What to Know
- The pastor of Newark's New Ebenezer Baptist Church allegedly stole $700,000 from a plumbing company
- Prosecutors say Robert Keith, also known as R. David Keith, stole the money while acting as the firm's bookkeeper
- He has been the pastor of New Ebenezer Baptist since June 2016
The pastor of one of Newark's best-known churches allegedly robbed a plumbing company of about $700,000, Middlesex County prosecutors said Tuesday.
Robert Keith, 46, of West Orange, was arrested Saturday. He faces charges of credit card theft, money laundering and forgery.
Prosecutors allege that Keith stole the money from a plumbing company in South Plainfield between Feb. 2015 and Feb. 2017 while acting as their bookkeeper.
Keith, who is not a certified public accountant, presented himself as a religious leader to enhance the legitimacy of his bookkeeping business, the prosecutor's office said.
As the Rev. R. David Keith, he leads the New Ebenezer Baptist Church on Camden St in Newark, one of the city's most prominent houses of worship. In fact, the office of Mayor Ras Baraka has previously held community events at the church, though they appear to have pre-dated Keith's official installation as pastor in late June 2016.
"While the leadership of New Ebenezer Baptist Church may have been invited to meetings and events hosted by the (Newark Office of Clergy Affairs and Interfaith) Alliance, neither the church nor its leadership has been active participants. As such, no regular City-sponsored events have been held there," the mayor's press office said in a statement.
Congregants and leaders at the church, where Keith's picture hangs on the banner outside, were floored to learn of their pastor's arrest. They say they were proud of him and that he helped fix up their modest building. On the church Facebook page, he's seen passing out awards to local police officers.
"I don't know what to say," said deacon Henry Austin. "I honestly don't know what to say."
The congregation never knew Keith worked for a plumbing company. He told them he owned a car dealership.
This is not the first time that the leader of Ebenezer Baptist has faced legal woes. A previous pastor, Amir Natson, faced fraud charges in 2012 for filing a false insurance claim.
"I know the membership's gonna be hurt, because we just went through this seven years ago, and to go through it again," said Austin.
"I'm going to have to give him the benefit of the doubt until he's proven guilty in a court of law, but right now I'm going to have to just pray for him," he added.
Keith did not have access to church funds, church leaders say.
Keith was released Tuesday afternoon with no bail, but must undergo psychiatric evaluation and have no contact with anyone at the plumbing company, authorities say. He'll also have to report monthly to an officer of the court until his next hearing, tentatively scheduled for May 25.