MIAMI — A jury last week convicted the Rev. Gaston Everett Smith of pilfering county grant money that was earmarked for revitalization of the blighted Liberty City neighborhood.
The 43-year-old pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church now faces up to five years in prison on grand theft charges. He is scheduled for sentencing on Feb. 26.
On Friday, Dec. 11, as the trial concluded, there was a standing-room only courtroom filled with Smith’s supporters.
In his opening statement shortly after the trial began last Tuesday, Dec. 8, defense attorney Michael Tein promised to show how Smith’s charity, Friends of MLK, spent $10,356.50 of the $25,000 grant money awarded to the nonprofit that Smith founded. Tein asserted that Smith spent the money for an outreach effort that would raise more money for the charity.
But Smith kept no records and could provide no receipts to buttress his lawyers’ case for him.
Investigators found that Smith, through ATM withdrawals, misused the county money by making purchases in South Florida, Orlando, Houston and Las Vegas. He used the cash for personal expenses, including $500 to settle a tab at a Las Vegas martini bar.
Among the items were the purchase of an airline ticket, a rental car, hotel accommodations and a spending spree totaling $5,076.73. There was also evidence of payment from the county grant funds for classes at the University of North Florida.
Tein suggested that Smith’s Las Vegas trip was an effort to secure $25,000 in grants from Burger King, and another grant from former Boston Red Sox player Mo Vaughn.
Tein promised to enter a photo as evidence that the MGM casino ATM was not inside the martini bar.
Telling the jury they would “see a picture of that [ATM],” Stein stated, “you’re not going to have to take my word for it.”
Yet neither a record of the Burger King grant nor the photo of the martini bar was admitted into evidence.
Tein alleged that prosecutors went after Smith only because they could not convince him to provide evidence to them on now-suspended Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, who was instrumental in Smith’s receipt of the $25,000 grant on June 14, 2005. Spence-Jones has also been accused of stealing county grant money, including some of the funds that went to Friends of MLK.
Smith deposited the full $25,000 in July 2005 into a Washington Mutual bank account in the name of his charity.
Defense attorney Larry Handfield declared that Smith was “not required to keep the taxpayer funds in the bank or account for his expenditures.”
Yet there was no evidence to confirm this statement. In fact, no witnesses for the defense were called to testify.
“Those are trial decisions that have nothing to do with the evidence,” Handfield offered to Channel 10 News about not calling defense witnesses.
Handfield did not return calls or answer emails from the South Florida Times.
“Based on the opening statement, this was all about Rev. Smith not giving in to investigators,” the Rev. Mark Trimmings told the South Florida Times.
The main target, Trimmings said, is Spence-Jones. “This has been a fishing expedition. They have a minnow in the ocean and are searching for a whale. I’m on his side.”
Trimmings, a pastor with the Seaboard Baptist Association who attended the trial, is a long-standing Smith supporter.
But not everyone supports Smith.
“The man upholds himself as a man of the cloth, and then he lies; lies to all of us,” Elihue Johnson, a Liberty City resident, said about Smith.
“The money was so small. Liberty City needs help. He will be used as an example and sent to jail,’’ Johnson said. “So tell me again, what really came out of this?”
Johnson added that he is only “familiar with” Smith and is not a member of Friendship Missionary Baptist.
“And for that, I’ll never apologize,” he said.
Calls to Friendship Missionary Baptist Church were not returned.
Photo: Rev. Gaston Smith