More than a year after he was acquitted on charges of accounting fraud, former HealthSouth CEO turned religious broadcaster Richard Scrushy was convicted last week of a bribery scheme along with a former governor of Alabama.
A federal jury in Montgomery, Ala., convicted Scrushy and former Gov. Don Siegelman of conspiracy, bribery and fraud last Thursday. Scrushy was accused of paying $500,000 in laundered funds to Siegelman’s campaign, in exchange for obtaining a seat on a state hospital regulatory board, while Scrushy was serving as chief executive of HealthSouth, the largest rehabilitation hospital in the United States.
Since a federal jury found Scrushy not guilty last June in an unrelated five-month trial on charges of a $2.64 billion fraud, he and third wife, Leslie, have started a daily, half-hour Christian talk show on an independent television station and a ministry Web site. Scrushy also helped found Kingdom Builders International Ministries, a non-denominational missions organization.
More recently he and his wife–the daughter of a Methodist minister–were ordained as co-pastors of Grace and PurposeChurch, which broadcasts its worship service on a cable channel owned by Scrushy’s son-in-law.
Scrushy has long been portrayed as an active churchman and generous donor to religious work. He reportedly gave $600,000 toward construction of an $11.5 million building for Mountain Top Community Church in an affluent suburb of Birmingham, Ala.
Scrushy attended the church for about six years. It is a non-denominational congregation started in 1992 by Bill Elder, a longtime Baptist pastor who resigned after three years as pastor of Birmingham’s Vestavia HillsBaptistChurch over disagreement about worship styles to start a new church based on the “seeker-friendly” Willow Creek Community Church model.
Elder said in a 2003 newspaper interview that Scrushy “heard and responded to strong messages about biblical ethics” while at the church.
“We talk a lot about ethics in the workplace and stewardship,” Elder said. “Richard has heard messages on the rich young ruler, the Good Samaritan, the prodigal son. He always responds positively.”
During his first trial, Scrushy, who is white, was accused of attempting to curry favor with a majority-black jury by attending a predominantly African-American church and cultivating influential black church leaders to attend his trial. The group, dubbed his “Amen Corner,” prayed with Scrushy before the start of court every day.
Afterward, the Birmingham News reported that a charity funded by Scrushy gave more than $700,000 to 19 organizations and churches, at least eight including leaders seen frequently at his trial.
One former supporter, Pastor Herman Henderson of Believers Temple Church, alleged that he was hired by Scrushy to organize black pastors to attend the trial in Birmingham and provide public relations services, including writing favorable articles placed in The Birmingham Times, a local newspaper serving the black community.
Scrushy, his wife and pastors from five churches denied those allegations in a group interview. Scrushy said the relationship was based purely on a common Christian calling and that Henderson was trying to extort money from him–an accusation that Henderson denied.
Scrushy isn’t the only figure in recent high-profile corporate scandals with ties to preachers.
Former Enron CEO Ken Lay, the son of a Baptist minister, convicted in May of conspiracy and fraud related to the energy company’s collapse in 2001, reportedly enlisted former Southern Baptist Convention President Ed Young as his spiritual adviser and a character witness in his trial.
Lay died Wednesday after a massive heart attack, six weeks after being found guilty and before he was sentenced to prison.
Though Lay was a Methodist, he often attended Young’s Second Baptist Church of Houston with his oldest son. Young reportedly described Lay as a trustworthy man. “I believe he loves God, I believe he works hard, and I believe he’s a man who keeps his word,” Young said.
Bernie Ebbers, convicted of an $11 billion fraud in 2005, was a member of Easthaven Baptist Church in Brookhaven, Miss., while serving as CEO of Worldcom, a communications giant that went bankrupt in 2002.
Jim Futral, executive director-treasurer of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, asked for leniency in the sentencing phase of Ebbers’ trial, but Ebbers received a 25-year sentence in federal prison for what the Jackson Clarion-Ledger called “the worst business fraud in history.”
In an interview on his Web site, Scrushy scoffed at cynics who say his religious work is an attempt to sway people into thinking he is a good person.
“That’s just absolutely not true,” he said. “The truth is my wife and I are both ordained pastors–ministers, evangelists.”
“Our television show is a ministry,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is help people. We’re trying to help build the Kingdom of God. We’ve always been Christians.”
Scrushy also pledged to keep ministry supporters up to date through a blog.
“As most of you know, I am in the fight of my life,” he wrote. “I have decided to share my most intimate thoughts with you through this diary. I will occasionally be taking the time to share what God has laid upon my heart for my situation. This journey will be the testimony to my faith, and belief I will be delivered through.”
U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller allowed both Scrushy and Siegelman to remain free on bond. Both men said they plan to appeal the verdict. Scrushy, 53, faces up to 30 years in prison.
He also still faces a civil trial next April, in which the Securities and Exchange Commission seeks $786 million from him in penalties and restitution. Scrushy was acquitted late last June on three dozen counts he faced in an accounting scandal that allegedly overstated earnings HealthSouth’s earnings by at least $1.4 billion.
A prosecutor said Scrushy’s conviction “sends the message that Americans will not tolerate the bribery of our public officials.”
“Bribery of this sort—between a sitting governor and a corporate chief executive officer—has a devastating impact on public confidence in our government,” said Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher. “The Justice Department will continue to aggressively investigate and prosecute corrupt public officials and those who conspire to corrupt them.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.