Charles Ware, left, listens to defense attorney Warren Conway, right, present his case for Donald Crowther, center, owner of TCM Construction, on Thursday in Oktibbeha County Circuit Court. Crowther pleaded guilty in July to a fraud charge for submitting false invoices that were reported to the Second Baptist Church trustees, for which Ware is an adviser and spokesman. Judge Lee Coleman ruled Crowther must pay restitution to the church, and Crowther will be sentenced further Nov. 2. Photo by: Tess Vrbin/Dispatch Staff
September 11, 2020 11:38:40 AM
The owner of a Long Beach construction company will be sentenced Nov. 2 for a longstanding fraud charge after he failed to properly construct a new sanctuary at Second Baptist Church in Starkville, one of three ongoing circuit court cases involving the project.
In the meantime, Donald Crowther's defense attorney and the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case will come up with the difference between the amount of money the church paid Crowther and the total amount on the false invoices he submitted. Crowther will pay the difference as restitution in addition to his sentence, Judge Lee Coleman ruled Thursday during the first part of the sentencing hearing in Oktibbeha County Circuit Court.
Crowther, owner of TCM Construction, was arrested in 2016 and pleaded guilty to fraud in July. He admitted he "prepared and submitted false invoices" of checks paid to contractors, which were later erroneously reported to Second Baptist Church. His trial was supposed to begin in July but was postponed shortly before he entered the plea.
Charles Ware, a spokesman and adviser for the Second Baptist Church board of trustees, asked Coleman to give Crowther the maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. The trustees paid Crowther more than $454,000 for the work he was supposed to do, Ware read on the witness stand from Crowther's bank records.
No work has been done on the sanctuary in several years, and the only work that was ever completed was preliminary dirt work. The building permit expired in October 2017.
"How can you steal from a church, the bedrock of our community, the bedrock I grew up in?" Ware said.
Crowther asked Coleman to sentence him to house arrest rather than prison, as did his aunt, Jeanette Self, who appeared as his character witness.
Crowther, 73, is the primary caretaker for his father, who is 95 years old and has dementia, and his son, who is 40 years old and has a disability, both Crowther and Self said on the witness stand.
"(Crowther) is already being punished, because he has to take care of his family, try to continue with his business and have to live with the anguish that he has caused Second Baptist Church," Self said.
Coleman said Crowther should be able to make arrangements for both his father and son to be properly cared for by Nov. 2.
TCM Companies and Second Baptist Church have been embroiled in legal issues since December 2015, when church trustees filed a civil lawsuit in circuit court against TCM, Pastor Joseph Stone Jr. and Head Deacon Terry Miller. The suit alleges Stone and Miller negotiated the May 2013 contract to build a new sanctuary without the board's approval and withheld money collected through church offerings from the trustees.
Another civil suit in 2018, solely against TCM, calls the company's work on the new sanctuary "negligent" and "defective."
Coleman said the entire situation is "extremely unusual" to him.
"In every major construction contract I've ever seen, you're paid based on the amount of work that you do, and there's an independent person, usually the bank or someone hired by them, to make sure the work's been done before (making) periodic payments," Coleman said. "In this case, you have nearly half a million dollars paid out and nobody's out there inspecting the work."
Crowther previously served prison time in Minnesota for felony bribing a federal official in 1995. He claimed on the stand that he regretted submitting the false invoices and had done it "in my dumb way of looking at things" to ensure that the church would pay him for the work he had done.
Assistant District Attorney Ben Rush said he did not accept Crowther's "excuse" for his actions.
"They paid you $454,000 and all they have to show for it is a pile of dirt," Rush told Crowther.
Ware said the ongoing litigation has been a divisive burden on the Second Baptist community. About 10 members of the congregation were present at the hearing.
Crowther's defense attorney, Warren Conway of Conway Denson and Associates in Gulfport, told The Dispatch after the hearing that it was "unfortunate" that the church kept pursuing all three court cases and "is trying to get paid three times."
Rush said Coleman's ruling of financial restitution was a step in the right direction.
"I'm very happy that we were able to get some justice for Second Baptist because it's been a long time," Rush told The Dispatch.
Tess Vrbin is the Starkville and Oktibbeha County reporter for The Dispatch. Reach her at 662-323-2424 or follow her on Twitter at @tess_m_vrbin.
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