Emails reveal COF Academy's connection to AME Church
Christians of Faith Academy started to draw attention in central Ohio last July when the private, online school with a religious message unveiled an astonishing high school football schedule.
But COF Academy lacked a school building, a working website, an identifiable academic structure, an announced home football field and a football team roster.
What it did seem to have, though, was an affiliation with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
COF Academy’s leader was Roy Johnson, who called himself the “face” of the project.
Johnson said he had founded the Richard Allen Group in 2014 as the “economic-development arm of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.”
He said, and documents he has provided show, that the Richard Allen Group handled a variety of financial and development issues for the church, including conversations with banks, opening a realty office and spearheading projects like COF Academy.
Jay Richardson, a former Ohio State University and NFL player who is a regular analyst on WSYX-TV’s “The Football Fever,” was listed on early documents as COF Academy’s athletics director.
But during the past several months, leaders of the AME Church’s Third District have said the church had no involvement in the creation of COF Academy.
A number of documents and emails obtained by ThisWeek -- both independently and from Johnson -- and many interviews with individuals involved in the process indicate otherwise.
They suggest the church and its leaders not only were involved with the creation of COF Academy, but they also helped fund the Richard Allen Group and have been working with its representatives for years.
For the past several months, Johnson and Richardson had been reluctant to speak to ThisWeek about the details of COF Academy or its relationship with the AME Church. They recently explained it was because of a desire to salvage their work with the church and a federal investigation that began because of the church’s denial of affiliation.
But, they said, a lawsuit they plan to file has led them to tell their side of the story -- one in which they are the victims, not the villains, and they have the documents to prove it.
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He said he and Richardson were church members, along with coaches Paul Williams and Ulysses Hall, who both had coached at Ohio Wesleyan University.
The school’s plan was to give students a “second chance” -- or even a “first chance” for some -- Johnson said. Many had failed classes at other schools, some were orphans and others were homeless, he said.
According to the Ohio Department of Education, COF Academy was classified as a noncharter school that is not supported by taxes, sometimes known as an “08” school in reference to its section in the Ohio Administrative Code (OAC 3301-35-08). That designation is reserved for schools that need to operate outside the usual structure because of “truly held religious beliefs.”
The school used Minnesota-based education company Edmentum and its EdOptions Online Academy for its academic program, and it had planned to hold classes at the AME Church Third District headquarters at 112 Jefferson Ave. in Columbus, according to Johnson.
But by October, the project appeared to have fallen apart.
ThisWeek learned in September that a post had appeared on the AME Third District website, ame3.org, on behalf of Bishop McKinley Young that said the Richard Allen Group and COF Academy were acting independently of the church. It also said church members had been approached “for donations and or the purchase of life insurance.”
“The Third District African Methodist Episcopal Church has not authorized any person, whether they be officers, staff, pastors or anyone associated with the Third District to commit the Third District, in any form or fashion to any activities of the COF Academy and/or the Richard Allen Group,” the statement said. “The Third District is neither a partner, agent, supporter nor detractor of (the two organizations).”
Young, who was the head of the Third District, died Jan. 16, according to a church post. The church did not note the cause of his death, but the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Young, 74, died after a brief illness. Young was a former pastor of Big Bethel AME Church in Atlanta, the newspaper said.
Johnson said during a January interview he was not sure when the statement was posted on the website, but it likely would have been sometime after the close of the Third District’s Tawawa Christian Education Congress in July 2018, which was when the website post said the statement first was issued.
The post, which had a direct URL of ame3.org/disclaimer, was removed from the Third District website sometime last fall -- Johnson said he believes it was in October. ThisWeek retained a screenshot of the statement.
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In September, attorney Arthur Harmon, who represents the AME Church, amplified the online statement, saying the church never had been contacted by Johnson or COF Academy and saying the church sent a cease-and-desist letter to the school.
“(The AME Church) was never affiliated with them,” he said. “The persons that were involved in this, I believe, may be AME members of a local church or something like that. But they have gone off into their own business enterprise and, naturally, wanted to present their business enterprise to the AME Church and its members to see if they would be interested in that.
