orthodox churches, he said, the denomination follows the original interpretations of the early apostles.

“We brought orthodoxy to African Americans,” he explained.

Until recently, Paul was also president of Epiphany Development Corp., which converted a historic Springfield building into a Holiday Inn Express.

Paul, 53, insisted there was nothing untoward about his church having offshore companies.

“We wanted to fund missions and do things,” he said, noting he hoped to expand the reach of his church. “They sell offshore banks, so we thought this was a legitimate means to have an offshore bank for our ministries that we were going to be project-funding for.”

The interest in going offshore began with an email solicitation, he said, and eventually the representative from Mediterranean Corporate Services came across the Atlantic to see him.

Paul said he has foreign outreach in Gambia, India, Kenya and Zambia. His church website makes no mention of this. Asked about specific projects, he offered that the Swedish investment trust was established for that purpose but has yet to invest in projects.

“That would be for the real-estate projects we’re going to do,” he said, suggesting they were raising capital to build a foreign supermarket. “It’s almost like a real-estate trust.”

The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, a #29Leaks partner, reported that Russian middlemen and Swedish offshore services providers had discovered and exploited a loophole in Sweden’s banking laws that gave the appearance that bank-named trusts were regulated when in fact those belonging to non-Swedes are not.

Swedish documents shared with McClatchy and the Miami Herald show Paul signing the trust registration on Feb. 20, 2017. He said he used another consultant called Global Money Consultants to create that company.

Paul also purchased a “bank” in Gambia, the smallest country on the African mainland but one with a large corruption problem, for years run by dictator Yahya Jammeh.

Formations House chief Charlotte Pawar’s late father, Nadeem Khan, had convinced Jammeh to create an enterprise zone, which allowed the London firm to fashion a line of business registering offshore companies there.

In an email to #29Leaks partners, O’Mara said he’d created more than 150 such banks in the Gambian offshore zone since 2013 for “wealthy families who want to handle their own finances.” The church doesn’t fit that description but O’Mara declined to discuss Paul’s offshore entities. Even though the Gambian enterprise zone was never fully authorized by the legislature there, banks sold for about $33,000 apiece today’s exchange rates, a price Paul didn’t dispute.

Archbishop Paul created Global Dominion, but insisted the related “bank,” Dominion Bank & Trust Company Ltd., was never used.

“We haven’t even operated from the Mediterranean Gambian license,” he said. “We paid a lot of money for it, but it was not something we used.”

He later established Dominion Bank and Trust Company in the tax haven of the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean between Mozambique and Madagascar. It too hasn’t been used, he said.

Paul purchased from Formations House a pre-existing shell company called Global Mortgages Ltd. British corporate registration documents show Paul as the main shareholder in 2017 but in 2018 and 2019 the company was threatened with dissolution.

Global Mortgages Ltd. was going to be used as a vehicle to purchase real estate in Africa, he said, but the shell company was abandoned.

“It was an idea that was kicked around” but never got off the ground, Paul said.

Also registered under Paul’s name in Gambia was Dominion International Insurance Company. The idea, he said, was to create a captive insurer ⁠— an insurance company controlled by the insured.

For larger companies, these are used to reduce costs by self-insuring a project while enjoying some tax breaks.

But the IRS last year warned taxpayers about so-called micro-captive structures, popular with wealth planners and offshore services providers that “lack many of the attributes of genuine insurance.”

Paul said his insurance company, referenced in the Swedish trust documents that he signed, was also never put into function.

“Since we didn’t use the bank, we didn’t need that,” he said.

BOLD CLAIMS

Paul’s public profile isn’t — or wasn’t — completely accurate. In a LinkedIn page, he claims to have a Ph.D in education from American University. The school has no record of that.

“My Ph.D is in street-ology,” he quipped when asked about the degree.

Why was it on his LinkedIn profile? Someone else did the page for him, he said, “when you become the patriarch, things like that happen.”

The LinkedIn references to a Ph.D in education and American University were subsequently removed.

On his relationship with William Benson, Paul said he tapped Benson for his expertise and insight, well after the efforts had begun to expand church operations abroad. They were introduced through a friend working on a project involving Liberia, he said.

Benson, 34, runs Billionaires Row, a champagne company that touts the high life. A seemingly strange bedfellow for an archbishop, Benson marketed a playboy image, boasted of his friendship with Hilton and associates say he claimed to have worked for Goldman Sachs. The investment bank has no record of Benson having worked there.

“We don’t have any involvement. I want to make that very clear. We don’t engage in any of those secular or non-humanitarian projects,” Paul said during a first interview together with Benson.

