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South Austin pastor lives lavishly while West Side projects languish

Hoping to create 40 jobs and spark economic activity on a downtrodden corner, city officials helped pastor John Abercrombie build a fast-food restaurant a decade ago in South Austin.

All that remains of those hopes today is a vacant cinder-block shell with blocky plastic letters spelling "GOOD FOOD" above the locked front doors. Abercrombie's restaurant went under amid debts, liens and a lawsuit by the state attorney general alleging his company failed to pay workers overtime wages.

"He's ducking it," said Davonna Woods, a former shift manager at the restaurant. "I don't understand why he won't pay; he's got the money."

While working at the restaurant, Woods once dropped off papers at Abercrombie's south suburban mansion and was awe-struck by the Mercedes, Porsche and other luxury vehicles lining the driveway. The home features a plush movie theater and 36-foot-long indoor swimming pool, records show.

Recalling the grandeur, she said simply: "It makes me angry."

Even as Abercrombie's City Hall-assisted fast food restaurant failed, he was moving on to play a role as joint partner or contractor in numerous government construction or rehab efforts on the West Side launched with millions of taxpayer dollars.

The city's involvement with Abercrombie reflects its scattershot approach to development in South Austin, a community that consistently has been left out of neighborhood development programs during the past decade even as people moved away, businesses closed and homes stood empty.

There have been bright spots for Abercrombie as a developer in recent years — but also a troubling pattern of racking up unpaid taxes, fines and building code violations, including citations for tenants going without heat.

A Tribune examination of Abercrombie's record shows he leveraged political contacts and used his nonprofit status to win government assistance and support his own lifestyle despite a mixed record of delivering for the community in his private and public ventures.

City planners and developers privately say they have been reluctant to launch comprehensive development programs in South Austin because of its scandal-tainted political leadership and a history of churn and collapse among community nonprofits.

Into this void stepped Abercrombie, 57, who grew up on the West Side and is the founder and Apostle of Truth & Deliverance International Ministries, a 1,700-member New Apostolic Movement church in a whitewashed two-story building at 5151 W. Madison St. Abercrombie said he is motivated by a desire to lift up society's castaways and make the West Side a better place.

"I think I've been a solid pillar in the community. I've helped thousands of people," he told the Tribune.

Abercrombie has teamed with Orland Park-based Madison Construction on several successful projects, building a government-funded complex for teenage moms that recently opened at 5317 W. Chicago Ave., as well as the nonprofit health center at 5425 W. Lake St.

But Abercrombie and his companies also have racked up more than $100,000 in housing court fines or unpaid water and tax bills, debts that can jeopardize title to properties and are a sign of poor management. The IRS in 2011 filed a $73,000 tax lien against Abercrombie personally, records show.

In some of the two dozen apartment buildings he controls, tenants have gone without heat or hot water and endured cracked windowpanes, broken plaster, rotting back porches and rat infestation, government records show. Abercrombie controls more than 130 rental units.

"It was never my intent to rip anybody off or take advantage of anyone. It was always my intention to be a blessing," Abercrombie said. "Everything that I've done and all that I've done has been for the good of the community and the good of the people."

City officials say that because Abercrombie has not been the primary owner of any recent city-assisted projects, he did not trigger a background check that would have revealed his debts and fines, and likely would have disqualified him from participation in the deals. "Background checks are only done on ownership entities," explained Peter Strazzabosco, Chicago deputy development commissioner.

In addition to his roles as a construction executive and landlord, Abercrombie runs Kingdom Community Inc., a tax-exempt charity that from 2010 through 2012 garnered more than $1 million in government grants and public support.

Kingdom has won a large state anti-violence grant but says its main mission is to provide destitute Chicagoans with financial advice and foreclosure-prevention counseling — even though Abercrombie and his companies have had several properties put into foreclosure. Among them, at one point, was the Orland Park mansion where he lives.

"I suffered like everybody else," Abercrombie said.

Vanessa Taliferro, Abercrombie's top aide in Kingdom, served a two-year prison sentence for stealing approximately $627,000 from the Austin Bank of Chicago, where she was a commercial loan officer, records show. She was released in 2009.

The bank's internal examination concluded that some of the money wound up in accounts controlled by Abercrombie, according to documents gathered by the FBI.

"The bank said that, but at the same time, they weren't able to prove it," Taliferro told the Tribune. "It was all speculation."

Abercrombie was not charged with any crime, and he declined to comment on the matter. "Anything that dealt with her has nothing to do with me," he said of Taliferro, who is a top officer in the church and several companies run by Abercrombie. She lost her Bolingbrook home to foreclosure in 2012.

Taliferro was a paid employee of Abercrombie's church at the same time she handled his loan applications at the bank. Taliferro acknowledged to the Tribune that she did not inform the bank of this potential conflict of interest.

"At the time, I didn't see it as a major thing," she said. Now, "I can understand it more, because it may give the appearance of something."

Abercrombie said he has kept a strict firewall between his private finances and his array of religious and for-profit businesses. "We don't mix and convolute and bring them together," he said.

But the boards of Abercrombie's charities, church and for-profit companies are largely identical, with all the major entities headed by Abercrombie and his wife, often with the assistance of Taliferro and a small circle of officers.

The trappings of Abercrombie's luxurious lifestyle also show overlap between his nonprofit enterprises and his private assets.

While Abercrombie's palatial home was initially titled to him personally, for a time he transferred it to JTA Ministries, a religious corporation he created and oversees. Abercrombie wouldn't say why he did that, but records show building contractors were claiming liens of more than $100,000 against him at the time.

