That money you dropped in the bucket, where does it go?

St. Petersburg Times/September 12, 2008

Westchase - The light at W Linebaugh Avenue and Sheldon Road turns red. Sweat dripping down her back, a woman walks past idling luxury vehicles and hoists a white bucket above her waist. One side reads "New Life Church." The other, "Help Us Help Needy Children & Families." The driver of a Mercedes-Benz opens the car door, drops change into the bucket, then speeds away.

From Westchase and Town 'N Country to New Tampa and Carrollwood, this scene plays out almost daily. Church members in bright orange vests and dress clothes fan out at busy intersections soliciting money.

"We travel the world and do this," said Alvin Gould, who identified himself as a church elder and boasted that one generous donor dropped a check for $25,000 in his white bucket recently.

Asked where the money goes, he never mentions the poor and homeless.

"We've got 56 churches," Gould said. "This is how we built them."

The closest one is just north of downtown Tampa in the 3300 block of N Nebraska Avenue, Gould said.

The Florida Department of State Division of Corporations has no record of New Life.

Nebraska Avenue is home to Deeper Life Christian Church, a Pentecostal ministry that has been the subject of felony convictions and questions about its fundraising tactics.

In June 1999, the church pleaded guilty to one count each of trafficking in food stamps and dealing in stolen property. A Hills­borough Circuit Court judge placed Deeper Life on five years' probation, fined it $5,000 and ordered it to pay $21,710 to cover the cost of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigation into allegations of food stamp fraud. Five members were placed on probation. Charges against Deeper Life's founding pastor, Bishop Melvin B. Jefferson, and his wife, Pastor Brenda Jefferson, were dropped.

In early 2006, he publicly denounced street corner fundraising. But as recently as 2007, the Columbus Dispatch, the Florida Times-Union and other news outlets have reported the arrests of church members on soliciting charges.

Through an e-mailed statement from Sean Howard, Deeper Life's Chicago-based public relations specialist, Jefferson said the church "has been aggressive in suspending all street fundraising actions or activities" over the past two years.

"However, it has been brought to the attention of the ministry that there may be former members, individuals or groups who falsely and casually use the name of our ministry for their own purposes," he said. "Deeper Life Christian Church stands firm in denying these claims and will continue to move beyond these unfortunate attempts to defame our ministry."

Another intersection, another day, and Gould gives handbills to passing motorists.

The fliers he distributes use the name "The House of David Help Center" but list Deeper Life's telephone number.

Gould says that in a previous interview, he purposely gave false information about his church.

"The church is under attack," he explains.

House of David is a subsidiary of Deeper Life that assists prostitutes, drug addicts and homeless people. Its nonprofit status is listed as inactive on the state Division of Corporations Web site. The last time the center registered with that department was 1996.

Hillsborough County Ordinance 91-24 prohibits people from soliciting business or charitable contributions on public roads.

"The ordinance was enacted to benefit public safety, and the county does not license or permit such conduct," said Cameron Clark, an assistant county attorney. "Enforcement of the ordinance is the responsibility of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office."

Sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said the agency has received no calls about Deeper Life Christian Church, New Life Church or the House of David Help Center.

Though they might not have drawn complaints, the solicitors are hard to miss.

"There's always somebody down there," said Jeanie Centala of Westchase.

"I immediately become annoyed because it's so often," said Anne Chasteen, who plays tennis at Westchase with Centala. "That's what I've noticed."

They said they have never donated to Deeper Life but feel bad for the people who have given money, especially if they are being misled.

"It would be one thing if they were saying this is money to help us build a new church,'' Centala said, "rather than tapping into people's sympathies and saying this is going to feed the needy."

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