“If there was any representation that there was an affiliation or that the AME Church or the Third District was approving or disapproving of any of their actions, then that’s not the case. There is no affiliation.”
The Ohio High School Athletic Association ruled Sept. 25 that COF Academy no longer qualified as a school because it could not verify classes were taking place at the Jefferson Avenue address.
On Oct. 19, the Ohio Department of Education revoked COF Academy’s school registration, also citing that it could not verify classes were taking place at Jefferson Avenue.
According to Johnson, when the church declined to allow COF Academy to use its facilities, “classes” had to be moved to libraries -- including the Southeast branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library in Groveport, where students signed up for library cards, he said -- and other public spaces that had internet access, and students were taught almost exclusively online.
Times were tough on the football field, too. The Ironmen won only two games, against Birmingham Brother Rice in Michigan and Reigning Sports Academy in Columbus, and two of the original 12 scheduled games, against Lakewood St. Edward near Cleveland and IMG Academy in Florida, were canceled outright.
Even after the AME Church’s denial, Richardson said, he and Johnson sat with Young and other church leaders at an October conference in Cincinnati to discuss what would happen next.
“I’ve never been more blindsided by a statement,” Richardson said. “My jaw hit the floor. I thought it was a mistake. And then we sat down with the bishop and they just said, ‘We can’t be involved.’”
At the time, Johnson said, he didn’t understand any of the decisions, from the church’s denial to the ODE revocation.
“What I don’t understand is what changed,” he said.
He said he had been in contact with church leaders for more than a year about the project. But in the summer of 2018, everything stopped.
He said during those months, he believed the only way to keep the school afloat would be to maintain his long relationship with the church and fix whatever had caused the change.
“I was trying to preserve the relationship and not burn the bridge,” he said. “That wouldn’t help anything.”
Now, Johnson said, his only recourse is to take legal action against the church leaders who left him holding the bag. But that’s not an easy task for someone with deep roots in the church, he said.
“Nobody fights the church,” he said, “especially in the black community.”
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“(The AME Church) was never affiliated with them. The persons that were involved in this, I believe, may be AME members of a local church or something like that. But they have gone off into their own business enterprise and, naturally, wanted to present their business enterprise to the AME Church and its members to see if they would be interested in that."
Attorney Arthur Harmon, who represents the AME Church
Johnson said he began working with the AME Church in economic development as far back as 2013. Eventually, he said, he and church leaders decided to take his work outside the church, at which point the Richard Allen Group was formed.
Richard Allen, the organization’s namesake, was born into slavery in the 18th century and eventually became a Christian bishop who founded the AME Church, a now-massive international organization. The use of his name is not exclusive to the Richard Allen Group; it appears to be used by the church itself (for example, the Richard Allen AME Church in Bermuda) and organizations whose official ties to the church are unclear (the Richard Allen Schools in western Ohio).
According to Ohio Secretary of State records, the Richard Allen Group was formed in December 2014. Johnson is listed as the incorporator. In November 2015, Richardson was named in a document amending that filing.
The organization has been used for a variety of church-related projects, Johnson said. For instance, he said -- and documents show -- he and the Richard Allen Group were tasked with opening an HER Realtors office meant to provide housing opportunities to church members and low-income neighborhoods.
Johnson provided several documents he said showed a connection with the church.
For example, a $100,000 check dated Dec. 18, 2015, was deposited into a UBS bank account, though only the account number appeared on the check. That bank account was named “THE RICHARD ALLEN GROUP, LLC,” according to other bank documents showing the account number.
The check was signed by Young and Third District accountant Floyd Alexander.
Four months later, on March 10, 2016, the Rev. Taylor Thompson, an AME Church pastor and assistant district accountant, emailed a UBS representative and carbon-copied Johnson.
“As per our conversation, please provide me with the current statement on our account for the Richard Allen Group,” said the email Johnson provided.
