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Brownsville minister accused of bilking Miami-Dade Children’s Trust

A well-known Brownsville minister was arrested Friday on charges that he stole more than $70,000 in taxpayer money through a community nonprofit agency that he controlled.

Miami-Dade prosecutors say the Rev. Larrie Lovett, minister at the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church of Brownsville, took grant money from the nonprofit Brownsville Community Development Corp. and used it to pay for personal expenses — from rent on his Pembroke Pines home to car payments on his Lexus to a family vacation in Orlando, according to an arrest warrant. Lovett, 48, was charged with grand theft and organized scheme to defraud.

The money came from the Children’s Trust, the special children’s organization that receives money from Miami-Dade County property taxes. From 2007 to 2009, the Trust steered about $1.7 million to the Brownsville CDC to coordinate violence-prevention programs for kids in the Brownsville and Liberty City neighborhoods.

“We’re very sad to see this,” said Emily Cardenas, spokeswoman for the Children’s Trust. “This is certainly not what public dollars are intended for.”

Lovett, a director at the Brownsville CDC, siphoned off some of the money by submitting phony invoices to the Children’s Trust showing that the CDC had made payments to vendors that were never really made, the arrest report says.

Lovett then transferred money from the nonprofit to his personal bank account, and withdrew more than $33,000 in cash with “unauthorized debit cards,” the report says.

In all, Lovett took more than $112,000 through the Brownsville nonprofit, investigators said. But he was only charged with taking about $70,000, because the statute of limitations had lapsed on some older crimes, the arrest report said.

Investigators with the Miami-Dade Inspector General’s Office found that Lovett spent about $53,000 of the money on personal expenses, including car payments, rent on his house, rental cars and expenses for personal trips to Orlando, Chicago, Los Angeles and Tucson, the records show. Lovett also used more than $6,000 to pay the utility bills of an employee at the Brownsville CDC, the records show.

The scheme was discovered after some vendors working with the Brownsville CDC called the Children’s Trust to complain that they were not being paid by Lovett’s nonprofit. The Children’s Trust canceled its contract with the Brownsville CDC in January 2010, and then asked the Inspector General’s Office to investigate.

The Brownsville CDC dissolved last year, state records show, and its nonprofit status has been revoked by the Internal Revenue Service.

Cardenas said the agreement with the Brownsville CDC was part of a larger violence prevention initiative the Trust took on after a spate of shootings that injured or killed several children. The Trust developed school programs and other plans to reduce youth violence.

“There was a need in the community. There were kids getting shot,” Cardenas said. “We felt that the local churches and ministers had very close ties to their communities and would be helpful.”

After the problems with Brownsville CDC, the Trust has added additional safeguards in its contracts to better verify payments to vendors before reimbursing providers for the costs.