A former pastor was sentenced to two years of probation Monday by a judge who said he had “picked the pockets” of his congregation by receiving nearly $150,000 in government disability benefits while collecting a church salary.
Federal sentencing guidelines called for Carroll Freemont Pennell, 69, to spend 12 to 18 months in prison for stealing government money over more than 10 years while he was pastor of the Word of God Fellowship Church in Brunswick.
Instead, Judge George Singal sentenced him to probation, issuing what he called a “lenient” sentence because the cost of Pennell’s medical care in prison would exceed the amount he stole from taxpayers.
“I do this not because you do not deserve a period of incarceration, but because of your health history,” Singal said at the sentencing in U.S. District Court in Portland.
Pennell, who wept during the proceedings and struggled to stand using a wooden cane, is in failing health, said his attorney, J.P. DeGrinney. He has had triple bypass heart surgery, multiple bouts with cancer and spinal problems, and is mentally frail, DeGrinney said.
Pennell was pastor of the church from 1995 until he resigned and moved to Cushing, Texas, in November 2011. He also worked in the shipping department of the Grumbacher Brush Co. in Lisbon Falls until October 1997, when he said disabilities including back pain and a heart condition made him unable to work, court records said.
In 1999, Pennell began receiving disability benefits from the Social Security Administration on the condition that he not earn more than $500 per month in salary and benefits from working. To cover up his work as pastor, he had his church paychecks of $300 per week issued to his wife, Glenna, according to a criminal complaint filed by Adam Schneider, an investigator for the Social Security Administration.
In all, Pennell received $146,829 in disability benefits from February 1999 to August 2010, when he reached retirement age.
“My heart is full of remorse. I’m embarrassed. I’m sorrowful,” Pennell said during Monday’s proceedings, wiping tears from his eyes. “I live with this day and night, and no matter what the sentence is, I’m still going to have to live with it. I live with the fact that I’m going to be a felon. It’s very crushing.”
Videos found at the church after Pennell resigned as pastor show that he “preaches in an emphatic manner” and “moves about the altar in a vigorous fashion without any apparent limitation,” says the complaint. Yet he claimed in a review of his benefits in 2002 that his activities were limited to “church fellowship suppers and listening to gospel singing groups.”
Pennell pleaded guilty Nov. 18. The charge carried a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. In exchange for his plea, a second charge, of conspiracy to commit Social Security fraud, was dismissed. His wife was not charged.
Pennell’s friend of 16 years, Pastor Arthur Long of New Hampshire, spoke at Monday’s sentencing hearing to ask the judge for “leniency and mercy.”
Singal asked Long how Pennell could ask sinners to repent, when he did not do the same.
“He knew he was stealing from the people he was preaching to,” Singal said. “How do you put together these two divergent views that I’ve heard from you and that I’ve seen in legal records here?”
Long said he believes that Pennell was preaching not only about his own life but also a truth about a higher standard.
“Unfortunately, because there is hypocrisy, his private life did not live up to the standard he was preaching,” Long said.
The Word of God Fellowship Church, an affiliate of the Texas-based International Word of God Fellowship, no longer exists in that name.
DeGrinney called Glenna Pennell to speak at the hearing, then changed his mind after the judge warned that she could incriminate herself if she did.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Halsey Frank, who prosecuted Pennell, called the case “difficult.”
Frank acknowledged Pennell’s age and failing health, but said he willingly and intentionally used the church as a “vehicle of perpetrating his fraud.”
Frank made no sentencing request and did not specifically ask for Pennell to be imprisoned. “I think Judge Singal is an experienced judge, and ultimately it is his call,” Frank said afterward.
Singal also ordered Pennell to pay $29,512 in restitution. Frank said Pennell could not be ordered to pay back the full amount he had stolen because the five-year statute of limitations had expired for the early years of Pennell’s scheme.
In sentencing Pennell, Singal said his actions corrupted his church and augmented the public’s cynicism in its leaders.
“One could argue to me that your feelings of remorse are punishment enough,” Singal said. “I’m not sure I buy that.”
Pennell, dressed in a black suit, left the courtroom with a small group of supporters. He declined to be interviewed.
He will be allowed to serve his probation term at home in Texas.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: