[Bergen Record] Congregants of Hackensack church sue pastor, allege fraud

Congregants of Hackensack church sue pastor, allege fraud

A Hackensack pastor who was previously accused of mishandling grant money is now being sued by members of his congregation, who claim he lied about being a credentialed minister and banned them from worship services after they confronted him.

Thirteen members of the Canaan Korean Community Church on Commerce Way have filed suit against pastor Sungnam Choi and the church itself, alleging fraud, breach of contract, emotional distress and negligence. They want Choi barred from serving as a clergyman at the church and his contract rescinded.

"What Sungnam Choi has done to these dedicated believers is disgraceful and those in the church who are allowing Choi to do it should be ashamed of themselves," said the congregants' attorney, Howard Myerowitz of Fort Lee.

Neither Choi nor representatives of the church could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Choi joined the Canaan Korean Community Church on March 17, 2013. Since then, he has conducted services, presided at weddings, baptisms and funerals and led the celebration of religious sacraments – all the functions of an ordained minister, according to the lawsuit.

But, say the plaintiffs, Choi — who was investigated by church officials for misuse of funds – had in fact surrendered his credentials to the United Methodist Church just days before he was hired by Canaan.

At the time, the United Methodist Church was investigating irregularities found in grant applications involving projects designed to benefit Korean-American United Methodist churches and communities.

Choi had worked as director of Korean American and Asian Ministries for the church's Discipleship Ministries from 2003 to 2010. An audit identified four grants in which the money went directly to Choi, rather than for the purposes outlined in the grant applications. Several additional grants also contained discrepancies that raised red flags for investigators, according to a release issued by the church in July 2013.

Church officials turned over their findings to the district attorney general in Nashville, Tenn., where the Discipleship Ministries is located. Last March, the church announced that Choi had agreed to pay $37,000 in restitution and that they would not pursue any further legal action.

That announcement, along with "extensive documentation" of Choi's wrongdoing, prompted some Canaan congregants to confront the pastor in August, according to their attorney. Then in late December, the plaintiffs filed suit.

Retaliation claimed

Choi has retaliated against the 13, spreading rumors about them and threatening to have them arrested for trespassing if they try to attend worship services, according to members of their legal team. In particular, they say, he has barred from the church premises plaintiff Chang Duk Cho, who has been a member of the church for more than 30 years and lent it $2 million to purchase a new church building.

"I don't understand how anyone who considers himself religious can think that God would condone keeping another person from attending Sunday worship services, regardless of their differences," said Myerowitz.

Despite their complaints against him, the plaintiffs are unable to have Choi removed from his position because he has supporters in the church leadership, says Young Lin, who is assisting Myerowitz on the case. "Sungnam Choi has usurped the process of going through the congregation," said Lin.


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