West Side pastor gets 3 years in prison for defrauding food program

Robbie WIlkerson | Facebook

The founding pastor of a West Side church has been sentenced to more than three years in prison for defrauding a food program for low-income children.

Robbie Wilkerson, 50, pleaded guilty in May to wire fraud and money laundering, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice. He was sentenced Friday to 37 months in prison and ordered to pay $440,964 in restitution.

His wife, Tasha Wilkerson, also pleaded guilty to theft of government funds and was sentenced to 12 months and one day in prison, prosecutors said. She was ordered to pay $40,001 in restitution.

Robbie Wilkerson was the founding pastor of New Birth Christian Center, a non-denominational church at 5335 W. Le Moyne St. in the Austin neighborhood, prosecutors said. Between 2008 and 2010, the church operated a summer food program to provide meals to low-income students when schools were not in session.

Robbie Wilkerson admitted in court that he submitted about $714,000 in false or fraudulent claims to the Illinois State Board of Education, more than $250,000 above the budgeted cost of the program, prosecutors said. The claims indicated that the program provided about 267,000 meals to low-income children, when it actually served fewer than 100,000 meals.

The Wilkersons used as much as $450,000 of the program’s funding on personal expenses and embezzled more than $100,000 from the program, including more than $60,000 in direct payments to themselves, according to the justice department. They gave $10,000 to relatives, withdrew $20,000 in cash from the church’s bank account, used $46,000 to buy real estate in Chicago and used $37,109 to buy a home in Memphis, Tennessee, for Robbie Wilkerson’s parents.

Three other church officials also pleaded guilty in May to one count each of theft of government funds, prosecutors said. Anthony Hall, 50, of Downers Grove, another pastor and administrator of the food program in 2010, was sentenced to five years of federal probation, including 10 months of home confinement, and ordered to pay $40,001 in restitution.

An operations manager for the 2010 program, 52-year-old Richard Shumate and his 49-year-old wife, Evelyn Shumate, were sentenced to five months each in prison, followed by five months of home confinement, the justice department said. The couple, who live in Romeoville, were also ordered to pay $49,964 in restitution.