A West Oakland church and private school that sends children to solicit donations at BART stations has a history of financial and legal troubles, including two cases in which church leaders admitted they illegally received government assistance. The children, including one who said he was seven years old, have been raising funds for St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church at East Bay BART stations for hours at a time on weekday evenings. They say they are collecting money for a new 24-hour day care center for the church, which runs a small K-12 private school.
"It's going to be under my pastor's house, and we're going to put the pastor's house on top," said nine-year-old Mekhi Sade Nosakhare, standing in the Downtown Berkeley BART station without an adult present. She said she doesn't like soliciting donations every night, but if she doesn't, she said she'll get in trouble with her mother and stepfather, Andrew Lacy, who is one of the pastor's sons. Lacy, who arrived shortly after, declined to be interviewed.
The church and its pastor, Robert Lacy, drew scrutiny last year after a CBS 5 investigation found that they required young students to spend long hours raising money from passersby in downtown San Francisco. At the time, the students also said they were fundraising for a new building, but the TV report raised questions about where the money was actually going. Now, church officials have a permit from BART to raise funds every night from 5 to 8 p.m.
Elizabeth Curry White, the pastor's ex-wife and mother of Andrew Lacy, said the pastor has been making children raise money for many years, with nothing to show for it. "He tells my sons that he don't have no money, so they go out there and try to get money," White said. "He takes all the money and keeps it."
Robert Lacy, the church's 79-year-old founder, sometimes watches silently in the background as his own young children solicit money. One of them, Cloella Lacy, 16, said that if they don't each collect about $50 or $75 in a night, they could get detention. Another, 12-year-old Moses Lacy, said he likes collecting money because "it gives me a mind to want to look into people's eyes and get donations."
Both children were interviewed while they solicited donations in the Rockridge BART station without adult supervision. The pastor, who arrived later, declined to answer questions. "I'm not going to tell you about it because you are a reporter, and we don't want to get into no lawsuit with you," Robert Lacy said. "BART gave us privilege to come out here. That's all you need to know. ... Leave me alone now before I call the police on you." Officials at St. Andrew did not respond to phone calls or emails.
White said she recently took her grandson away from the church so he wouldn't have to solicit money at night. The grandson, she said, was told that if he didn't raise at least $100 in a night, he would get bad grades.
Meanwhile, the Oakland Unified School District approved payments totaling $72,700 to St. Andrew school officials for teacher training and student support since October 2009. One of the pastor's sons, Robert Lacy Jr., received $19,100. The money comes from federal funding that public school districts must, by law, share with private schools. The district has little say over who receives the funds, said district spokesman Troy Flint.
Organizations like St. Andrew face minimal oversight. Unlike other charities, churches don't have to file with the state attorney general or the Internal Revenue Service. The California Department of Education doesn't regulate private schools. From Girl Scout cookies to school magazine sales, children often are roped into fundraising. The minimum age for such soliciting in California is six.
The Alameda County Social Services Agency, which investigates allegations of child abuse, has not investigated the church or school, said spokeswoman Sylvia Soublet. "The only time we can go out and investigate is when we have a specific allegation for a specific child," she said.
White said the church hasn't been remodeled or expanded in decades. Currently, no construction permits have been requested from the City of Oakland for the pastor's or church's addresses, according to the city's community and economic development agency.
Robert Lacy brought the church to its current West Oakland location in 1978. He has a history of financial problems, filing for bankruptcy in 1996 under the name Robeth Lacy and again in 2003 as Robert Lacy, both times using the same Social Security number. He and his adult sons have been sued over various financial issues, including unpaid rent. In 2007, Robert Lacy pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of theft of government money. He failed to notify the Social Security Administration of his father's death and personally took about $17,000 in Social Security payments sent to his father's account after he had died, according to the proposed plea agreement. Robert Lacy also failed to report family property that made him ineligible to receive about $22,000 in government assistance, according to the agreement. He had to pay back the money through deductions to his monthly government checks and was given three years' probation and a $1,000 fine.
"I thought he was a very nice guy when I met him," said Peter Clerides, his defense attorney in that case. "He didn't strike me as someone who would intentionally be involved in anything that was beyond the letter of the law."
The church filed for bankruptcy in 2004. At the time, it was facing a lawsuit brought by the mother of a former student who, when she was four years old, was allegedly mauled and disfigured by a Rottweiler at the school in 1993. The lawsuit claimed the dog belonged to Andrew Lacy, the pastor's son, but the Lacys denied ownership. The church wrote in court filings that the injured girl and her mother "had full knowledge of all the risks, dangers and hazards, if any there were" and "failed to use that degree of care and caution for their own safety which a reasonably prudent person would have used." The church settled the dispute for $70,000 in 2006, according to court records.
Separately, in 2004, Alameda County obtained a $13,000 court judgment against Andrew Lacy. According to court filings, Andrew Lacy admitted that he "fraudulently received public assistance benefits" from the county "by submitting false written statements under penalty of perjury."
As of 2004, the church served a congregation of fifty people, had an unpaid staff, and survived on donations and fundraising, according to an interview with a church representative as part of the bankruptcy proceeding. The school had twenty or fewer students and emphasized Bible training, according to the interview. That same year, however, the church reported to the state that it had 195 students, the same number it reported this year.
A bankruptcy trustee attorney found that the church brought in a total of $47,129 after more than a year in bankruptcy and that it had a negative cash balance and bad check fees. Among other creditors, the church owed money to the Alameda County Community Food Bank. Agencies like soup kitchens and churches that distribute for the food bank pay a small fee that helps cover costs. St. Andrew owed about $1,000, a relatively large debt, said food bank spokesman Michael Altfest. The food bank had to write it off as bad debt and no longer partners with St. Andrew, Altfest said.
Oakland resident Deborah Carney said she enrolled her daughter at St. Andrew a couple of years ago because the pastor initially seemed to understand her child's learning needs. But Carney pulled her daughter from the program, she said, because the church was making her solicit money until late at night. "One of the teachers said, 'You're not leaving until you make my money,''' Carney said. "It would be like 10, 11 o'clock at night when they got home."
When Carney tried to exempt her daughter from the fundraising, she said the pastor refused. "He was like, 'No. You can't give her permission. She can't leave,'" Carney said.
Carney said church officials also pressured her to attend services as a condition of her daughter's enrollment. She said the congregation appeared to be made up mostly of the pastor's family members.
White, the pastor's ex-wife, said she is concerned about the children who attend St. Andrew. "I worry about them, 'cause I know how he did me and my kids," she said. "But there's nothing I can do."