'Serial con man' now pastor of online church
News 6 investigation raises questions about internet ministry
ORLANDO, Fla. – Over the last two decades, Michael Anthony Nelson has morphed himself into a wide variety of people and professions.
Using aliases such as Larry Powell and Anthony Zamora, Nelson has convinced people that he was a banker, a lawyer, and a business consultant, court records show.
In each of those cases, federal prosecutors said Nelson was operating elaborate scams that defrauded people, businesses, and churches out of more than $1.5 million.
Nelson has spent more than 15 of the last 17 years in federal prison for bank fraud, mail fraud, computer fraud, money laundering and identity theft.
Now, a News 6 investigation reveals that Nelson has reinvented himself yet again: this time as a televangelist and pastor of an online church based in Central Florida.
Convicted con man opens online church
In December 2016, just months after Nelson was released from federal custody and placed on supervised probation, the website for Global LGBT Life Church appeared online.
Nelson soon began posting a series of YouTube videos introducing himself and his ministry.
“My name is Reverend Michael Nelson. I’m the senior pastor with Global LGBT Life Church,” Nelson said as he sat in front of a rainbow flag, smiling into an internet webcam.
“Global LGBT Life Church has really been more of an internationally-based church,” Nelson said in another video, which was later removed from YouTube. “Since the Supreme Court decision came along (legalizing gay marriage), we then made our decision to move here to the United States of America.”
News 6 has found no record confirming the existence of Global LGBT Life Church before November 2016, when an anonymous computer administrator registered the church’s website address.
According to the Global LGBT Life Church website, the ministry’s vision is “to see the people of God in the global LGBT-plus world move from dating to monogamous, loving and lasting healthy marriages.”
Around the time the church website first appeared, someone using Nelson’s name and photograph created a page on the fundraising website GoFundMe on behalf of Global LGBT Life Church.
“Just like any church you would go to, we need your help and support,” Nelson explained in a YouTube video. “Please (send) a donation. Even if it’s $5, $2, $50. Whatever you want to donate. We live off your donations.”
The church’s website includes “donate” buttons linking to a PayPal account for Global LGBT Life Church.
Someone also created a mobile app for Global LGBT Life Church that allows donors to send money directly from their phones and tablets.
The church's website advertises "Romantic LGBT Nights" for a separate $75 donation.
"We're going to have a home-cooked meal," Nelson describes in an online video. "It is in a home environment. We're going to watch a movie together. And everyone there will be part of the LGBT community."
In a biography posted on the church’s website, Nelson claimed that he earned advanced degrees in religion from an unidentified seminary school. News 6 could not immediately verify his academic credentials.
Noticeably absent from Nelson's original online biography, which has since been altered, was any mention of his extensive criminal history.
"Serial con man" imprisoned for fraud
Long before he became senior pastor of Global GLBT Life Church, Nelson ran a company called Global Project Management Services, which he created in 1997.
Using the alias “Larry Powell”, Nelson convinced other business owners to buy or lease office equipment from Global even though it provided no actual goods or services, according to federal prosecutors.
To fool victims into thinking his company had a favorable credit history, Nelson created a fake bank, federal investigators alleged.
Nelson later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, bank fraud, and money laundering. A judge sentenced Nelson to five years in prison and ordered him pay $723,000 in restitution.
In 2003, while Nelson was serving out the last few months of that sentence, a News 6 investigation found that Nelson was leaving a federal halfway house during the day to operate a so-called “law office."
Nelson was allegedly collecting fees to provide legal services to federal inmates even though the firm of Townes, Boyd and Partners did not have any attorneys on staff.
After News 6 questioned the Bureau of Prisons about how Nelson could work at a fake law firm, U.S. marshals arrested him at his Maitland office and returned him to maximum security custody.
In November 2005, just weeks before Nelson was released from prison, someone using Nelson’s home address in Orlando filed paperwork with the State of Florida setting up Faith Gathering Prison Ministry Services.
