PORTLAND, Maine — A former Brunswick pastor waived indictment and pleaded guilty Monday in U.S. District Court to theft of government money.
Carroll Freemont Pennell, 69, of Cushing, Texas, admitted that he lied about the income he received from the Word of God Fellowship Church to continue receiving disability benefits from the Social Security Administration. He also admitted that he instructed the church board to pay his wife, Glenna Pennell, the pastor’s salary.
She has not been charged.
In addition to theft of government money, Pennell was charged in August with conspiracy to commit Social Security fraud. He never entered a plea to the conspiracy charge because he was never indicted by a federal grand jury on that charge. The conspiracy charge is expected to be dropped when Pennell is sentenced.
He has been free since August on personal recognizance bail.
By pleading guilty to theft of government money, Pennell admitted that he received nearly $150,000 in illegal benefits between February 1999 and August 2010 when he converted to Social Security retirement benefits.
The Word of God Fellowship Church of Brunswick was founded in 1994 and affiliated with the International Word of God Fellowship, headquartered in Longview, Texas. Pennell was pastor from the time the church was founded until he resigned and moved to Texas in 2011, according to court documents.
“As pastor of the Word of God Fellowship Church of Brunswick, Maine, Carroll Pennell was spiritual leader of the church, and guide in all areas of church life,” the prosecution version of events to which he pleaded guilty said. “He conducted religious services on average three times per week. He was president of the corporation. He appointed its board of directors and chaired all regular and special board meetings and business meetings. He had final responsibility and decision making authority in the matters of the church.”
Until October 1997, Pennell also worked in the shipping department of Grumbacher Brush Co. in Lisbon Falls until he hurt his back, according to court documents. His wife worked for the same company until it went out of business in 2002.
At the church, she performed the functions of a traditional pastor’s wife, such as teaching Sunday school classes, producing the church newsletter and helping to run the church’s television ministry after it was created in 2001, according to court documents. She also regularly attended board meetings.
In 1998, the Social Security Administration denied Pennell disability benefits because they were “not so limiting that they prevent him from performing substantial work,” the prosecution version said. It reversed itself in February 1999 and awarded him a lump sum for benefits from April 1998 to February 1999 after it was determined that Pennell’s medical conditions, including back and check pains, “sufficiently limited his ability to work,” the document said. In May 1999, the board voted to pay Glenna Pennell $300 per week as co-pastor.
In June 2002, Pennell reported in a periodic review of his disability benefits that “the only activities he participated in were church fellowship suppers and listening to gospel singing groups,” the complaint said.
Pennell faces up to 10 years in federal prison on the theft charge and up to five years in prison on the conspiracy charge. He also could be fined up to $250,000 on each count and be ordered to pay restitution to the Social Security Administration.
A sentencing date has not been set. Pennell remains free on bail.