Kamala Harris is the first African-American to hold the office of attorney general for the state of California, and when she is not making history, she aims to make a difference in the lives of those she was elected to serve. Her latest cause: protecting unsuspecting Black churches from being taken advantage of by would-be crooks. Under her leadership, the state of California recently filed a lawsuit seeking $800,000 in restitution and civil penalties after 33 African-American churches fell victim to a seemingly bogus scheme.
According to the lawsuit, participating churches were provided with computerized kiosks with the understanding that the expenses incurred were to be covered by advertisers. But instead, the churches were allegedly stuck with huge bills that left them with mounting debts and even more regrets.
The last time BET.com spoke to Harris, she was in the middle of a heated campaign for California AG, and today, she shows no signs of slowing down. With a packed schedule, she spoke with us on her way to the White House for the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day celebration.
BET News: You're the first African-American attorney general for California—how are the needs of Blacks in your state now being met?
Kamala Harris: This has been wonderful. This is about all the voices of California being heard. My priorities have been everything from public safety to what we can do to deal with the mortgage and foreclosure crisis that really caused a lot of folks to lose their homes and lose their dignity. It has been a lot of work focused on what we can do in defending the president’s health care reform. So I filed legal papers to say that California is going to defend the president and health care reform across the country. So it’s been a lot of very important work, and this is just a beginning.
What can you tell us about the scam that affected Black churches in 15 states, including California?
I filed the lawsuit because actually what happened was we had people who were predators and they were taking advantage of good church-going folks. And they knew it. Predators have a way of knowing how to choose their victims. And they usually choose victims that will trust them even though they are up to no good. [The church is] a place where we get our information about politics, it’s a place we get out information about financial services and supports. There’s a lot of business that helps a community that takes place in our churches. So these predators went to the churches, suggesting that the churches could put up this kiosk, and what they were doing is essentially taking the money from the churches without producing the benefits for the churches.
What was the total damage?
We are still in the process of calculating that total.
Where are we now in terms of getting justice for the victims?
The lawsuit has been filed. A couple of them have been actually convicted and are serving four to 12 years in prison. We filed our lawsuit in Los Angeles naming several of them as defendants and we’ve charged them with violating our state's unfair competition law, stating they have been engaging in false advertisement. And so we are looking for money, damages, civil penalties, to prevent any further illegal activities. And part of that would include restitution, which is getting money back to the churches.
Did you get a sense of the reasons why these companies would target African-American churches?
Because they knew that the Black church is a social institution as much as it is a religious institution. It’s a meeting place. It’s where we go to become educated about many issues. And when folks go to the Black church, it’s a safe environment. It is not only a spiritual place but it’s a place where people can find support. That’s the role of Black churches in reality. I know that because I was brought up in the Black church. And so what happens is that because the predators have figured out that if they could sell it to the church, then the church doesn’t need to do much to sell it to the parishioner because they already trust the church. They took advantage of God-fearing, law-abiding people.
What is the message to church-goers and church leaders?
When it comes down to financial transactions … you certainly want to pray over it, but also make sure you read the fine print.
Is this fraud potentially more widespread than reported?
The potential is always there, but we are focused particularly on what happened in California in conjunction with what had happened around in the country. We also want to use this as a teaching moment—to say we have to always be careful and cautious when people are engaging in financial transactions. We can’t be so trusting. Because in these economic times, there are many predators out there.
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