PORTLAND, Maine — A former pastor of the Word of God Fellowship Church in Brunswick was sentenced in federal court on Monday to two years’ probation for defrauding the Social Security Administration of nearly $150,000 in disability payments.
Carroll Freemont Pennell, 69, now of Cushing, Texas, wept in U.S. District Court as Judge George Z. Singal said that because of Pennell’s severe ill health, he would not require him to serve any time in prison. Pennell must also pay restitution of $29,512.
Pennell, who carried a cane and did not stand for the sentencing, wept throughout the proceedings.
In November 2013, Pennell admitted to bilking the SSA of $146,829 in disability 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.
Until October 1997, when he reportedly hurt his back, Pennell also worked in the shipping department of Grumbacher Brush Co. in Lisbon Falls, according to court documents. In March 1998, Pennell applied for Social Security disability benefits, claiming he could no longer work as a shipping receiver due to his injuries.
The Social Security Administration denied the benefits, but in February 1999 reversed itself and awarded him a lump sum for benefits from April 1998 to February 1999, the complaint said. But Pennell, who continued to work at the church, instructed the church’s board to pay his wife, Glenna Pennell, $300 per week as co-pastor, so he could continue to receive disability benefits.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank, who prosecuted the case, acknowledged Pennell’s ill health, but said the investigation revealed that Pennell “is a manipulator … he treated that church as a vehicle … for perpetrating that fraud.”
Pennell’s attorney, J.P. DeGrinney, told the judge that his client suffers from “cancers, heart conditions and chronic pain,” and is “a mentally frail person who has had great difficulty navigating life from a difficult upbringing.” He said Pennell has “dedicated his private time to improving his community” and argued that the theft was not part of a scheme to defraud the government and the church of money.
Pastor Arthur Long, a longtime friend of Pennell’s, quoted Romans 13:3 as he asked for leniency for the former pastor.
“For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong,” Long told Singal. “[Pennell] has lived the terror mentioned in this scripture throughout this trial and continues to do so.”
Singal questioned how Long reconciled Pennell’s actions with his position as a trusted church leader, noting, “During this time, he got on a podium … and preached honor, he preached fellowship to man … He was advising sinners during that period of time to repent, and he didn’t.”
DeGrinney also called Glenna Pennell to speak to Singal during Monday’s hearing, but after Singal warned that her words could incriminate her, she did not speak. Frank said she has been granted no immunity, but that he understands the government will not seek to prosecute her.
In his sentencing, Singal referred to the scripture quoted by Long, and recited another: “To whom much is given, much is owed,” he said. “You’ve been given many attributes that enabled you to be a man of God [but] you were as much a thief as a man who came into the church and picked their pockets.”
Singal said Pennell’s activities augmented a perception that “people in positions of power and leadership are hypocrites. … I don’t know how you bear that terrible burden, but that’s what you’ve done.”
Singal said sentencing guidelines called for a prison term of 12 to 18 months, but the judge said that sentencing Pennell to serve time in prison would only further burden taxpayers as a result of his crimes, particularly given his many medical conditions.
Singal sentenced Pennell to two years probation “because I believe it’s the only alternative that’s realistically available to this court.”
Frank said following the sentencing that although Pennell stole $146,829, he would only pay $29,512 in restitution due to the five-year statute of limitations on his crimes.