The not-for-profit religious organization provided “spiritual, education, humanitarian and advocacy services” to people in hospitals, shelters, and federal prison, according to the Division of Corporations filing.
The ministry was overseen by an unnamed “senior reverend” whose principal office was located at Nelson’s home address, records show. That is the same address where “senior pastor” the Rev. Michael Nelson currently lists the “North America National Headquarters” for Global LGBT Life Church.
Nelson posed as Messianic Rabbi Micael Jacob Zipuren to solicit money from inmates, Chicago CBS television station WBBM-TV reported in 2006.
It is unclear what happened to Faith Gathering Prison Ministry. Just weeks after Nelson was released from prison in December 2005, records show that he immediately headed to Chicago and began targeting new victims in a different sort of fraud.
Posing as business consultant named “Anthony Zamora”, Nelson scammed three churches and two banks out of nearly $724,000, federal prosecutors said.
In 2010, a judge sentenced Nelson to eight years in prison after a Chicago jury convicted him of bank and mail fraud.
“Mr. Nelson is a serial con man who we don’t believe can be deterred,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Drury told WBBM-TV after the sentencing. “The fact that Mr. Nelson could come and take churches for hundreds of thousands of dollars, as the judge said, where they’re scrimping for money, was especially egregious in this case.”
In 2006, while Nelson was awaiting trial on the Chicago fraud charges, he moved to Los Angeles, where federal prosecutors said he created another phony law firm, Nelson & Associates, which also had a satellite office in Atlanta.
According to federal investigators, Nelson stole the identity of a real attorney named Michael S. Nelson by hacking into the website of the California Bar and altering the licensed lawyer’s contact information.
Posing as an attorney, Nelson collected at least $103,000 in legal fees from clients, court records show.
In 2013, while Nelson was serving time in federal prison on the Chicago fraud conviction, he pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft, computer fraud, and wire fraud in the California case.
A federal judge in California sentenced Nelson to more than three years in prison. Upon his release from federal custody, the judge ordered that Nelson be placed on supervised probation for three years.
Nelson’s probation began on April 25, 2016.
Eight months later, the former inmate began webcasting church services from the Orlando home he shares with his mother.
Nelson: 'You can trust my church'
“When Christ comes into your life, people do make a change,” Nelson told News 6 during a nearly hour-long, unscheduled interview. “I extend an apology to everybody.”
Unlike some inmates who become religious in prison to atone for their past crimes, Nelson suggested that his decision to become a pastor was the result of being diagnosed with several terminal diseases.
“I have a death sentence that I live every day, “said Nelson. “The only I can do is work with people who are dying from the same thing.”
When asked about his previous ministry experience, Nelson immediately referenced his work in Illinois that led to his criminal convictions there.
“You know in Chicago I worked with churches,” said Nelson. “My background has been consulting and working with churches before.”
Yet despite his lengthy history of committing fraud, Nelson insisted that people can trust his new church.
“No more cons,” he said. “(I’m) not ripping anybody off.”
But a News 6 investigation into Global LGBT Life Church raises numerous questions about the religious organization and the man who leads it.
Misleading photos on church website
When News 6 first discovered the website for Global LGBT Life Church, the home page contained several photographs that implied that the church’s large congregation worshiped in a beautiful building.
One photograph showed a cavernous sanctuary draped with rainbow flags. The caption on that photo read, “Chanukah Celebration in Main Sanctuary of Global LGBT Life Church on December 24, 2016 at 12:00 noon.”
However, News 6 has learned that the photo is of the sanctuary of the University Baptist Church in Minnesota. The same photo that appeared on Nelson’s website had been posted on the Minneapolis church’s Facebook page in April 2015.
Two additional photos on Nelson’s website showed the exterior of a church which News 6 determined to be the New Bethel AME church in Orlando, located just a few blocks from Nelson’s home.
When News 6 questioned Nelson about the photos, he acknowledged that the images were not his church, which is based in his home.
“They’re a church we have permission… a number of churches, small churches, we do have permission to go and do fellowship there,” said Nelson.
