In one essay, he wrote that he abruptly quit drugs in 1982 after a religious conversion during a trip to Maine. He says his brother was less fortunate, dying of a suspected drug overdose in Atlantic City.
Keyes left that life in 1989, he says, when he moved his wife and two infant sons to work for a church in Brooklyn's impoverished Bushwick neighborhood.
But when he split from that ministry in 1997, its leaders accused him in a lawsuit of trying to loot assets on the way out, including a house in Pennsylvania's Poconos that the church had purchased two years earlier for $89,500. Records show that Keyes transferred ownership of the house to himself, then used the property as collateral for a $70,343 personal loan. He later argued in court filings that the money covered expenses for his new ministry. He claimed he was entitled to the house because the church bought it for his family and he had been making monthly reimbursement payments.
The church said in a lawsuit that Keyes stole the house, and a Brooklyn judge gave it back to the church in October 1998.
That same year, Keyes was hired as pastor of Glad Tidings Tabernacle, a nearly century-old congregation housed in an even older brick church wedged between Manhattan high-rises.
Keyes' brought part of his old flock from Brooklyn with him, but the newly merged congregation struggled financially. In mid-2001, church leaders had to borrow $543,500 for repairs and renovations.
Then came 9/11 — and money would no longer be an issue. In just over a year, more than $2.5 million gushed into Keyes' church and a nonprofit organization he controlled, Urban Life Ministries.
After the terrorist attacks, Keyes applied for tax-exempt status for the charity, listing "relief programs in times of crises" as one of its purposes.
Urban Life Ministries spent much of its windfall on things like bottled water, food and a counseling center for ground zero workers, according to financial records obtained by the AP. The charity staged two concerts, including one honoring U.S. troops at the Yankees minor league ballpark on Staten Island. The nonprofit also provided apartments near ground zero for its workers, including Keyes and his family.
Financial records show that Keyes also spent money donated for 9/11 relief on expenses that had nothing to do with the tragedy — a series of monthly payments of $734.99 on the personal loan he owed on the Poconos house; $5,000 for a church organ; and nearly $33,000 for an architect working on church renovations that would include a new living space for his family.
Urban Life Ministries said in recently filed audited financial statements that it also paid as much as $235,600 in "rent" to the church in late 2001 and 2002. It also donated $70,000 to the church and lent it at least another $26,953, according to Urban Life Ministries accounting ledgers, obtained by the AP.
Charities generally must use donations for the purpose stated when the money is raised. And charity operators must avoid using money to help themselves or causes that are not related to their mission.
Keyes, through his lawyer, said the rent and other payments were proper.
STORIES OF SUCCESS ABOUND
Keyes tells compelling stories about his charity's work, even if others say some of them are not true.
During a 2010 speech to the New Canaan Society, Keyes told how he had jumped into action after the 9/11 attacks: breaking into a closed Navy port on Staten Island to set up a site for relief supplies; obtaining phony security badges for volunteers so they could slip into the disaster zone with ease; and going door to door to rescue 600 pets stranded in Battery Park City apartments.
He described taking control of two Roman Catholic churches in lower Manhattan needed for shelters after the towers collapsed. "I couldn't find a Catholic anywhere. The churches were closed. So the doors miraculously opened after we prayed and hit it with a hammer," Keyes said.
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