Pastor Robbie Wilkerson, who founded New Birth Christian Center in Austin, in front of the former YMCA, also called the Plaza Arms, 501 N. Central Ave., last year. Wilkerson ran youth programs out of, and had administrative offices, in the building. | File.

The pastor of a prominent Austin church and four of his associates have been charged with defrauding a federal summer food program out of around $450,000. A grand jury returned the charges on Sept. 2 during a hearing that took place in a federal courtroom in Springfield.

Rev. Robbie Wilkerson, 47, is the founding pastor of New Birth Christian Center (NBCC). In 2010, Wilkerson reportedly filed paperwork for the church to administer the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) — a service offered by an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — at 34 sites in Chicago.

According to the indictment, Wilkerson submitted an operation budget of $446,440 to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), the agency that administers the federal funding at the state level. By the time the program ended, Wilkerson and his co-defendants allegedly turned in false claims to the ISBE worth more than $700,000. The church claimed to have served roughly 270,000 meals to low-income children over the course of the summer even though the number of meals it had actually served turned out to be less than 100,000, the indictment notes.

Wilkerson and his colleagues allegedly pocketed the $450,000 for their personal expenses, which included roughly $46,000 of real estate in Chicago; more than $37,000 for the purchase of housing in Memphis, Tennessee for Wilkerson’s parents; and nearly $30,000 for the purchase of a 2011 Hyundai Sonata.

Wilkerson was charged along with his wife Tasha, 42, also of Oak Park; Anthony Hall, 53, a pastor at NBCC, of Downers Grove; Richard Shumate, 50, who managed operations for the 2010 summer food program; and Shumate’s wife Evelyn, 47, who served as an assistant for the program — both reside in Romeoville.

The pastor faces two counts of wire fraud, one count of theft of government funds and one count of money laundering. His wife is charged with two counts of wire fraud and one count of theft of government funds. Hall is charged with one count of wire fraud and one count of theft of government funds. The Shumates are both charged with two counts of wire fraud and one count of theft of government funds.

If convicted, the defendants could face up to 20 years in prison, and fines of up to $250,000, for wire fraud; up to 10 years in prison, and fines of up to $250,000, for theft of government funds; and up to 10 years in prison, and fines of up to $250,000 or twice the value of the laundered money, for money laundering.

“The Summer Food Service Program was created to ensure that low-income children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session. Those who are involved in fraud and abuse of SFSP and other USDA programs will be aggressively pursued by our office,” said Anthony V. Mohatt, special agent-in-charge at the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In a recent interview, Wilkerson said he’s resigned from several boards since the indictments so that his situation won’t present a distraction. Although he didn’t comment directly about the case, he did imply that the charges may be related to a financial misunderstanding that was blown out of proportion.

“If you talk to anyone who has been part of what we’ve done over the last 15 to 17 years, you’ll hear everybody vouching for all kinds of things we’ve done and they’d never speak to us taking anything ever,” said the pastor, who insisted that people understand he and his co-defendants are innocent until proven guilty.

“We’ve been advised to let the system clear our name. We’re not going to chase rumors, we’ll let the facts be presented and we know that it’s going to come out right,” he said. 

Wilkerson and his co-defendants are scheduled to be arraigned on Oct. 1 in Springfield.

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