Scrushy in ministry

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 16, 2006

Associated Press Writer

BIRMINGHAM – Ordained as a minister and acquitted in a $2.7 billion fraud, fired HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy is done with the corporate boardroom. Now, he says, it’s all about God.

Scrushy has helped found a ministry he says is feeding starving children in Africa and is planning even more missions work. It will also build a Bible-based university and offer services including mortgages, insurance and health care, he says.

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Working with a small group of Birmingham-area ministers who have relatively little business experience, Scrushy co-founded Kingdom Builders International Ministries, which was unveiled recently with the introduction of its Web site.

The site appeared just ahead of Scrushy’s May 1 trial on felony charges unrelated to the HealthSouth Corp. accounting scandal, but he said Kingdom Builders has been in the works for months.

“This is about building God’s kingdom and helping his children,” Scrushy said in an interview with The Associated Press. “My wife and I have been called to this.”

A federal prosecutor said it was “more than a coincidence” that Scrushy’s ministry was expanding amid the run-up to his trial in Montgomery, where a religious TV program featuring Scrushy and his wife also has started airing.

“He tries to reach out to people and manipulate them into thinking he’s spreading the gospel,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Louis Franklin.

Money generated by the business side of the ministry will go toward missions work and the “kingdom of God,” not any person, Scrushy told AP.

For monthly contributions starting at $10 and ranging up to $1,000, Kingdom Builders offers individual members and churches a chance to join in international mission work. Scrushy says the group currently provides food for 2,000 African children a day through affiliates there.

“You can’t do much with $1,000 a month by yourself, but you can do a lot with it if you’re working with other churches,” said Scrushy.

The group’s Web site also offers members access to a variety of planned services including group insurance, mortgage loans, construction and a university that will have its groundbreaking in suburban Birmingham this fall.

The executive director of Kingdom Builders, Carla Busbee, said the services are geared mainly toward independent, U.S. churches and their pastors, not congregations affiliated with big denominations.

Most of the offerings mentioned on the Web site aren’t available yet, Busbee said.

“That’s sort of like a vision. Eventually we’ll work in to all those things,” she said. The group is negotiating with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama for group health insurance for pastors in the state, she said, and it plans to seek similar deals in other states.

The ministry doesn’t need insurance licenses to operate because it is acting as a bargaining agent rather than selling insurance itself, Busbee said.

Scrushy said the organization was set up as a nonprofit charity under Internal Revenue Service rules. He said there are plans to expand meal distribution in Africa and build churches there and in South America.

Busbee, who also works as the associate pastor of a Birmingham-area church, said she has little contact with Scrushy and was unsure whether he even has a formal title with Kingdom Builders. Scrushy says “co-founder” sums up his work best.

“I’m a volunteer,” he said.

Kingdom Builders’ Web site touts Scrushy’s rise at HealthSouth, mentioning his Wall Street experience but avoiding his legal troubles, which include his upcoming federal trial in an alleged government bribery scheme unrelated to the debacle at HealthSouth.

“I believe that God is calling many from Wall Street, the business community and Hollywood to help build His Kingdom,” Scrushy is quoted as saying on the Web site, which is linked to his personal Internet domain.

Scrushy said Kingdom Builders isn’t affiliated with Scrushy Ministries, which the former CEO began with his wife Leslie, a former HealthSouth employee. She is the daughter of a Methodist minister; he, too, was raised Methodist and began practicing his faith in a very public way as the fraud case loomed.

Scrushy and his wife began hosting a Christian-themed TV show as prosecutors built their case in the HealthSouth fraud, and he was ordained as a minister in December 2004 – the month before his fraud trial began.

Working with his wife, Scrushy now pastors a church of his own. The congregation meets in the studio of a television station owned by one of Scrushy’s sons-in-law.

Scrushy wouldn’t discuss numbers, but said the group’s funds come from personal donations and memberships.

Kingdom Builders is scheduled to hold a kickoff “founder’s meeting” at a Birmingham hotel on April 26. Five days later, Scrushy will be back in a federal courtroom in Montgomery.

Scrushy is set for trial May 1 on charges of giving $500,000 to former Gov. Don Siegelman’s state lottery campaign in exchange for a seat on a powerful state board that regulates hospitals.

Siegelman and two former Cabinet members are to stand trial with Scrushy. All maintain their innocence.

Scrushy was acquitted in June 2005 of charges that he directed the massive fraud that nearly drove HealthSouth, a national leader in medical rehabilitation, to bankruptcy.

Fifteen former HealthSouth executives pleaded guilty in the scam, including five finance chiefs who testified that Scrushy was in on the fraud from the start. Jurors who acquitted Scrushy of all charges said they didn’t believe the testimony of the CFOs and other government evidence.

AP reporter Phillip Rawls in Montgomery contributed to this report.