Yesterday, a Waco minister named Joseph Harrell pleaded guilty in a Missouri federal court to playing a key role in a nationwide securities scam.
Harrell admitted selling millions of shares in a purported oil company called Petro America Corporation. The company claimed to be worth a whopping $284 billion -- with a b -- dollars. Last year, the Feds found that it was essentially worthless and that the scam bilked $7.2 million from investors. A federal grand jury indicted Petro's CEO, Owen Hawkins, as well as an alleged co-conspirator from Bandera, Texas, Teresa Brown, last year. Both maintain their innocence and await trial.
Edward Halliburton, a Kansas City, Kansas pastor, also pleaded guilty yesterday to the same counts of conspiracy to commit securities fraud and wire fraud. Halliburton was the president of the Ministers Alliance, a group of men who acted as bodyguards for CEO Hawkins. Harrell was also associated with the group.
I personally attended an October meeting of the Ministers Alliance when reporting for the Kansas City Pitch, which broke the story of ministers' ties to Petro America. At a Denny's restaurant off a Kansas highway, the white fedora and suit-clad Ministers Alliance congregated to hear shareholders' complaints -- mainly, that they hadn't seen a cent. Halliburton hardly said anything as he sat in the back of the room, eating a caramel ice cream sundae. But when the yelling got out of hand, Halliburton spoke up with a soothing voice: "We're all on the same team, right?"
Harrell and others helped spread the scam to Texas and other parts of the country. According to the plea agreement, Harrell went to a Petro meeting in Dallas in February 2010 and invested, believing he could quickly become a millionaire or even billionaire. Just four months later, Harrell was offered the position of Chief Financial Officer of the company. That's when he learned it was a scam.
That wasn't enough to stop him from selling stock in it. Neither was the fact that he wasn't licensed to sell securities, and that any selling of Petro shares was illegal under two cease and desist orders in both Missouri and Kansas. Harrell employed religious language to convince more than 90 folks that Petro was a "blessing from God." He even set up a churchy LLC account in which to deposit the money to fool investors: Kingdom Wealth LLC. Harrell pocketed about $400,000 and spent the money on nice cars, expensive meals and World Series tickets. Before finding Petro, Harrell had been on food stamps.
When CEO Hawkins turned on Harrell and started begging him for cash, Harrell went to the FBI.
If you have been a victim of this scam, the U.S. Attorney's office encourages you to provide information here.