WILKES-BARRE – The pastor at the First Church of Christ confirmed he was ousted from his position Saturday after church officials alleged he and his wife defrauded people out of money by falsely claiming she had cancer.
The Rev. Eugene B. Lewis, 46, said Tuesday he and his wife, Amy, have been accused of holding a fundraiser to raise money that was supposedly earmarked to pay for her cancer treatment. Church officials are now questioning whether she is truly sick, he said.
They say she doesn't have cancer. We held a fundraiser and they think it is bogus, Eugene Lewis said.
Lewis, father of former Wyoming Valley West football standout and Penn State University football player Eugene Lewis Jr., said he was forced to resign from the church based on the cancer fraud allegations.
The claims are the latest troubles for the couple, who also are facing criminal charges in connection with two unrelated incidents.
Court records show Eugene Lewis Sr. was charged on Nov. 19 with fleeing the scene of an accident after he backed into another car parked in the area of 137 S. Pennsylvania Ave. on Sept. 20. He was identified after the other driver wrote down his license plate number.
Amy Lewis, 33, was charged on Oct. 31 with falsely obtaining $11,541 in food stamps and medical assistance benefits from the state from Feb. 1, 2011 to Jan. 31 2012.
The state Office of Inspector General alleges she failed to report income she received while working at All About Dance in Kingston as of Dec. 22, 2010.
In an interview outside their Dagobert Street home Tuesday, the Lewises adamantly denied the cancer fraud allegations, saying the accusations are the product of church members who want him out because they are unhappy Lewis, who is black, was bringing more blacks and Hispanics into the church.
We got a letter from the congregation telling me they want me to leave. They don't want drug addicts in the church, he said. They were looking for ways to get us out.
Attempts to reach officials from First Church of Christ for comment Tuesday were not successful.
The couple said Amy is suffering from bone and liver cancer. Allegations they made up the story are crazy, Amy Lewis said.
Everything that's going on with me, and I have to deal with this. It's horrible people are making allegations about me, Amy Lewis said.
Asked if she could produce medical records to disprove the allegations, Amy Lewis said she was in the process of gathering the records.
Eugene Lewis said he served as pastor at First Church of Christ for about a year. He previously was an assistant pastor at First Baptist Church in Wilkes-Barre.
Lewis gained widespread praise for turning his life around.
A standout college basketball player, he was drafted into the NBA in 1989, but never played due to problems with drug addiction.
He successfully battled his addiction and entered the ministry.
Lewis and his wife said they've spent their lives trying to help people through the ministry.
That makes the allegations against them all the more painful, he said.
We turned our lives around. We are not the people we used to be, he said.
The couple did not provide details of the fundraisers held for Amy, but a person familiar with the efforts said the couple raised money by selling tickets for a raffle. A collection also was taken at a Meyers football game, and the couple's children went door to door in several neighborhoods.
The person, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation by the couple, was among people who bought tickets and made other donations to the family.
The person said suspicions recently arose because Amy Lewis did not appear to be sick.
Nothing was adding up, the person said. She looked amazingly well.
Bernard Prevuznak, superintendent of Wilkes-Barre Area School District, confirmed a collection for Amy Lewis was taken at one of the football games at Meyers this fall.
Prevuznak said some employees took it upon themselves to pass a bucket at the game after learning a member of the Meyers community was stricken ill.
We were told this person was ill, Prevuznak said. Our athletic director did it for what we considered a struggling family.
Prevuznak said he had not been notified by anyone that some are now questioning if Amy Lewis is ill.
Regarding the criminal charges, Eugene Lewis acknowledged he did hit another vehicle and left the scene. Lewis said he panicked and admits he made a mistake.
I backed into someone. I take full responsibility, he said. It's part of my growth as a person and as a pastor.
Amy Lewis said the food stamp fraud charges against her are unfounded. She said she provided the state all the documentation requested and plans to fight the case in court.
The couple were upset the court cases and cancer fraud allegations had become public. Eugene Lewis said he has consulted with an attorney and is considering suing the church for defamation of character.
Somebody is after us. We have people who want to ruin our character and reputation, he said. We've been through worse before. We made it through drug addiction. We will make it through this through Jesus Christ.