However, pastors of the two churches that appeared on Nelson’s website denied knowing anything about Nelson or Global LGBT Life Church.
“I certainly don’t remember meeting him,” said the Rev. Doug Donley of the University Baptist Church.
The Rev. Ronald Williams told News 6 that New Bethel AME Church had no affiliation with Nelson’s organization, either.
Nelson photographed with mystery audience
In a musical slideshow posted on the Global LGBT Life Church website above a caption that reads “Background of Reverend Nelson as a Humanitarian”, a series of photographs show Nelson speaking to a group of two dozen people in a classroom.
Nelson has used some of those same photographs as his Facebook and Twitter profile images.
Yet when News 6 questioned Nelson about the location where the photographs were taken, he originally refused to comment.
“That would fall under a non-disclosure (agreement),” Nelson told News 6, suggesting that he was legally prohibited from revealing the location of the classroom or the identity of the people in the photographs.
When News 6 asked why photos on a church website would be confidential, Nelson claimed that he could no longer recall the event.
“I don’t remember because I’ve spoken in numerous places,” said Nelson.
After examining clues in the photographs, including a bulletin board containing job postings, News 6 determined that the classroom was located inside an Orlando employment center operated by Goodwill Industries of Central Florida.
“He was acting as a recruiter for (an Orlando cleaning company),” said Goodwill Industries spokeswoman Mary Tindall after viewing a photograph provided by News 6 showing Nelson inside the organization’s facility.
A representative for the cleaning company confirmed that it had paid Nelson to recruit employees in June 2016, shortly after his release from federal custody.
The other people in the photos are job applicants who have no affiliation with Nelson’s church, the cleaning company representative told News 6.
Church fundraising irregularities
Under the conditions of Nelson’s supervised release from prison, the probationer is prohibited from holding a position of “fiduciary capacity”. The term typically refers to someone who takes care of money or assets for another person, including a trustee, executor, or guardian.
Nelson is also required to work regularly at a lawful occupation and must provide his probation officer with access to any financial information.
When News 6 asked Nelson whether he had informed his probation officer about the church, Nelson did not answer the question directly.
“Does (my probation officer) know that I work with the LGBT community? Definitely,” he replied.
News 6 asked Nelson if his probation officer was aware of his fundraising efforts.
“That’s a broad statement,” replied Nelson.
When News 6 inquired whether Nelson would be willing to turn over his church’s financial records to his probation officer, he announced that his church’s fundraising campaign had been extremely unsuccessful.
“I can definitely say for the record so that it’s clear, we’ve raised no money,” Nelson told News 6.
In a YouTube video posted hours after News 6’s interview with Nelson, the pastor celebrated his apparent failure to collect donations for his ministry.
“We have received no money so far,” said Nelson in the video. “I thank God there is nothing that has ever been given to me.”
Yet Nelson’s statements contradict financial information posted on the church’s website and GoFundMe page.
“As of December 31, 2016, Global LGBT Life Church has raised $292,673.82 of the $300,000.00 budget for 2017,” the websites said. “We still have a remaining $7326.18 to reach our goal of $300K for 2017.”
When News 6 asked Nelson about the enormous financial discrepancy, he claimed that other clergy members had raised that money, not him.
“I don't want anyone to get the misconception that I have personally raised that type of money,” said Nelson. “But I can’t speak about what the other ministers, the other clergy, what they have done.”
Nelson would not disclose any of the other clergy members’ names, nor would he estimate how many people worked with his church.
Days after News 6 interviewed Nelson, the description of the ministry’s fundraising efforts posted on the church website and GoFundMe page was altered.
The revised GoFundMe listing indicated that Global LGBT Life Church had raised “$0 of $300K”.
Neither website explained what happened to the $292,673 that had been previously published.
Days later, the GoFundMe page was shut down and references to any specific fundraising goals were removed from the church’s website.
However, before the GoFundMe campaign was deleted, the website indicated donations would "go directly to paying for any LGBT person who is left alone or abandoned and has outstanding medical expenses while at home, hospital, or nursing home."
