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Backed by local ministers, Petro America promised investors millions -- but it's the CEO who got rich



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Curtis White, a minister and alliance member, says the group formed around the time Missouri started cracking down on Petro. He calls it “a group of ministers who are shareholders, who support Petro and support the CEO. We’re all just shareholders. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Tonight, they've come to defend the company against complaints from angry investors. When the ministers arrive at Denny's — there are six of them — seven shareholders are already waiting inside. In a private room, the alliance occupies one part of a half-moon table; the shareholders, who invited The Pitch to sit in on the meeting, fill the other.

Allen Collins, a minister at Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, near 63rd Street and Troost, kicks off the meeting. “We’ve just come to have an open discussion and see what’s on your mind,” he says.

Jeff Atkins stands. He calmly explains, as he always does, that this is not an Owen Hawkins blast party, that the shareholders just want some information. As Atkins talks, Scruggs waits his turn, gripping a portfolio of unreturned e-mails and government charges.

Despite the cease-and-desist order and ongoing investigations, the company hasn't discouraged new investors. In a message on its website, Petro encourages anyone who “sold and/or gifted any of their original Petro America Corp shares to a 3rd party” to add those people to the shareholder database.

In fact, investigators say, the “height of the scheme” came more than a year after Missouri issued its cease-and-desist order – from fall 2009 to early this year, a period when the company brought in as much as $700,000 a month in new investments. Hawkins, his fortune growing, made so many trips to the bank that he got to know the tellers, the affidavit says. On one trip, last Christmas, Hawkins handed out checks for $100 and $200 to “random customers,” the tellers said. He also gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to friends, shareholders and consultants, Hawkins told investigators.

One recent investor, Dave, told his story on an October conference call with concerned investors. He and a friend invested this summer, he says, spending a couple of thousand dollars on shares purchased from the Rev. Edward Halliburton, president of the Ministers Alliance and pastor at the small Showers of Blessings Church of God in Christ in Kansas City, Kansas.

“We basically were given Pastor Halliburton’s information,” Dave says. “We called him and inquired about Petro America Corporation, and he began to brief us in regards to the company and what it was doing, and how to purchase these shares and what he purchased them for. He told us the process we needed to go through in order to acquire the shares.” (Despite attending the Denny's meeting, Halliburton later told a reporter he didn't know enough to talk about Petro.)

Another shareholder says she bought 100,000 shares for $100 from a minister in March. The woman has been unemployed for almost two years and hopes Petro will come through – “whether it would make me a millionaire or just get me a car to look for a job,” she says.

The woman won't say which minister sold her the shares, and it's unknown whether the other ministers at the meeting ever sold shares of the stock, or where they got their shares in the first place. But Hawkins told the Treasury Department he has “a longstanding policy of 'gifting' shares” to “certain shareholders.” Roper told investigators he was first approached about Petro by minister Collins, who offered Roper 1 million shares for luring more investors. Hawkins told investigators he gave Roper 50 million shares “because he is trying to bless a lot of people.”

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