By Kirk Petersen
The Episcopal priest who formerly led Saint Francis Ministries has been indicted for allegedly defrauding the nonprofit social services organization of millions of dollars.
A federal grand jury accused the Rev. Robert Nelson Smith and a co-defendant on November 9 of multiple counts of conspiracy, wire fraud, and money laundering, alleging that they stole more than $4.7 million through fraudulently inflated invoices for information technology support.
Saint Francis Ministries (SFM), based in Salina, Kansas, provides foster care and social services to 11,000 people in six states, according to the organization’s website. Smith served as chief executive officer of SFM from 2014 until he was forced out in November 2020 after allegations of financial mismanagement surfaced.
Smith is canonically resident in the Diocese of Chicago, and Bishop of Chicago Paula Clark “immediately moved to suspend the Rev. Robert Smith from any and all priestly and ministerial duties and to ensure that he has no direct access to credit cards, bank accounts, or any other funds held by the church,” according to a November 11 statement released by diocesan spokeswoman Rebecca Wilson.
Smith has been serving as provost of Christ Cathedral in Salina, the cathedral of the Diocese of Western Kansas, according to the cathedral’s social media accounts. Smith preached there as recently as November 6. Smith could not be reached for comment. Wilson said the suspension by the Bishop of Chicago affects Smith not just in the Diocese of Chicago, but throughout the Episcopal Church.
“We were saddened to learn of this matter,” said the Rt. Rev. Mark A. Cowell, Bishop of Western Kansas. “Rev. Smith has taken a leave of absence from employment at Christ Cathedral, and we trust that the Diocese of Chicago will act in accordance with Christian principles in resolving any disciplinary matters. We ask all to join with us in prayer that justice be done.”
According to the federal indictment, Smith hired his co-defendant William Byrd Whymark in 2018 as chief information officer at a salary of $164,000, although Whymark remained a resident of New York. “On occasion, Whymark travelled to Kansas for SFM business,” the indictment said. In turn, Whymark and his company, WMK Research, subcontracted with two India-based companies to provide data science, IT support, and software-development services as part of a $10 million overhaul of SFM’s technology infrastructure.
“Whymark, through WMK, submitted false and fraudulent invoices to SFM, which were approved by Smith, for IT services,” the indictment said. “The WMK invoices fraudulently inflated the costs associated with [the subcontractors’] services by approximately $4,774,637.50.”
“Whymark used the fraudulently obtained funds from SFM toward the purchase of an approximate four-million-dollar home in Armonk, New York, luxury vehicles, jewelry, and cash withdrawals,” according to the indictment. Smith is accused of taking a $50,000 kickback from Whymark, and of charging an unspecified amount of personal expenditures to his SFM credit card.
The most serious charge against the two men, wire fraud, carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. The 20-count indictment includes 17 felony accusations against Smith and 14 against Whymark.
Like all tax-exempt organizations, Saint Francis Ministries is required to file detailed financial information via IRS Form 990. On the Form 990 for the year ending June 2019 — the most recent year available — SFM reported total revenues of $153 million, and a loss of $4.2 million. Smith received $305,000 in compensation that year.
Kansas Reflector, a non-profit news organization covering state government, reported after the indictment that the financial mismanagement that led to Smith’s ouster in 2020 “had pushed the faith-based nonprofit to the brink of insolvency. The organization managed to stay afloat by receiving a $10 million Paycheck Protection Program loan that it wasn’t eligible for and never repaid.”
Cristian Garcia, chief advancement officer for SFM, acknowledged the $10 million figure but said the organization qualified for the loan, which was forgiven as intended under the terms of the PPP legislation. “As of a year ago we have been financially sound and stable,” he told TLC by telephone, adding that the services SFM provides to children and families were never compromised.
Saint Francis Ministries was founded in 1945 as the Saint Francis Boys’ Home for troubled boys. “Over the years, the scope of our ministry has grown, encompassing foster care, therapeutic foster care, adoption, family preservation, residential care, and community outreach services,” according to the organization’s website. SFM has operations in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi, and has nearly 1,300 employees. Much of its business comes from referrals through government agencies.
Saint Francis Ministries is a former financial sponsor of The Living Church Foundation.