Crime & Courts

Ex-Charlotte pastor bilked churches and owned Ferraris. Now, he’s going to prison.

Gavel illustration
Gavel illustration The Wichita Eagle

In his multiple roles as author, financial adviser and man of the cloth, Todd Coontz preached the benefits of “Biblical Economics:” how God bestows financial blessings, which Coontz could help his clients manage according to scripture, his website says.

But in building his network of businesses, including a television ministry that claimed to have reached 200 countries and 90 million homes, the former Charlotte-area evangelist sidestepped a key piece of New Testament advice: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”

This week, Caesar got his.

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On Tuesday, Coontz was sentenced to five years in prison following his April conviction for tax fraud and evasion, shorthand for what federal prosecutors say were years of Coontz’ efforts to hide some $1.7 million of income and assets from the government.

According to court documents in the case, Coontz, while living in Charlotte, tucked away many of the more visible trappings of his opulent lifestyle — from expensive real estate and jewelry to a boat and a fleet of sports cars — under the misleading umbrella of business expenses.

Coontz also diverted tens of thousands of dollars in business reimbursements to his personal use, documents say.

His write-offs included more than $227,000 on clothes, another $140,000 on meals and entertainment expenses, including 400 separate charges at movie theaters. Rather than pay himself a salary, Coontz ignored his accountants’ advice and took his living expenses out of his business accounts, including Cootz’ Rockwealth Ministries.

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Coontz, according to his prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jenny Sugar, “failed to practice what he preached.”

In her sentencing recommendation, Sugar estimates Coontz, currently a resident of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., evaded more than $750,000 in taxes while also repeatedly ignoring IRS warnings about overdue tax payments on the income he did report.

“This case involves someone who has been delinquent on his taxes for more than fifteen years. Someone who regularly received mail from the IRS regarding his unpaid taxes. Someone who employed — and failed to follow the advice of — two different CPAs. ... Someone who treated every meal, piece of clothing and movie ticket as a business expense.”

Coontz was the author of several financial self-help books, including “Please Don’t Repo My Car.”

In real life, Coontz and his family parked in a different neighborhood. They drove three BMWs, two Ferraris, a Maserati, a Land Rover along with an expensive boat. All were listed as business expenses.

Arguing in vain for a lighter sentence for his client, defense attorney Mark Foster said prosecutors miscalculated the amount of Cootz’ tax liability and falsely accused the minister of obstruction of justice.

The obstruction charge was tied to travel- and expense-related emails that Foster said were destroyed by an employee without Coontz’ knowledge.

A significant prison sentence, Foster said, “would jeopardize and perhaps kill the ministry Coontz has worked these many years to develop and obviously kill his ability to fully repay his tax obligations,” Foster wrote.

According to his website, Coontz built his wealth-management philosophy on Old Testament principles. Some of them found are found in the Book of Deuteronomy in which Moses preaches some of his last sermons to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land.

“But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant,” according to one verse cited on the website.

In reality, prosecutors say Coontz stole from fellow churches, billing them for the full cost of a first-class airline travel for his appearances when his actually paid far less for his tickets.

In her filings, Sugar argued that “a significant sentence” was required to punish and deter Coontz.

Conrad gave her one. The judge also accepted the government’s estimate of what Coontz owes in taxes and ordered $755,669 of restitution.

Michael Gordon has been the Observer’s legal affairs writer since 2013. He has been an editor and reporter at the paper since 1992, occasionally writing about schools, religion, politics and sports. He spent two summers as “Bikin Mike,” filing stories as he pedaled across the Carolinas.