When News 6 inquired about where donations to his church would go, Nelson claimed that he had already decided the first dollars would be given to a specific local organization.
"Pulse Orlando. The Pulse Hope Orlando they have there," said Nelson.
News 6 has been unable to find any record of an organization called Pulse Hope Orlando.
The church's original website made no mention of the June 2016 terrorist attack on the Pulse nightclub that left 49 people dead.
During a follow-up interview, Nelson refused to explain why his church's GoFundMe page was deleted and why specific fundraising details were removed from the church's website.
Nelson encourages tax-deductible donations
“Everything is tax deductible for you,” Nelson said on one of his YouTube videos soliciting funds for his ministry. “So literally you’re giving to get something back. Because when your taxes are done, you get it right back to you. You can write it off.”
The church’s website says: “Global LGBT Life Church is recognized by the IRS as a church. All donations are tax-deductible according to the IRS regulations under 501(c)(3).”
An Internal Revenue Service spokesperson declined to comment on whether the agency has specifically recognized Nelson’s ministry as a church.
"Federal disclosure regulations and federal law prohibit the IRS from discussing individual taxpayer matters," said IRS spokeswoman Anny Pachner.
However, churches that meet certain requirements are automatically considered tax exempt and are not required to obtain formal recognition from the IRS.
The IRS generally looks for certain characteristics when determining whether an organization is considered a church for federal tax purposes:
- Distinct legal existence
- Recognized creed and form of worship
- Definite and distinct ecclesiastical government
- Formal code of doctrine and discipline
- Distinct religious history
- Literature of its own
- Established places of worship
- Regular congregations
- Regular religious services
- Ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed courses of study
The IRS did not indicate whether Nelson's church meets any of those criteria.
Florida law prohibits organizations from using deception, false pretense, misrepresentation, or false promises when soliciting donations. However, that law does not apply to “bona fide religious institutions”.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office does not have any written guidelines that provide a more specific definition of “bona fide religious institutions”, according to a spokesperson.
Associate pastor working with Nelson
As News 6 inquired about the church website’s claim that nearly $300,000 had been raised, Nelson made reference to a church in Missouri associated with his ministry.
“That would be for, when you’re speaking about the Missouri, when you’re speaking about that particular area,” Nelson said in response to a question about the fundraising discrepancy.
According to a press release posted on the Global LGBT Life Church website, the Rev. Eddie Clisso was named an Associate Pastor of the church in December 2016.
Clisso, who lives near Kansas City, Missouri, is “responsible for developing and overseeing our introduction and development into the Midwest region in the United States of America,” the website said.
A man who identifies himself as Clisso has posted several videos on various social media platforms including Twitter that confirm his association with Global LGBT Life Church.
Nelson declined to explain to News 6 how and when he met Clisso. Both Clisso’s and Nelson’s Facebook pages indicate they are “in a relationship” with each other.
When News 6 reached Clisso by phone, he denied collecting funds for the church.
“I have not raised any money,” Clisso told News 6.
News 6 attempted to learn more about how Clisso became involved with Nelson’s ministry.
“You’ll have to talk to Michael (Nelson) about that," said Clisso.
The so-called associate pastor then hung up the phone.
U.S. Probation Office Responds to News 6 investigation
The United States Probation Office for the Middle District of Florida, which is responsible for supervising Nelson until April 2019, declined to answer specific questions about Nelson and its previous knowledge of Global LGBT Life Church.
"It is the practice of the probation office not to comment on the supervision adjustment of individuals on federal supervision," Chief Probation Officer Joseph C. Collins wrote in an email to News 6. "I'm sorry I can't provide additional information."
Collins did not specifically indicate whether his agency would be launching an investigation into Nelson's church after News 6's inquiry.
"If the probation office became aware of alleged criminal activity, we would refer the matter to the appropriate law enforcement agencies," said Collins.
Watch how Nelson responded to the News 6 investigation below:
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