More than two years later, Thompson wrote a letter dated July 21, 2018, to Dave Whinham, president and CEO of The Team LLC, a sports-media and consulting company. The letter was sent on the AME Church Third Episcopal District letterhead, with Young’s name included.
In an email to Johnson the same day, July 21, 2018, Thompson wrote, “I am sending this letter to you. Please deliver to Mr. Whinham.”
“It was good meeting with you yesterday! Thank you for the opportunity!” the letter begins. “As per our conversation, we are excited about the Christians of Faith Academy and look forward to your participation.”
The letter goes on to explain the church’s background and elaborate on its “7,000 churches in 39 countries.”
The letter also mentions Johnson, Richardson and the Richard Allen Group.
“We are also concerned about economic development and thus about six years ago, we created an economic-development arm for our work, the Richard Allen Group, a for-profit arm,” the letter said.“It is the Richard Allen Group that is spearheading our development of the academy. Roy Johnson and Jay Richardson is (sic) authorized to assemble a team of persons and resources to bring this to fruition.”
The letter ends by quoting a Bible verse, saying the project will “be investing in the future of our young people” and inviting Whinham to “join us in this endeavor.”
Whinham confirmed to ThisWeek that he recalled conversations with Johnson and Thompson.
Despite the check and email, when contacted Jan. 28 through an AME Church phone number, Thompson told ThisWeek he had no involvement with COF Academy or the Richard Allen Group, who were operating “independent of the church.” However, he acknowledged Whinham’s name sounded familiar.
“We were supportive of the idea, as we have been with several other schools and educational training programs in our local and national community,” he said.
Thompson said, to his understanding, the check was meant for a “money-market investment account” and he had no idea how it went to the Richard Allen Group.
“How it got into what became their account, we have not been informed of,” he said. “We’ve turned that in to the legal counsel.”
Thompson, who still works for the AME Church, said he could not answer more questions “because of the mess that’s been created through this whole process” and abruptly ended the call Jan. 28.
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The check and the email to Whinham are not the only signs that point to Thompson and the AME Church’s involvement with the Richard Allen Group.
In early 2017, Johnson and the Richard Allen Group were tasked with increasing efficiency of the Third District’s buildings.
In an email dated Feb. 2, 2017, Thompson sent Johnson energy information for the district’s buildings and information from an energy-efficiency questionnaire.
In emails during June and July 2017, Thompson discussed funding options for the purchase of land for COF Academy with representatives from Prospera Advisory Group.
On June 12, 2017, Thompson emailed a “point of clarification” that the project is expected to cost $3.1 million, which “includes the church, the annex and the office building.” Notwithstanding Thompson saying the church was not affiliated with the Richard Allen Group, Johnson is carbon-copied on these emails.
From November 2017 to December 2018, Johnson, Richardson and Thompson had a long thread of emails with a commercial-relationship manager at Huntington Bank regarding loans for the COF Academy project.
In an email addressed from Thompson on Dec. 8, 2017, a variety of financial information was sent to the bank, and Johnson again was carbon-copied on the emails.
In addition to including financial statements for three years and a then-current “interim” statement, he elaborated on the district’s “160 churches in West Virginia, western Pennsylvania and Ohio” and explained those churches have a gross income of $14.5 million, with property value totaling $458 million.
In July 2018, Johnson had an email conversation with representatives from First Merchants Bank about a large line of credit.
In the conversation, the bank representative said First Merchants Bank “feels very positive about moving forward with the church.”
On Sept. 5, 2018, Johnson received an email from Thompson with the subject line, “Third District Fiscal Year End for 2017 and 2018.”
The email contained a copy of a scan from the device name “St Paul AME Church Columbus OH.” The scanned document was the Third District’s “Stewardship Finance Commission” fiscal year-end report, and it contained detailed financial information regarding the district’s expenses.
When asked about those documents, Harmon said the church is not affiliated with Johnson, Richardson or the Richard Allen Group. His theory, he said, is that perhaps Thompson had been working with them without the church’s knowledge.
