A popular evangelical pastor in Montreal with a long list of creditors — ranging from his parishioners to a zoo — had his eyes set on the lucrative diamond trade, according to a CBC investigation.
Mwinda Lezoka took steps to establish himself in the international diamond business, while he amassed as much as $1.5 million in debt at the expense of his parishioners and clients, who have now launched dozens of lawsuits against him for defaulting on loans.
During the years Lezoka ministered to his parish at the Bethel Christian Community Church in Ahuntsic, he also studied gemology, and appeared to head a Kinshasa-based export agency specialized in diamond trading.
Lezoka, 47, signed up for a weekend workshop on diamond grading in 2009 at the Montreal School of Gemology, according to the institution's president.
"He was just like a normal, regular student, except I was a bit surprised to have in my class a gentleman who was a pastor, and interested in diamonds," said Odile Civitello. "But I know he's African, so this is not surprising that someone from the Congo would have an interest in diamonds."
CBC News has obtained a business card listing Lezoka as director general of a diamond export agency in Kinshasa, Congo's capital.
The agency had a valid vendor's licence at one time, but according to the former secretary general of the Ministry of Mines in Congo, it has now gone bankrupt.
The pastor also spoke about the diamond trade with people in his entourage, according to a former associate.
"He showed me a small quantity [of diamonds], a sample if you will," that Lezoka carried around in a handkerchief, said Abdo Malalaoui, a Tunisian businessman who once collaborated with the pastor on a housing project in Africa.
Lezoka told him he got the diamonds in Congo, said Maalaoui.
Preacher faces long list of lawsuits
Diamond trading is the latest twist in the strange story unfolding around Lezoka, who is described by followers as a passionate preacher with a powerful touch.
He is named as the defendant in a dozen lawsuits filed by former parishioners, contractors hired to do work for him, and Parc Safari, a Quebec zoo near the U.S. border.
According to legal documents filed at Quebec Superior Court, Parc Safari is suing Lezoka and a corporation registered under his name for almost $1 million.
A former colleague, who is a minister, is also suing Lezoka after he borrowed money to "save his church."
Gaétan Paquette, a minister with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, arranged for his father-in-law to lend Lezoka $150,000 a few years ago.
After his father-in-law died earlier this year, the Paquette family took steps to recoup the money. When they managed to contact Lezoka, he said that "he was sure that my stepfather had told him 'Well, if I ever died, keep my money,''' Paquette said. "But that was never in written form."
At least two dozen former parishioners are also pursuing Lezoka for unpaid loans, some borrowed against mortgages and credit cards.
Sexual, financial improprieties alleged
Lezoka, who formerly worked as a pastor within the United Church of Canada, has already settled one lawsuit with the organization after the two parted ways in 2001.
The church suspended the pastor for having an extramarital affair while leading a congregation, and cut off all parish funding over allegations of financial impropriety.
Lezoka was suspended for six months in 2000 and ordered to seek counselling after the church found him guilty of carrying on an affair with a parishioner.
"He was asked to apologize publicly, which he did," said Rev. Shaun Fryday, chair of the Montreal Presbytery for the United Church of Canada. "He acknowledged his wrongdoing, for lack of a better word."
Lezoka was reinstated in 2001, but was investigated again for financial irregularities that emerged during a forensic audit.
"There were things like remittances to the federal government and Revenue Quebec that had not been made for a number of years. Pension plans, group insurance had not been paid. There was an outstanding claim from one of the secretaries that she was owed back wages," said Fryday.
"You couldn't see where the money went, or it was spent on programs that weren't part of the budget. They simply disregarded them."
In 2002, Mwinda and his congregation voted unanimously to cut ties with the United Church because of its support of gay marriage and the ordination of homosexual ministers, Fryday said.
Lezoka parted ways with the church without paying back a $12,000 loan, Fryday added. The money was fronted from an emergency fund for pastors in financial trouble.
The church sued Lezoka — and settled out of court in 2006, after Lezoka agreed to pay back $0.50 on the dollar.