Ousted Empowerment Temple pastor faced business lawsuit, ‘pattern of complaints’ for firm before and during time at Baltimore church

·7 min read

Ousted Empowerment Temple pastor George Barnes II and his wife faced serious problems in their business lives both before and after he was hired to lead the Baltimore megachurch, according to public records and the Better Business Bureau.

As Barnes missed deadlines with the church’s mortgage lender — the issue over which an Empowerment spokesman said he was terminated — the couple’s World Institute of Safety faced a lawsuit from the American Red Cross and garnered an “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau.

Founded in the mid-2000s, the World Institute of Safety LLC and its subsidiary, EnjoyCPR Inc., contract with independent instructors to offer cardiopulmonary training classes across the country. Documents on file with the state tax department list George and Junetta Barnes as owners and George Barnes as CEO of both entities. The companies serve professionals in fields ranging from nursing to aerobics training, most of them required to be certified as able to perform CPR.

The Red Cross sued the World Institute in U.S. District Court in Baltimore for trademark infringement, winning a writ of garnishment of more than $249,000 in March 2020 when a judge ruled the company had falsely maintained it was affiliated with the organization. Ashley Henyan, a Red Cross spokeswoman, told The Baltimore Sun in an email that the judgment hasn’t been paid.

A statement of affiliation with the Red Cross was shown on the EnjoyCPR website this summer. It disappeared this week after a Baltimore Sun reporter asked about it.

Meanwhile, a photo of a court notice obtained by The Sun shows that in March 2019, the World Institute of Safety’s landlord in downtown Baltimore, 20 S. Charles St. LLC, accused Barnes’ company of owing more than $33,000 in unpaid rent and about $9,000 in other costs. Bradshaw Rost, an attorney for 20 S. Charles St. LLC, did not respond to a request for comment.

Barnes acknowledges that his companies have faced problems, but said in a written statement to The Sun that they have arisen not from “how we managed our ventures,” but rather from changes in the overall business environment, as well as from “external attacks [on us] as a thriving Black business.”

He did not elaborate on where those attacks might have come from but said “many Black businesses that reach a certain level of success can relate” and that “we’ve seen firsthand what it’s like to lose millions of dollars of revenue from no fault of your own.”

Henyan, the Red Cross spokeswoman, responded Friday in an email to The Sun by citing one of the agency’s fundamental principles — that it “makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions.”

In his statement, Barnes declined to comment further on actions against his companies that might have additonal legal implications.

“We are working with our legal team and are evaluating when and what cases will be appealed,” he said.

Barnes, 39, has touted his early success with the companies, which he helped found in his 20s, saying it earned him millionaire status, providing a lifestyle that included a $1.6 million mansion in Owings Mills, a Ferrari and a Bentley.

The home and cars were pictured frequently on the Barnes’ social media sites in 2017 and 2018, along with photos of the couple vacationing in Italy and the Caribbean. At that time, Barnes was senior pastor of the Elevation Chapel in Baltimore, an AME church he founded in 2010 and served through early 2019.

He was then named senior pastor at Empowerment Temple, a primarily African American church of about 4,000 members in the Reisterstown Station neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore.

The Better Business Bureau website cites more than 70 complaints filed by customers of Barnes’ companies over the past three years, along with a summary of the most frequently described issues. It notes complaints about “canceling scheduled training sessions on short notice,” unmet promises to pay refunds for those sessions, and the company rebuffing customers’ efforts to address their problems.

“Business has failed to resolve underlying cause(s) of a pattern of complaints,” the consumer advocacy group reports as one reason for the “F” rating.

Barnes, who said his businesses have worked with about 400,000 customers over the years, pointed to more than 18,000 who have left positive reviews on a website for Shopper Approved LLC, a company that collects verified reviews for paying clients.

“With any large organization with hundreds of employees and contractors, there will be some who are not happy with their separation and claim a number of negative things about their former company,” he said. “I would believe that some negative reviews or complaints are normal.”

The World Institute of Safety had six employees as of last year, according to an application the company filed for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan during the pandemic provided by the journalism nonprofit ProPublica, which tracks such loans.

In 2017, the federal government filed a tax lien of more than $1 million against the Barneses, public records show. The house was sold in a foreclosure auction for $975,000 more than two years later.

The lien was one of seven filed against the couple by state or federal authorities over the past half decade, including liens totaling more than $1.4 million before he came to Empowerment Temple. Each case is closed, according to public records.

A spokesman for the Maryland comptroller’s office, Alan Brody, said Friday that “every taxpayer’s case is decided on the merits; race or any other personal identifying characteristic has zero bearing on any individual’s tax status.”

A spokesperson for the Internal Revenue Service did not respond Friday afternoon to requests for comment.

On Aug. 5, an Empowerment Temple spokesman announced that a board of church and denominational leaders had voted overwhelmingly to terminate Barnes immediately.

The principal reason cited was that Barnes was late two years in a row filing audit reports required by the church’s mortgage lender, a problem the spokesman said resulted in significant fees. The spokesman added that the lender threatened to foreclose should Barnes remain as senior pastor. Further, he said, Barnes told denominational leaders he was considering starting a new church in the area, which the spokesman said would violate doctrine.

The Rev. Cordell E. Hunter and the Rev. Ernest L. Montague Sr., presiding elders within the AME districts that include Baltimore, have not responded to requests for comment.

At a town hall-style meeting Aug. 11, Barnes told listeners he missed the deadlines out of concern that the reports be “accurate, not rushed.” Barnes also said he didn’t threaten to start a new church and wasn’t told the lender threatened to foreclose. He stressed that no one at Empowerment Temple or in AME leadership has alleged financial wrongdoing on his part.

“People hear the words ‘financial audit’ and they assume there has been financial mismanagement, but no one has even accused me of that,” Barnes said at the meeting.

In his statement, Barnes said Empowerment Temple was “in poor financial condition” when he arrived, that he responded to that by reducing the pastor’s compensation package and taking no salary for six months.

“My family and I were happy to serve and help the church,” he said.

Barnes continues to post recorded sermons on his Facebook page. The Sunday following his ouster, he appeared against a backdrop of palm trees and said he was speaking to viewers from “the beautiful Caribbean.” Last week, he was pictured at the Sept. 11 memorial in New York City.

“Have you ever been in a situation where you were under attack?” he asked in the video. “Jesus teaches us that even when we feel and experience attacks of many kinds, we ought not to respond to what was done to us in hate, but to respond in love.”

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