By Carlotta Grandstaff
Harris Himes, a self-described Christian pastor from Hamilton who is charged with six felony counts of theft and securities fraud, has been through two attorneys and three judges in the two years since the state of Montana filed criminal charges against him. And when the jury pool assembled Monday morning to begin the juror selection process for a trial that’s expected to last seven days, there wasn’t an empty chair in the packed courtroom, except for the one next to Himes, reserved for a defense attorney that Himes doesn’t have because he’s representing himself, having discharged two previous attorneys. Himes also is an attorney, though he is not licensed in Montana and, according to three sources who spoke off the record, his law degree comes from an unaccredited law school.
Presiding over the case is District Judge Loren Tucker of Dillon, brought in after Himes asked for a substitution for resident judges James Haynes and the other resident judge, Jeffrey Langton, recused himself.
Prosecuting Himes for the state are attorneys Jesse Laslovich and Brett O’Neill.
The state’s case against Himes is this:
In December of 2007, Geoffrey Serata, a Hamilton resident, learned of an inheritance coming to him. He discussed it with Himes, and told Himes he wanted to invest his inheritance “in a conservative, risk-free investment that provided income to support ministry work and would allow him to serve the Lord full time.”
Himes, and another pastor named James “Jeb” Bryant, had just the investment: Duratherm Building Systems, a firm that manufactured insulated structural panels. DBS is located in Mexico, and Himes and Bryant were business partners in the firm. They told Serata that neither Himes nor Bryant could invest any more money in DBS because their money was tied up in a gold mine in New Mexico, but for a $150,000 investment from Serata, Himes and Bryant could buy the last piece of equipment they needed – a glue machine – to get production up and running. In exchange for his $150,000, Serata would receive an annual minimum return of 20% for two years, or a 5% ownership, with a 20% annual return, use of a beach house in Mexico and a job with DBS. Serata agreed and the deal was struck.
At Himes’s urging, Serata set up a corporation called Image of Truth as a vehicle for “handling the financial side of ministry work.” In June 2008, Serata wired his $150,000 investment to Harris Bank in Chicago, which was handling an account called Monarch Beach Properties. Himes told Serata that Monarch was a “type of parent corporation for DBS.”
What Himes apparently did not tell Serata, however, is that Monarch is solely owned by Himes and Bryant, and has an address at an apartment complex in Rockville, MD. Monarch is not registered with the Maryland secretary of state’s office, and Harris Bank lists Monarch’s address as a Hamilton post office box.
The following month after the wire transfer, Serata and Bryant met in Texas and traveled to Mexico where Serata was to work as an electrician on the DBS factory. What he found was an empty building: no employees, no manufacturing plant. In a word: nada. The building was not even owned by Himes, Bryant or DBS. Bryant then left Serata in Mexico to figure out his own way back to Texas.
Serata received no financial statements from Himes: no certificate of ownership, no accounting of assets, not even a receipt for the $150,000.
So, where did the money go? The state says it went to Himes, Bryant and credit card debt owed by Monarch, which listed both Himes and Bryant as cardholders.
Serata has tried to get his money back, but Himes and Bryant stopped returning his calls some time ago.
The case eventually came to the attention of state auditor Monica Lindeen, and in September of 2011, her office charged Himes with six felony counts of theft and securities fraud.
Himes’s defense is shorter and simpler than the case against him. He is claiming selective prosecution because of an anti-Christian bias in Lindeen’s office, specifically from the office of Lynne Egan, Deputy Securities Director. Two employees in her office – a securities examiner and a former prosecutor – claimed that Egan hated conservative Christians, like Himes.
Himes was successful in preventing Judge Jim Haynes from presiding over the case, claiming that Haynes told him (Himes) that he would “get even” with him because Himes would not support Haynes in his election bid. However, according to Haynes, he never said anything of the sort.
Himes also tried to get Tucker disqualified from hearing the case, stating that Tucker had also “demonstrated personal bias and prejudice” against him by remarks Tucker made. The Montana Supreme Court disagreed and denied the motion. Tucker was ultimately appointed to the case.
After two years of legal wrangling, and five years after Serata poured his inheritance into an empty building in Mexico, the case has finally come to trial.
On Monday morning, 65 potential jurors assembled in the ground floor lobby of the county courthouse waiting to be called upstairs for jury selection. Himes still had a few issues he wanted settled by the court, including his complaint that Serata, who apparently receives his medical care from the Bureau of Veterans Affairs, had defrauded the VA by failing to note his inheritance on VA financial forms. Tucker suggested to Himes that he could use that information at trial by calling into question Serata’s credibility. Himes insisted that Serata was subject to criminal prosecution by failing to disclose his inheritance, though it appears doubtful that failure to disclose an inheritance would jeopardize a veteran’s health care, nor does it appear to be illegal. Tucker did get a guarantee from prosecutors Laslovich and O’Neill that the state had no intention of prosecuting Serata. Himes insisted that it was a federal issue and state prosecutors would not be involved. Tucker pointed out that Himes, not Serata, is the defendant in the case. “So what if he’s a fraud?” Tucker asked Himes. “The issue is your conduct.”
Whether Himes is an honest Christian minister who innocently ran afoul of a Kafkaesque state agency harboring anti-Christian views, or whether he’s an uncommon criminal masquerading as a Christian minister, is now before a jury to decide.
The jury was selected by 5 p.m. and the case continues Tuesday with opening statements and testimony by Serata.
Tucker promised the jury that they would not be “entombed” for the duration of the trial.