MIAMI – The case against the Rev. Gaston Smith will have to wait.
Smith’s trial on second-degree grand theft charges was set to begin on Monday, Feb. 23, but it was rescheduled to May 18, when the popular local pastor will return to court.
Smith was in court Feb. 23 as his attorneys sought a continuance in the case in a Miami courtroom. He did not make a statement.
Smith, the senior pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City, faces the charges in relation to a $25,000 grant from the Metro Miami Action Plan Trust (MMAP.) The money went to Smith’s non-profit, Friends of MLK, in 2005, but prosecutors said last year that Smith withdrew more than $10,000 of the funds at various ATM machines in Florida, Texas and Nevada.
The money was supposed to go into community outreach efforts, a Web site, and a fundraiser.
Smith, a city of Miami police chaplain and second vice president of the Greater Miami Baptist Minister’s Council, has denied the charges, which include allegations he used the money to take classes, and travel to Las Vegas.
Authorities are also investigating a $4,000 payment from Friends of MLK to Karym Ventures, a company owned by Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, who was working part time for the city at the time. Spence-Jones, who announced a re-election bid last month, is also under investigation.
Larry Handfield, who is representing Smith with several attorneys from the law firm of Lewis Tein of Miami, said his client is maintaining his innocence.
“He’s maintaining that he is not guilty of what he’s been charged with,” Handfield said Tuesday, Feb. 24. “He’s charged with grand theft, which is the permanent taking of property with the intent to deprive. The issue is $25,000, [and] he has expenditures that exceed that amount, therefore whether or not any moneys were taken, we disagree on the issue whether moneys were taken with the intent to deprive.”
Handfield would not elaborate on what Smith claims he did with the funds he withdrew from the Friends of MLK account, or whether he used the money on behalf of the organization. But he did spell out what will be the likely defense: that any money Smith removed from the organization’s bank account was not “stolen.”
“The issue is whether or not at the time he took moneys out of that account whether he was doing it with the intent to permanently deprive Friends of MLK of that money,” Handfield said. “I think when all the evidence comes out it will show that he is not guilty of trying to steal any money. The statute is very specific, that if I take money without the intent to put any money back then I’m guilty, but if I take the money and I put it back, it does not show that the money was taken with criminal intent.”
Smith, who has received numerous awards and commendations, from Miami-Dade County, and from the United States Congress, has denied any wrongdoing.
Photo: Rev. Gaston Smith