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Blessed Are the Moneymakers

To some former Tri-City Ministries members, Pastor Carl Herbster’s relationship with Security Savings Bank CEO Don Bell seems like an unholy alliance.

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Donald H. Bell Sr. believes God told him to buy a bank.

The revelation came to Bell in 1988. At the time, he was a 56-year-old Olathe builder and developer contemplating semi-retirement. Two sons worked for him. Cutting back and spending more time in Naples, Florida, a favorite vacation spot, seemed highly appealing.

But after a night of tossing and turning, Bell awoke believing that he had been touched by the Holy Spirit. "Sometimes I think an angel came," he told the Christian Community Foundation of Kansas City in 2002.

Today, Bell is chairman of Security Savings Bank, a chain of thrifts with 13 branches across Kansas (including two in Olathe) and assets of $800 million.

Security Savings has a mission to further God's kingdom. "We're losing our country from within," Bell writes in a glossy history of the bank. "I desire to use our resources to turn the heart of America back to God."

The bank's profits have allowed him to give money to Nazarene colleges, Focus on the Family (James Dobson's politically influential evangelical ministry) and the Alliance Defense Fund (a legal advocacy group that opposes same-sex marriage and the rigid separation of church and state). He's contributed thousands to Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline.

Bell considers himself a blessed servant of the Lord, but he's been visited by tribulation in recent months.

Last fall, the president of Security Savings and the board's audit committee tried to remove Bell from serving as the bank's chief executive officer. Bell responded by replacing the board members who had sought his ouster. The reconstituted board immediately fired the president, Tom Wilbur, and the bank's chief loan officer.

Shortly after he was fired, Wilbur told The Kansas City Star that the audit committee had confronted Bell about "corporate governance issues" and "conflicts of interest." Not long after Wilbur was canned, three loan officers resigned. No details were made public, but the Pitch has learned that one source of tension at the bank involved Bell's close relationship with Carl Herbster, the pastor of Tri-City Ministries in Independence, Missouri.

Herbster is a politically active Baptist preacher who spoke out last year in favor of a constitutional amendment that defined marriage in Missouri as between a man and a woman. In 2001, when President George W. Bush named John Ashcroft to be his attorney general, Republican strategist Karl Rove told The New York Times that Herbster was among the conservative leaders who had spoken up on Ashcroft's behalf.

Bell and Herbster formed a friendship a decade ago. One brought wealth to the relationship; the other, influence. Their worlds intersect at several points. Security Savings, for instance, is the church's principal lender, and Herbster lives in a Don Bell real estate development called Brittany Ridge.

The arrangements warrant attention. Last December, Tri-City's former bookkeeper entered a guilty plea in federal court and admitted to embezzling more than $600,000. The bookkeeper, prosecutors say, deposited most of the money in a business that sold lots in Brittany Ridge.

There's more. Security Savings and Tri-City, records show, have lent millions of dollars to a for-profit development company controlled on paper by church insiders and a wealthy Pennsylvania industrialist whose former company, Graco Children's Products, recently agreed to pay the largest civil penalty in the history of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The government claimed that Graco was slow to disclose problems with its baby swings, highchairs and strollers; hundreds of kids were injured by the company's products, and some died.

The transactions between the money-changers have been nearly impossible to untangle -- which may be by design.

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