Longform

Reverend Fix-It

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Williams says before they agreed to a deal, they told Wilkerson how much Liberty's books were in arrears and that Wilkerson seemed undaunted.

"Our deal with him was we bring our bills, and you've got $150,000 to pay off, and we're handing you over a half-million dollars' worth of equipment that you would have had to buy on your own," he says. "We felt like it was a win-win deal. He got a lot of stuff way below, less than a third of what it would have cost him to buy it otherwise. He got a ready-made school, fully accredited with a Smithsonian Award for technology, all kinds of things that he can hype to draw in students."

In the fall of 2000, Liberty became a part of Eastlake and turned over its accounting. None of the Liberty founders received money in the deal. Wilkerson balked at putting anything in writing despite numerous attempts to get him to do so, Williams says. Williams and his wife maintained an interest in the school, and Mike Williams served on the board, but for all practical purposes, Eastlake and Liberty became one and the same, housed in Eastlake's building and sharing Eastlake's administrative and other resources.

"By late fall, getting into December...we were getting overdue bills that hadn't been paid," he says. "When the bills weren't getting paid, we finally became aware that something wasn't right. He started pressing us for donations to pay bills. That's when we really got suspicious. He's sitting here supposedly with this multimillions of dollars and he's basically whining at us that he can't pay bills, the school and the church can't pay its bills."

In February, Wilkerson told Williams and the other former Liberty administrators that he would not be paying Liberty's bills after all, Williams says.

"He told us very clearly he didn't have any intention of paying those back bills, that we had to go pay them," he says. "So at that point he had completely reneged on his commitment. In essence, he had the intention of taking the assets, taking the students, taking the teachers, taking the tuition, taking everything that we brought over and not paying the bills that he had committed to pay."

Wilkerson counters that Liberty "walked in here two days before school started" and that most of the tuition had already been paid by students into Liberty's accounts and spent by Liberty. Eastlake was suddenly supposed to pay $60,000 a month in Liberty administrative salaries but didn't get the tuition money to do it.

"I tried to help them. Twenty-one thousand dollars is what they raised going for the year, and they had salaries of $60,000 a month," Wilkerson says. "They had an income of $11,000 a month. You take salaries of $60,000 a month and put them against an income of $11,000 a month not including books, supplies and not including anything else, and you ask me who could have supported it?"

Although Liberty has cleared out of Eastlake and is considered defunct now, some issues remain, Williams says. Some Liberty teachers opted to have their salaries paid in smaller monthly amounts throughout the year, rather than only receiving checks during the school year. Some claim they were never paid and are still trying to get their money, Williams says.

"They wanted to get paid for the summer. We can show you the pay stubs. We paid them through the school year," Wilkerson says. "They wanted to get paid because they said Liberty told them they would get paid through the summer. They weren't working for us...I give you my word."

Wilkerson denies there was ever anything close to a merger of the schools. Representatives from Liberty came to Eastlake and took back anything that once belonged to the high school, and Wilkerson claims neither Liberty ownership nor Liberty debt.

Although Wilkerson says the high school is still alive and well, offering high school classes under Eastlake's name, fewer than 30 students remain. As far as Williams is concerned, Liberty is dead. And, although Williams has now ensured that Liberty's original debts were paid, Liberty's financial reputation is ruined. What's worse, Williams says, Wilkerson blames Liberty for the failure.

"He always has an excuse. There is always somebody else to blame. That is his forte, in fact. As soon as things start falling apart, if you cross him, you are a deceptive, lying, cheating, ne'er-do-well," Williams says. "I don't think he ever had any intention of paying the bills we brought over there."

Williams says that in retrospect they should have been more wary of Wilkerson. But they wanted Liberty to stay alive and were perhaps blinded by promises of someone who seemed to be offering salvation. It was Wilkerson who "stuck his neck out" and "appeared to have everything to lose," Williams says, and they trusted him because of it.

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Charles Siderius
Contact: Charles Siderius