By fall 2018, Roy Johnson had spent nearly a year planning, organizing and operating Christians of Faith Academy, a private online school that would use an ambitious football program to help low-income and underprivileged students earn college opportunities.

His COF Academy had plans to compete at the very top level of Ohio high school football – as evidenced by a daunting schedule with the likes of Ohio powers Huber Heights Wayne and Cleveland St. Ignatius – and had partnered with Minnesota-based education company Edmentum and its EdOptions Online Academy for its academics program.

The school was billed as a plan backed by the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Third District.

ThisWeek’s first two stories on COF Academy were in August. They focused mostly on how the school’s leaders, namely Johnson, planned to prepare to play football games on short notice when information about COF Academy was difficult to obtain and accusations of recruiting were being repeated throughout central Ohio.

But by mid-October, it all appeared to have fallen apart.

Sometime during the summer, the AME Church Third District had posted on its website, ame3.org, a denial it was involved with COF Academy and said Johnson and his Richard Allen Group – what Johnson had called the “economic-development arm of the (AME Church)” that handled a variety of financial and development issues – were acting on their own.

ThisWeek learned of the statement Sept. 18. (The post, which had a direct URL of ame3.org/disclaimer, was removed from the Third District website sometime last fall – Johnson said he believes it was in October. ThisWeek retained a screenshot of the statement.)

A week later, on Sept. 25, the Ohio High School Athletic Association said its representatives could not verify classes were taking place at the AME Church Third District headquarters at 112 Jefferson Ave. in Columbus, and it determined football games played against COF Academy would not count for points to qualify for the state playoffs.

On Oct. 19, the Ohio Department of Education announced it had revoked the school registration for COF Academy, ruling “the school could not be located and student attendance could not be verified.”

Meanwhile, Lakewood St. Edward near Cleveland and IMG Academy in Florida had canceled their football games against COF Academy, so matchups were added against Reigning Sports Academy in Columbus and Cornerstone Christian in San Antonio to maintain a 12-game schedule.

“Both of them heard what happened and called us up,” Johnson said.

The Ironmen won only two games, beating Reigning Sports Academy and Birmingham Brother Rice in Michigan.

Through everything, Johnson had been reluctant to share with ThisWeek what was occurring behind the scenes.

From August to September, Johnson did not return calls or texts for comment. At one point, he disconnected his cellphone and changed his number.

When he re-established contact in October, he declined to explain discrepancies between his story and the church’s and instead kept the focus on his goals during interviews.

“I’m trying to make sure that this isn’t a situation where the kids aren’t being helped and we forget what we’re trying to do,” he said.

But in late November, Johnson told ThisWeek he was ready to fill in the blanks. He said his back was against the wall, and his only option was to reveal what had happened between the church and the school.

****

Johnson said he had spent virtually the entire summer without constructive conversations with the AME Church.

After the church had backed him privately for months, he said, conversations with officials had turned noncommittal.

And he said when he saw the statement on the AME Third District’s website – of which he was unaware until ThisWeek brought it to his attention – he was stunned.

“I didn't really have a reaction,” he said. “It was shock, but it was more like confusion. Because at that point, when you hear that, you're like, 'Wait a minute. That must be something else. That must be a mistake.' ”

At that point, Johnson said, he still believed he could salvage the relationship with the AME Church.

His focus, he said, was on the more than 30 students depending on him, not on negative publicity. Even then, others at the school, like assistant coach and teacher Ulysses Hall, wanted him to explain publicly the church’s denial wasn’t true, he said.

“I told everybody, 'Don't respond. Just wait,' ” Johnson said. “What people don't understand is that, when I take a step back and look at it, I can recover. I can go live where I live and get another job. My life will be fine. Those kids’ won't. So we're going to have to do our best to just stay positive and see if we can work something out.”

But nothing was worked out, he said.

In October, after the church’s public statement, Johnson said, he met with church officials in Cincinnati. He brought his friend, Jay Richardson, who had funded some of the project and originally was listed on documents submitted to the ODE as the school’s athletics director, though Richardson said he never served in that capacity.

Richardson is a former Ohio State University and NFL player who is a regular analyst on WSYX-TV’s “The Football Fever.” He initially had denied to ThisWeek, through an attorney, that he was associated with COF Academy, but he decided to become more involved when Johnson was in jeopardy, he said.

“I said (to Johnson), ‘I can’t let you be the fall guy,' ” Richardson said.

At the meeting in Cincinnati, Johnson said, Bishop McKinley Young, the highest-ranking church official in the Third District, told them the post would be removed.

“We had a meeting in Cincinnati with the bishop and said, 'You can't say that,' ” Johnson said. “They gave whatever reason they gave and then they took it down.”

That wasn’t enough, however, for Richardson, who said he was furious and confused by the effects of the church’s denial.

“I was like, 'Don't just take it down. You have to make a statement saying there was a mistake made and apologize,' ” he said. “I don't think they understand the ramifications of a school, a football team, all that stuff being started under the pretense that this was backed and supported and endorsed by a faith-based entity.

