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'Person of interest'

Police investigators scrutinize Grace Church rector

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Rev. Don Armstrong has a solid group on his side.
  • Rev. Don Armstrong has a solid group on his side.

Despite what must have been a hellish week for the Rev. Donald Armstrong, the pews at Grace Church and St. Stephen's Parish were full on Sunday.

"Grace Church is growing stronger," the church's Web site proclaimed Monday, issuing a photograph as proof. "There's Standing Room Only! Praise GOD!"

There was no reference to the flurry of negative headlines that in the preceding days only darkened the cloud of suspicion surrounding the priest, who faces allegations of pilfering church funds.

First, on Aug. 8, an independent Episcopal Church panel concluded that Armstrong manipulated hundreds of thousands of dollars to benefit himself and his family.

Subsequent news reports revealed that Colorado Springs financial crimes detectives have for the past month been looking into the merits of an embezzlement complaint lodged by the Colorado Episcopal diocese in Denver.

Armstrong is a "person of interest," Colorado Springs police Lt. Skip Arms says. The classic policespeak means that Armstrong, at this point, isn't a criminal suspect. The investigation could continue for weeks.

Armstrong so far stands alone, with church lay leaders whom critics describe as Armstrong's "rubber-stampers" including Chuck Brown, a former El Paso County commissioner, and Bob Balink, the county's clerk and recorder not under the microscope.

"At this time, there are no other persons of interest in the case," Arms says.

Should criminal charges be filed, a special prosecutor from outside the 4th Judicial District would be required in court. That's because District Attorney John Newsome is also a member of Grace church and admits there's a potential conflict of interest.

Denise Minish, a spokeswoman for the DA, assures that Newsome's office is effectively "walled off."

A five-member, clergy/lay panel, responding to a forensic audit and other evidence, last week concluded that Armstrong was guilty of stealing $392,410 and failing to report $548,097 to the IRS. The panel also found that he received hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans violating church law, caused millions of dollars of encumbrances to church property without proper approval, violated a suspension from Grace by communicating with lay leaders, and failed to maintain accounting books.

Diocese Bishop Robert O'Neill, whom Armstrong recently likened to an annoying mosquito, could decide on an appropriate punishment within weeks, including removing Armstrong from the Episcopal priesthood. But any punishment would be viewed as symbolic because Armstrong and Grace lay leaders in March voted to affiliate with a mission of the Diocese of Nigeria, an Anglican province severely critical of the U.S. church's ordination of a gay priest.

Grace members loyal to the Denver diocese were forced into exile at a nearby church after the vote.

Armstrong could not be reached by deadline through his spokesman, Alan Crippen.

A separate audit, being conducted inside the church, is expected to be released next week. Crippen has said that audit could vindicate Armstrong.

Jan Malvern, a Grace Episcopalian, is suspicious of that audit. She encourages Grace Anglicans to ask critical questions about Armstrong and their lay leaders in light of the church panel ruling and police investigation.

"I don't believe they are getting the whole story," she says, adding that Grace Episcopalians hope soon to return to their historic 601 N. Tejon St. church.

Even if police clear Armstrong, it might not be his last hurdle. The Internal Revenue Service is exploring whether Armstrong violated tax law, according to a source familiar with the case. Jean Carl, a spokeswoman for the IRS, won't confirm any investigation.

"We're forbidden to speak about anyone," Carl says.

deyoanna@csindy.com

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