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Pastor's wife calls First AME lawsuit a 'witch hunt'

January 11, 2013 |  2:41 pm

The Rev. John J. Hunter, who was ousted as First AME’s pastor in late October, is being sued by the South L.A. congregation over alleged improprieties. Hunter denies any wrongdoing and is fighting to regain his position. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

A month after the oldest black church in Los Angeles sued its former pastor, his wife and a small "cabal" of church leaders for financial improprieties, one of the defendants in the civil suit denied wrongdoing and called the lawsuit a "witch hunt."

Denise Hunter, wife of embattled John J. Hunter, denied any wrongdoing in an interview with NBC4. The Rev. Hunter was abruptly reassigned last fall as pastor at First African Methodist Episcopal Church after a rocky eight-year tenure.

"We believe the lawsuit is totally frivolous," said Denise Hunter, who remains president of F.A.M.E. Corporations, the church's nonprofits. "It’s all part of an orchestration of damaging the reputation of John and Denise Hunter. It’s unfortunate."

"But, I think for the people who have known me and my husband, the work we do in the community will speak for itself," she said.

Hunter was moved to Bethel San Francisco in October. Bishop T. Larry Kirkland offered no reason for the transfer, but Hunter's time as the leader of First AME was overshadowed by controversy.

Hunter admitted to charging $122,000 in personal items on church credit cards, he settled a sexual harassment lawsuit last year, and he was under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service for owing $300,000 in federal taxes.

However, Hunter is challenging his new appointment, claiming the bishop did not give him the proper 90 days' notice. The Times reported Friday that the African Methodist Episcopal denomination's judicial council recently ruled favorably in two of the smaller claims Hunter made in his petition.

The nine-member judicial body is still deliberating whether the bishop acted improperly when he moved Hunter from the 19,000-member First AME to the much smaller Bethel church, which has 650 members. Church law states that a pastor must be moved to a church with an equal or greater status.

First AME has filed a civil lawsuit against the Hunters and other church leaders, accusing them of "holding dictatorial control over [the church] ... for their own personal gain." It also accused Denise Hunter of orchestrating a "coup" to take control of the church's nonprofit organizations.

Denise Hunter told NBC4 that she considered stepping down as the head of the nonprofit corporations, but decided to fight and defend her name.

"I don't think I'm the only person who can do this," she told NBC4. "But for now, I'm the right person to do this."

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--Angel Jennings

Photo: The Rev. John J. Hunter, who was ousted as First AME’s pastor in late October, is being sued by the South L.A. congregation over alleged improprieties. Hunter denies any wrongdoing and is fighting to regain his position. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

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