Abercrombie said the church he runs gave JTA Ministries a housing allowance to pay the home's $1.4 million mortgage. "JTA Ministries did not take a vow of poverty," he added.

At some point, though, his church could no longer afford the mortgage payments, Abercrombie said. "In order for me to keep my house and stay in the house, I started paying it."

Three Mercedes and a Porsche Cayenne driven by Abercrombie and his family are titled to JTA Ministries or the church, vehicle records show. But Abercrombie said one of the Mercedes is owned by his for-profit construction company and the other three cars are "all paid-for vehicles that I paid for myself, not the church."

The church paid JTA Ministries an allowance to buy the cars, but many car payments came out of his own pocket, he said.

The interweaving of charitable work and personal wealth extends to several of Abercrombie's rental properties. Consider the two-flat apartment building at 5112 W. Monroe St.

Abercrombie's tax-exempt Kingdom Community Inc. bought the property for $210,000 in a 2008 foreclosure sale, land records show.

Two months later, Kingdom deeded the building to Abercrombie's mother for no money, records show. She subsequently transferred title to Abercrombie, again for no money. Abercrombie personally collected rent from a tenant there, according to 2011 bankruptcy papers the renter filed.

According to Abercrombie, those records don't reflect the real story. Kingdom took title in name only, he said; it was he who actually bought the building using his own money. Asked for verification, Abercrombie referred reporters to his former real estate lawyer, who said he had no idea where the money came from. Abercrombie declined further comment.

"From what you have described, the continual blending of personal and nonprofit funds, as well as the lack of an independent board, creates a conflation of issues that appears to add up to one massive conflict of interest," said Diana Aviv, president of the Independent Sector, a nonprofit leadership and advocacy organization based in Washington.

Abercrombie brushed aside concerns.

"Nothing is done illegal. ... Is it wrong that I'm entitled to have more than one entity of income?" he said.

When City Hall collaborated with Abercrombie in 2004 to build the fast-food restaurant where Davonna Woods would work, officials described him in glowing terms:

"Over the last twenty years Pastor Abercrombie has established a solid track record for commercial development," one City Hall planning document said. "In the early 1980's he became one of the first African-American Baskin-Robbins ice cream franchisee owners in Chicago. He was successful in his initial operation and subsequently opened 5 additional stores."

But records show Abercrombie's ice cream franchises collapsed in the late 1980s as he declared personal bankruptcy amid liens and court judgments.

The stores failed because of "pilferage" by employees, Abercrombie told the Tribune. But he later acknowledged: "I was moving too fast. ... I made a lot of money but I spent it foolishly, bought diamond rings and cars, and lost it all."

Emerging from bankruptcy, Abercrombie in 1990 started Truth & Deliverance in a storefront, with only his wife and a few other church members.

As his church grew into one of the larger in South Austin, Abercrombie cultivated ties with politicians seeking his support and won a variety of city, state and federal contracts.

He stood behind then-Mayor Richard M. Daley at news conferences advocating gun control, and described himself to City Hall planners as a key figure in pushing Chicago's community policing strategy on the West Side.

When then-state Rep. Deborah Graham — a current member of Abercrombie's church — sought appointment as 29th Ward alderman in 2010, Abercrombie's letter of support was first among the endorsements in her application package.

By 2005 he controlled a handful of rental properties, and that year he proposed to City Hall that he rehab and manage more than a dozen troubled apartment buildings with 248 rental units.

Then-housing Commissioner Jack Markowski and staff members were skeptical; Abercrombie had never handled an undertaking of this scope and projected spending more than he could possibly recoup from rents. The few residential buildings he owned at the time were in "mediocre" condition, according to handwritten notes in the city housing file.

But Abercrombie had a potent advocate in Vance Henry, then Daley's liaison to African-American churches and the director of the city's community policing program.

"Per Vance Henry, we were encouraged to give strong consideration to Rev. Abercrombie's proposal," Markowski wrote to the mayor, according to the city housing file.

Markowski and Henry both declined to comment for this article.

The city gave one 18-unit building at 705 S. Lawndale Ave. for free to Abercrombie's Kingdom Community Inc., which secured a $1.1 million bank loan to complete repairs.

Kingdom then paid a for-profit Abercrombie construction firm about $184,000 for work on the project, while $137,000 more went to a company owned by a member of Kingdom's board of directors.

In 2010, a year after the work was complete, a Northwestern University journalism student posed a troubling question to City Hall: Abercrombie's nonprofit had failed to pay tax and water bills on the property, so why did officials give the completed project their stamp of approval?

City Hall kicked into gear and gathered records listing Kingdom's tax, sewer and water debts to City Hall at more than $30,000 for that building alone.

"What now? This is one of our developers. Not good," one city official wrote in an email. Another responded: "Have you talked to the Rev about paying his bills?"

Pressed by city officials, Kingdom paid up. Abercrombie said he and his firms currently owe thousands of dollars in code violation fines on his portfolio of buildings across the city, but they are working with officials to pay them off.

"Right now we've been in an economical crunch for money; it's been hard to fix and to maintain some of the buildings," Abercrombie said.

He said he is doing his best in the face of relentless city inspectors, scavengers who strip everything they can from his unoccupied buildings and unreliable tenants. "The tenants are poor and we gotta keep putting them out, because ... we can't find good tenants."

dyjackson@tribune.com

gmarx@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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