Minister, wife allege harassment

Co-pastors claim state tax department had them arrested on bogus charges

Jeremy Lazarus | 10/31/2014, 6 a.m.
A Northern Virginia minister claims he and his wife have suffered illegal prosecution at the hands of the Virginia Department ...
Dr. and Bishop Patterson

A Northern Virginia minister claims he and his wife have suffered illegal prosecution at the hands of the Virginia Department of Taxation.

According to a suit that Bishop Leslie Patterson filed last week, two agents of the state tax department had him and his wife, Dr. Francene Patterson, arrested on bogus charges.

The suit also alleges the agents, John Hawse and Denise Lawhorn, who no longer are employed with the department, later placed an unsubstantiated tax lien against the property of the church the Pattersons co-pastor, First Baptist Church of Sterling in Loudoun County. The lien was later terminated after it was found that it was unsupported by evidence.

Adding to the angst over this bizarre case is a racial tinge: The two agents were taking on an African-American pastor and his largely black church for reasons that the tax department has never explained.

The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, claims the agents violated the Constitution and federal law in using their authority to engage in illegal seizure and malicious prosecution.

The suit was filed Oct. 24 in Prince William County, where the Pattersons live. The two former agents and the state tax department have not been served yet with the suit, and the state’s policy is not to comment on pending litigation.

Both agents were part of a criminal investigation unit of the state tax agency. The unit disbanded in 2013. Mr. Hawse has retired from the department since the events described in the suit. Ms. Lawhorn currently works for the Virginia Department of Forestry.

Bishop Patterson has led the 350-member Sterling church since 1995. He holds the title of bishop through his membership in the nondenominational Lord’s Churches Fellowship. Dr. Patterson runs the church’s day care, the King Solomon Christian Academy, and other aspects of the church.

The problems began, the suit states, when a volunteer bookkeeper failed to file or misfiled state withholding taxes for employees of the day care for more than three years.

In 2011, after being notified by the state Department of Taxation, Bishop Patterson agreed to accept responsibility for the mistakes and sought agreement on a plan to pay off the $10,000 the state found was owed in unpaid withholding between 2008 and 2011. The church paid off the debt in March 2012, then found the assessment should have been $7,000. The state has refused to refund the $3,000 difference.

According to the suit, Mr. Hawse and Ms. Lawhorn did not wait for a settlement or set up a repayment plan. Instead, the two agents secured felony warrants in 2011 and arrested the Pattersons on charges of embezzling the money due for the state withholding tax. The charges were based on allegedly suspicious deposits and withdrawals in the Pattersons’ personal accounts.

The suit states that the felony cases were dismissed in 2012 when courts and prosecutors in Loudoun and Prince William counties found no evidence to support the charges. In Loudoun County, a judge found that the agents had no evidence that any of the money that was to be withheld ever went into the Pattersons’ bank accounts.