Speaking of Benson, Paul added, “His primary role with the trust was to offer his expertise and help us obtain the necessary funding.”

Funding that apparently did not happen, for use in offshore vehicles that were never actually used.

In a subsequent interview without Benson, Paul acknowledged that he was aware of complaints against Benson.

“We found that he didn’t work for Goldman Sachs. We found [that] he did not have the knowledge that he professed,” Paul said, adding that “we were the cleanest vehicle for him to attach himself.”

ENTER FLO RIDA

Flo Rida attorney Reginald Mathis confirmed that in November 2014 Benson and his Billionaires Row offered a deal. An ex-business associate familiar with the deal said it involved Flo Rida mentioning the imported champagne in a song and doing a promotional tour.

“Things just never seemed to check out,” said Mathis, adding that, “he tried to put something together in 2015 with the Super Bowl, which never materialized. Flo advised that he was given product at some point, but he hasn’t had contact with Benson in years.”

In an interview, Benson denied ever having extended a contract offer to Flo Rida or any other celebrity.

“We don’t need any artist to do a song. We have many celebrities that promote the brand for free,” he said, adding that no celebrity “has invested a dime in the company.”

The archbishop said he’d never heard of Flo Rida, whose real name is Tramar Lacel Dillard. The pitch to Flo Rida came before Benson got involved with Dominion. Paul said that he was unaware of Benson’s actions or his alleged outside sales pitches on behalf of Dominion to would-be investors.

But on July 17, the website www.bankdominion.com issued a warning that Benson had no authority to “represent or bind” Dominion Bank and Trust, Ltd.

“William Benson does not have authority to enter into contracts that bind the Dominion Bank and Trust, Ltd or create obligations on the part of the Dominion Bank and Trust, Ltd. without final approval of our compliance department,” read a notice on the home page. That page today is password protected.

Benson said in the interview that it was he who ended ties with Paul after first getting offered the job of CEO of Dominion Bank.

“I saw things that I didn’t want to be part of, so I stepped back,” he said, noting he broke with the archbishop last April or May. He declined to discuss what he saw that was worrisome and added he worked with Paul just for eight months and after the offshore entities were created. He also denied saying he worked at Goldman Sachs, noting he had worked at a division that was purchased by the giant bank.

Several people claim Benson ripped them off.

“He took $15,000 from me promising he could provide a lot of funding,” said Joseph Clarke, a real-estate investor and entrepreneur in Louisville, Kentucky, who hoped to develop a beachfront project in Honduras and mostly got a website and press release out of the effort.

That money, which he said disappeared in 2014, was part of a wrongful death settlement after the death of his son, Clarke said.

“It really left a bad taste in my mouth,” he said, adding, “I really wanted to see him fry.”

Benson denied anything improper, saying that “I sent him an invoice and he paid it. I don’t work for free.”

Jeremiah Patterson was stationed at Patrick Air Force Base near Cocoa Beach, Florida, when he was approached by Benson in 2013, who offered to invest in his prototype touch-screen technology.

“He made it sound like he was a big tycoon,” said Patterson, noting that “he did mention offshore accounting and how he was looking to be part of an international banking corporation.”

Patterson gave him a stake in the company, Taptl, in exchange for marketing and fundraising, and gave him a corporate American Express card. Soon afterward, Benson ran up the bills, he said, failing to even pay the card’s initiation fee.

“I didn’t end up losing as much money as some other folks but it did set my business back by a year and a half,” said Patterson, now stationed in Georgia. “Keep in mind, I am a psychological specialist for the Air Force. I put him through the ringers and he had me convinced. That’s not an easy thing to do.”

Benson denied running up credit card bills and provided an October 2014 Ohio court injunction against Patterson that prevented further disparagement. Patterson said his start-up couldn’t afford to appeal.

A South Florida man who fell out with Benson shared a 15-page application for a corporate account with Bank Dominion and an unsigned letter of credit from Dominion Global, with its London address, promising $1.5 million with a lending rate of 4 percent.

The man recalled briefly being introduced by phone to the archbishop in the middle of 2018, something Paul steadfastly denied.

“He hopped on one call, said ‘hi’ for a moment,’ he said. “When they said archbishop, I assumed they meant the Catholic Church.”

Emails viewed by McClatchy and the Herald show a New York FBI agent was made aware last summer of several complaints about Benson. An FBI spokesman in New York City declined to comment.

Told about that, Benson provided what he said was a video of a recently videotaped conversation with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley at the United Nations, and said it showed he was not under a legal cloud.

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