The City of London police are investigating an alleged fraud involving a former Premier League footballer who lost £3.9m from one of Britain’s richest evangelical churches in a disastrous investment scheme.
The criminal investigation follows a Charity Commission report into “mismanagement” at Kingsway International Christian Centre, which invested £5m with the former Charlton Athletic player Richard Rufus. Rufus was found by a civil court judge in 2015 to have operated a Ponzi-style scheme between 2007 and 2011, losing or spending £8m from several investors.
Rufus was a leading member of the KICC whose “founder, visionary and senior pastor” is Matthew Ashimolowo, a Nigerian evangelist who preaches a “health and wealth” gospel to a congregation of thousands at his “Prayer Palace” in Kent. The largely African and Caribbean churchgoers are urged to give regular tithes and the church collected £5.8m from them in 2015, according to the latest accounts.
In 2009 and 2010 the trustees agreed to give Rufus £5m to invest after he promised them returns of 55% a year at a time when interest rates were less than 1%. As well as millions in donations from churchgoers – which were boosted by gift aid tax relief – it had recently received £10m from the London Development Agency, a public body that needed to demolish the church’s then home in east London to build the Olympic Park.
“Detectives from City of London police’s fraud teams are investigating,” a police spokesman confirmed. There have been no arrests.
In a damning set of conclusions published in December, the Charity Commission said the trustees “did not exercise sufficient care” when they gave Rufus the church’s money.
The regulator said they failed to check if Rufus had any investment qualifications or experience and gave little thought to the extraordinarily high rate of return Rufus was promising.
The church’s senior management team concluded his “personal guarantee makes this as safe an investment as any” and produced a report on the investment that included no checks on Rufus’s past investment performance or any references from clients.
It is the second time the Charity Commission has had to investigate the church. In 2005, when it was known as the King’s Ministries Trust, the regulator ordered Ashimolowo to repay £200,000 after it emerged he used church assets to buy a £13,000 Florida timeshare and spent £120,000 on his birthday celebrations, including £80,000 on a car. New trustees were appointed and Ashimolowo was removed from his role as chief executive.
Ashimolowo knew about the investment with Rufus, the church’s chief operating officer James McGlashan told the Guardian, but Ashimolowo denies being any part of the decision to invest the money as he was not a trustee of the KICC.
“[The trustees’] actions were totally independent and were not influenced in any way by pastor Ashimolowo,” said Dipo Oluyomi, KICC chief executive in a statement.
None of the current trustees were involved at the time of the investment.
Ashimolowo delivers sermons to his congregations at branches of the church in the UK, Ireland, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo that teach how God wants them to be rich, including lessons on the “irrevocable laws of wealth creation”. He sometimes jets into London on Sunday morning, delivers back to back services and then flies out of the country later that day, according to McGlashan.
One regular preacher at the KICC is the multimillionaire US TV evangelist Creflo Dollar who teaches “biblical money management” and tells worshipers “honouring the lord means trusting him enough to release our tight grip on our wallet, and giving generously”. He once asked followers of his own church to pitch in $300 each to buy him a new Gulfstream private jet.
In 2015, the bankruptcy registrar Clive Jones said Rufus had accepted more than £16m from investors between 2007 and 2011 – without authorisation and in breach of financial regulations. He had lost more than £5m through currency-exchange trading and used more than £3m for his “own purposes”.
The Charity Commission told the current trustees of KICC that they had “a strong legal claim” against the trustees who oversaw the investment decision. But they have instead settled out of court with payments agreed confidentially.
KICC said the trustees “acted in good faith and had no reason to suspect that the investment on behalf of the charity would go wrong” and that “pastor Ashimolowo is not one of the trustees was not part of the decision to make the investment that went wrong and that neither the church or its trustees have been accused of or investigated by the UK authorities for wrongdoing”.