“Everyone feels good about that. And then one day that faith-based entity wakes up and decides, 'No, we didn't have anything to do with that.' All the support left. All the funding left. All the sponsorships.”

Church officials ThisWeek has contacted have denied the AME Church has had any relationship with Johnson, Richardson or COF Academy.

The church’s attorney, Arthur Harmon, has said the church had no connection to the project.

When contacted March 6, Harmon said he had not read ThisWeek’s coverage and had no further comment. He said he still is acting as a spokesman for the AME Church’s Third District.

Young, who died Jan. 16, never had returned ThisWeek’s calls for this story.

According to the Third District website, Frank M. Reid III has been named the new bishop of the church. An AME Church representative previously declined to take a message for Reid, said he and other church leaders would not answer questions for this story and referred all questions to Harmon.

Third District accountant Floyd Alexander also could not be reached for comment for this story, but ThisWeek has left a message for him.

ThisWeek has been unable to contact the Rev. Taylor Thompson, an AME Church pastor and assistant district accountant, since a Jan. 28 interview.

According to Velma Wise, who answers phone calls at the church office and spoke to ThisWeek on March 6, Reid and Thompson continue to decline to comment.

Church officials’ earlier denials also led to another consequence, Johnson said. He was referring to a call he had received from federal investigators last year.

****

According to Johnson and Richardson, the establishment of COF Academy had drawn the eye of the U.S. Secret Service’s investigative team.

“The AME Church's denial of affiliation with the academy and Richard Allen Group subsequently led to an investigation and me being contacted by the feds to see if the school was legitimate, if the project was legitimate and if the people who came and donated their time and funds and resources weren't defrauded and that it was a legitimate project,” Johnson said.

According to www.secretservice.gov, special agents investigate financial crimes, such as counterfeiting of currency, false identification, credit- and debit-card fraud, computer fraud, forgery or theft of government checks, bonds or other securities, telecommunications fraud, and certain other crimes affecting federally insured financial institutions.

The men said the investigators told them their interest began after ThisWeek’s coverage of COF Academy (ThisWeek wrote six stories about the school in 2018), particularly the AME Church’s denial of involvement.

Johnson and Richardson both said they were interviewed by federal investigators not long after finding out about the investigation in late 2018. They were not specific about when they first learned of the investigation, but Richardson said he met with investigators in December, and Johnson said he met with them in January.

ThisWeek had been aware of the investigation from another source.

In late November, ThisWeek was contacted by a Gahanna Division of Police detective who said she was looking into a related complaint against Johnson and the Richard Allen Group.

During that conversation, the detective referenced a federal investigation being conducted by the Secret Service. She did not reveal the nature or scope of that investigation.

According to Johnson, investigators primarily were interested in the time, resources and land that were to be donated for the project.

Johnson said – and emails and other documents ThisWeek has examined confirm his account – that New Salem Baptist Church was set to donate to the project a large tract worth $7 million.

Such experts as developer Mike Egan and construction manager Jeff Kellam had worked for little or no money and had gotten others involved in the project for the same reasons, Johnson said.

“(The investigators) told us that they weren't investigating the AME Church – they were investigating the fact that we opened a school and said that we were a school and had people come in and give money to knock down trees and all that,” Johnson said. “That's what they were investigating. Because you can't go around and get … (experts) to donate all that work. All that totaled up to a lot of money.”

However, Johnson and Richardson both said they have been notified the investigation is complete, which, Johnson said, came as no surprise to him.

“If I did that, I'd be in jail or at least arrested or something of that nature,” he said. “We didn't do anything wrong. And that's why now I can speak about it. I didn’t (defraud) the church. I didn't (defraud) these kids. I didn't (defraud) anybody like that. That's what the federal investigators were looking at, and that's what they found.”

He said conversations with investigators went smoothly.

“They found out that the project was legit, that the people who came and the church that donated land was legit and that it was all a legitimate thing,” he said. “So they just gathered information and they closed the case and that was about it.”

****

Everyone wants just one simple thing: to do what the church promised everyone. Roy Johnson

Johnson and Richardson are defendants in two cases accusing them of unpaid loans for $100,000. Multiple businesses and other private individuals are threatening lawsuits of their own against Johnson, due to accusations of unpaid bills for services, he said.

For those reasons, Johnson said, he and his attorneys are assembling a lawsuit against the AME Church, an action he hopes would clear his debts and his name.

“I don’t think I have a choice,” he said.

But he still hasn’t filed the suit, he said, because he still hopes the church will change its position and he wants to give Reid, the new Third District bishop, "a chance to make things right."

"Or at least publicly inform the ODE, OHSAA and Edmentum that there was financial backing from the Third District, Roy and Jay did not steal or misrepresent themselves, we had permission to use the classrooms and that all these people who donated time, services and money were not taken advantage of," Johnson said. "Everyone wants just one simple thing: to do what the church promised everyone."

aking@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekAndrew