Special to South Florida Times
WEST PALM BEACH – With mega-lawyer Willie Gary at his side, one of West Palm Beach’s most popular faith leaders is rejecting allegations of misusing city funds in connection with a housing project.
Bishop Harold Calvin Ray, founder and senior pastor of Redemptive Life Fellowship church, also said in a press conference Wednesday that he had been the subject of an intentional smear campaign. “There has been a whirlwind of erroneous and defamatory accusations against me personally, the Redemptive Life Fellowship Church, and the Redemptive Life Urban Initiatives Corporation, apparently through some unverified reports alleging stolen funds by me personally or by our corporation, which we categorically and unequivocally deny,” Ray stated.
“Let me make this clear: We are not, and have not been, under any investigation. It has not been an investigation, it’s a collaboration,” he said, in reference to talks with city officials. “We have been upfront and forthright.”
Ray brought in Gary, of the firm Gary, Williams and Parenti, along with C.K. Hoeffler, to represent him in the matter.
The allegations center on a housing project developed by Redemptive Life Urban Initiatives Corporation, a non-profit under Ray’s leadership, that he said built 30 homes in the historic Coleman Park neighborhood.
Press reports alleged improprieties in the handling of up to $2.5 million in connection with the project. West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio said on Monday that city officials had not accused Ray of misconduct.
However, concerns over the Coleman Park project surfaced in May during a review of the project by city housing director Valmarie Turner. Ray said Turner informed him that the project had not been audited in years, whereas that should have been done annually. Ray blamed poor oversight by the city and a high turnover in the housing department.
Ray said the city had eight housing directors over the past eight years and that he had complied with each administration’s requirements since the start of the project.
Muoio and Ray believe someone leaked information to the press, leading to media reports alleging Ray had either misappropriated or misused funds associated with the project.
At a West Palm Beach City Commission workshop on Monday, Muoio confirmed that the city had some concerns about record keeping and documentation but that Ray had never been accused of personal wrongdoing in association with the project.
Newly elected City Commissioner Keith James, who acknowledged being a member of Ray’s church, expressed outrage during the workshop over the press reports. James noted that talks between Ray and the city were still taking place and said any suggestion of improprieties was premature.
During the workshop, housing director Turner also expressed concern over the media reports, saying the city could be at a disadvantage if Ray stopped cooperating with officials. “He has valuable information that is needed,” Turner said.
Ray said he will continue to cooperate with the city. “We have done nothing improper and we have nothing to hide. We have submitted over 400 pages of documents to the city,” he said.
Redemptive Life Urban Initiatives Corporation was contracted by the city in 2003 to build affordable homes in Coleman Park. In a report documenting its “findings and concerns,” the city pointed to specific areas which Ray and the city need to resolve. They include alleged conflicts of interest, improper documentation and an ineligible use of funds.
Other concerns cited in the report include an absence of records that the corporation put out bids for work, as required under the grant, and that around about $2 million was unaccounted for.
James, who is also an attorney, is reported to have received a payment of $2,500, prior to becoming a commissioner.
Reports also indicated that Ray, his wife and other church members were paid, a claim he denies. “Let me be clear: Neither I nor my wife have had any ownership, interest in, nor received any compensation,” he stated. “Let me be clear: Neither I nor my wife have at any time misappropriated any money whatsoever from funds that have been provided for the construction of these homes.”
Ray told reporters that he and various other staff members were paid from administrative costs in connection with the project over time. He said the exact amounts were being determined through his talks with city officials.
Ray is denying that more than $2 million was unaccounted for. “How could I owe $2.5 million when they never gave us $2.5 million?” he said, adding that the corporation put $1 million of its own money into building the homes.
Photo: Bishop Harold Calvin Ray