“Taylor Thompson may have been working with the Richard Allen Group,” he said. “I still haven’t nailed that one down yet. I think maybe he was.”
Harmon had no answer for how Young's and Alexander’s signatures appeared on a check deposited into a Richard Allen Group account. He called it “out of the ordinary” and said it never was authorized by Young.
Young never returned calls requesting comment before his death.
According to the Third District website, Frank M. Reid III has been named the new bishop of the church. An AME Church representative declined to take a message for Reid, said he and other church leaders would not answer questions for this story and referred all questions to Harmon.
Alexander also could not be reached for comment, but ThisWeek has left a message for him.
“(Young) never authorized that check to go to the Richard Allen Group,” Harmon said. “That’s what he told me. And I believe him.”
Harmon also said he had no explanation for why so many communications seem to contradict the lack of involvement from the church, and he is “trying to figure that out myself.” He declined to provide anything that would prove those communications inaccurate and instead offered a warning.
“I think you should be cautious before you walk down certain roads and make certain statements,” he said.
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Six months after COF Academy’s first football game, Johnson and Richardson said they are backed into a corner.
A handful of students still are tied to the school, and they face an uncertain future. Johnson said the school chose to take early 2019 as its “summer” in order to focus on legal battles and the future of the academy.
Meanwhile, debts tied to Johnson and COF Academy are piling up.
In a lawsuit filed Nov. 26, First Merchants Bank is suing Johnson, Richardson and the Richard Allen Group for an unpaid $100,000 loan. In that loan, Johnson and Richardson signed documents identifying the Richard Allen Group as “the financial arm of the Third Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church,” the same terminology used in Thompson’s email.
On Aug. 30, 2018, Heartland Bank filed a civil lawsuit through the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas. It alleged the Richard Allen Group had “failed to make all payments” on the loan and asserted that the bank was owed $90,449.10.
Judge Jenifer French ruled Sept. 5 that the Richard Allen Group owed $90,449.10 to Heartland Bank.
Multiple companies, including LVL UP Sports Paintball Park and SuperKick Columbus, an indoor training facility in Lewis Center, complained in the fall that Johnson had not paid them for services rendered.
He said that because of the severed ties to the church, he has no way of paying back the loans and other bills that have come from running the school.
“People are calling and saying, ‘You just ran out on us. You did this. You did that,’ ” he said. “I’m trying to explain, ‘No, I did not. Just hold on.’ Because I’m still trying to figure out if there’s a way to have a conversation and work this out.”
Richardson said he feels betrayed that the church in which he’s been a longtime member would “blatantly lie.”
“Why they woke up one day and said, ‘We’re not into it,’ I don’t know,” he said. “It would have been very easy for them to call us and tell us. It would have been devastating, but we could have moved forward.”
In response to the swirl of legal trouble and what he sees as broken promises, Johnson said, he is preparing a lawsuit against the church.
“I don’t think I have a choice,” he said.
And, he said, he still hopes the church will “tell the truth.”
“None of this is necessary,” he said. “This should be something that we should be able to talk about. If the church would say, ‘That’s not what the case was. Clearly we had (a connection),’ it would be fine. But now you’ve got to take that to court.”
About this series
For the past eight months, ThisWeek Community News reporter Andrew King has been following Christians of Faith Academy.
At the beginning of August, COF Academy did not have a school building, a working website, an identifiable academic structure, an announced home field or a released roster, though the team was scheduled to start playing one of Ohio’s most daunting high school football schedules in just a few days.
In the following months, COF Academy was disavowed by its financial-backing institution, the African Methodist Episcopal Church Third District, then the Ohio High School Athletic Association and, finally, the Ohio Department of Education.
Roy Johnson, the head of the program, had been enigmatic both via phone and in person until late 2018, when he wanted to tell his side, saying he could make the case he and his COF Academy partners were victims, not villains.
This story has recounted interviews with all parties, has examined the trove of documents obtained by ThisWeek and has provided a timeline of events.
The other stories will cover: