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Parishioners stand with Rev. Leon Finney amid fraud allegations: ‘His heart’s in the right place’

Days after a judge’s stinging rebuke of the longtime Chicago powerbroker was reported by the Sun-Times, Finney forcibly removed a reporter from Sunday service at his church.

Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church, 4100 S. King Dr.
Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church of Christ, 4100 S. King Drive.
Justin Jackson/Sun-Times

The Rev. Leon Finney Jr. returned Sunday to his landmark South Side church that now faces foreclosure as he stands accused of fraud, self-dealing and mismanagement related to his work for his former nonprofit.

Two days after a Chicago Sun-Times report exposed the allegations lodged by a federal judge against the longtime power player in Chicago politics, Finney approached a Sun-Times reporter at the start of service at his Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church and scolded the newspaper for not publishing a full statement from his spokesman cataloguing the pastor’s recent health issues.

The Rev. Leon Finney speaks during a March press conference.
The Rev. Leon Finney speaks during a March press conference.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“You are not going to get an interview out of me, sir,” Finney said, grabbing the reporter by the arm. “Get out of here!”

That encounter happened at the outset of a sparsely attended but lively Sunday service.

Juanita Wynne, 89, of Pill Hill, said she had heard rumblings the church was facing foreclosure before the news broke.

“[Finney] is really a good guy,” she added. “We just don’t have the membership that can afford this church.”

Wynne said Finney has done “a heck of a job” rebuilding the church and claimed his “heart’s in the right place.”

“He didn’t take and use money for his own personal use. You can believe that,” she said.

But that’s not what Judge Carol A. Doyle has said as she presides over the bankruptcy case for Finney’s Woodlawn Community Development Corporation. Doyle called Finney’s decision to divert payroll taxes from the Chicago Housing Authority “equivalent to the theft of the employees’ wages,” court records show.

In the past decade, Finney’s nonprofits have collected more than $20 million in taxpayer money while managing about a quarter of all public housing units in Chicago. In April, as the bankruptcy proceeding ramped up, the CHA sought permission to sever ties with Woodlawn.

While the bankruptcy proceedings initially revealed that Woodlawn owed the IRS $1.8 million, an updated claim against the nonprofit now seeks $4.2 million in taxes, interest and penalties.

After Finney’s initial claim of complete surprise at the unpaid payroll taxes, he reversed course during his deposition and said the company skipped a quarterly payment to free up $150,000 to forestall foreclosure on a Woodlawn property at 63rd Street and Woodlawn Avenue, records show. Doyle said she was “basically obligated” to inform federal prosecutors of Finney’s contradicting statements, but it was unknown whether she had done so.

The bankruptcy case also exposed allegations of self-dealing against Finney involving his control of a strip mall in the 1500 block of East 63rd Street.

Woodlawn owns the strip mall but began leasing it to Lincoln South Central Real Estate Corporation in 2013. At the time, Finney led Woodlawn and controlled Lincoln South Central. Few, if any, rent payments were ever made to Woodlawn, according to records in the bankruptcy case.

In court, Doyle accused Finney of “pocketing the rents” from Lincoln South Central’s subtenants rather than pay the nonprofit he headed.

Finney has declined to speak with the Sun-Times or to answer questions submitted in writing. A written statement from his spokesman did not address any questions surrounding Finney’s financial dealings.

CLICK TO HEAR REPORTER CARLOS BALLESTEROS TALK WITH WCIU’S THE JAM

The Sun-Times’ Carlos Ballesteros speaks with WCIU’s Brandon Pope about the Rev. Leon Finney Jr.
The Sun-Times’ Carlos Ballesteros speaks with WCIU’s Brandon Pope about the Rev. Leon Finney Jr.
WCIU

FINNEY SPOKESMAN’S STATEMENT

The written statement provided by the Rev. Leon Finney Jr.’s spokesman:

“Dr. Finney is 81 years old. He was born on July 7, 1938.

“After encountering critical cardiovascular disease in 2016, he had emergency open heart surgery at Christ Hospital in June 2017.

“Dr. Finney was treated at Trinity Hospital out-patient heart [rehabilitation] unit from June 2017 through March 2018.

“Dr. Finney had a healthcare emergency in October 2018, and he was admitted to the University of Chicago for a critical life threatening [infection]. He was treated inside the hospital [until] December 2018.

“Dr. Finney received inpatient and outpatient [treatment] at the Shirley Ryan Critical Rehab Center through March 2019.

“In December 2018, Dr. Finney retired from the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation. He served the organization for 41 years. He received no retirement benefits.

“Dr. Finney is the founder and pastor of Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church. He has served in this nonsalaried, volunteer role since 1994.”

The Sun-Times’ Leon Finney Jr. investigation, published Sept. 8.
Read the Sun-Times’ investigation, published Sept. 8.