HAYWARD -- A day after AC Transit's chief financial officer appeared in court on charges of embezzling more than $500,000 from one of Oakland's largest churches, his colleagues expressed surprise, but said that the transit agency's ongoing financial audits made it very unlikely that any public funds could have been taken.
Lewis Green Clinton Jr., 57, appeared before a judge Monday on four counts of grand theft with white-collar enhancements and put up $100,000 bail, court records show. He is set to return to the Hayward Hall of Justice next month to enter a plea.
Prosecutors say Clinton embezzled money from Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland from 2007 through 2013. He is a parishioner at the 5,000-member church and served on three overlapping volunteer boards that administered hundreds of thousands of dollars raised by the church meant to provide housing and help to low- and moderate-income residents.
Officials believe he used the money he took from the funds to pay for a luxury car, private schools for his children, mortgage payments and a golf club membership, according to court documents.
On Tuesday, Allen Temple Baptist Church officials released a statement through attorney Jessica K. Nall saying they are cooperating in the ongoing investigation and prosecution.
"The church has done and continues to do everything possible to ensure that any funds that come into the church are used appropriately and in support of Allen Temple Baptist's charitable efforts," the statement reads.
Clinton, who court records show had a warrant issued for his arrest after the charges were filed, appeared before Judge Scott Patton on Monday to be arraigned on the felony charges.
The judge set his bail at $100,000 which Clinton posted shortly afterward, a court clerk said.
Clinton's attorney, Michael Thorman, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Calls to Clinton, who lives in Vallejo, were unanswered Tuesday morning. No one answered the door at the home but Clinton later came out and drove away without acknowledging the reporter trying to talk to him. There was no indication that anyone else was home.
AC Transit spokesman Clarence Johnson said Clinton was placed on indefinite paid administrative leave Monday. He said that he was not aware of any connection between the DA's investigation and the transit agency's finances.
Johnson added Tuesday that during the six years he's worked with the agency, they've had no complaints filed against Clinton, whom he called a competent and trusted employee.
"We are very comfortable in saying that there are no financial irregularities with the agency because of the checks and balances we have in place," Johnson said.
The agency's finances are audited at least three times a year, he said -- twice by the Federal Transit Administration and once by an outside firm. The most recent audit took place in November, Johnson said.
AC Transit board President Greg Harper said Clinton was well regarded in the quality and reliability of his work.
"We are all surprised by the news and we are just reeling from that," Harper said Tuesday.
Clinton was preparing to put together a new budget for the agency when he was charged, Harper said. Asked if the agency will now audit the financial transactions Clinton was involved in, Harper said it's a possibility.
Chris Peeples, who has served on the AC Transit board for the past 16 years, described Clinton as a "smart guy" who previously worked as a Wall Street investment banker.
"Being in the finance business for a long time, he has a level of financial sophistication that we previously lacked," Peeples said. "We are all concerned and watching this with a great level of interest."
Clinton, who has worked for more than 25 years in the financial field, was hired as the transit district's chief financial officer in 2008. He also serves as a trustee for the AC Transit Retirement Board and earned $279,000 in total compensation in 2012, according to a Bay Area News Group public salary database.
Since 2007, Clinton served as board president of two corporations established by the church to provide housing and other services to parishioners and others in need in Oakland, while also running the Allen Temple Foundation, which manages incoming gifts to the church. A report submitted by district attorney's investigator James Taranto says that as a result of deaths and resignations, Clinton was eventually the sole member of the Allen Temple Foundation board.
Taranto says that he found that Clinton illegally diverted $400,000 to his checking account that the church obtained from the sale of cell phone tower rights. He used ATM and debit card withdrawals to take another $66,000 from church bank accounts, and that he took more than $100,000 from a church account at a credit union.
The majority of the alleged thefts were not discovered until March 2013, when officials at one of the funds noticed a irregular shortage in operating capital and began investigating.
In previous years, a church official had asked Clinton about high board expenses, but Clinton, the board president, reassured her that the expenses were appropriate. Clinton held a "position of trust" with the various charity funds, the report says.
Property records show Clinton lives in a 3,900 square-foot four-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath home on a third of an acre lot in the relatively new Hiddenbrooke development near Interstate 80 and that he purchased the home in March 2002. Real estate listings show the median list price for a home on that street is about $600,000.
Several of Clinton's neighbors said Tuesday morning that they were unaware of anything going on with Lewis Clinton, or refused to comment on the record.
A man who identified himself as part of the area's Neighborhood Watch said he had seen reports on the news about Clinton but was reserving judgment, as he said he wished others would do, also.
"He's a fine, upstanding man," the neighbor said, adding he's known the family "a long time. "The beautiful thing about this country is you are innocent until proven guilty. They are one of the finest neighbors we have in the community. We need to let this thing play out."
Staff writers Kristin J. Bender, David DeBolt and Rachel Raskin-Zrihen contributed to this report. Contact Natalie Neysa Alund at 510-293-2469. Follow her at Twitter.com/nataliealund.