The Barely Legal Empire of Tony Alamo

The nutty evangelist rebuilds his young-girl-lovin' empire—with help from New Yorkers

Action Distributors has been around in different forms since 1977, with offices listed in both New Jersey and Queens. As with other businesses controlled by Alamo, it often had trouble keeping up with its taxes. The state of New Jersey shut it down once in 1981 for a failure to pay taxes, and another three times because it didn't pay a $50 annual fee to the state. But the company's real troubles didn't start until Tempur-Pedic started investigating its dealings a couple of years ago.

Tempur-Pedic had donated approximately 8,000 mattresses and 7,000 slippers to a New Jersey nonprofit called Waste to Charity, which then contracted Action Distributors to give out the goods in storm-ravaged areas. Tempur-Pedic grew suspicious after being tipped off that those specific mattresses and slippers were being sold out of the back of trucks in Tennessee and Kentucky, and later on eBay. The mattress company hired an undercover consultant to pose as a buyer and instigated an FBI sting that found 2,650 of the donated mattresses in an Arkansas warehouse registered to two of Alamo's "wives," whose address was listed as a supermarket owned by Tony Alamo Ministries.

An undercover FBI investigation revealed that Scarcello had been selling the donated mattresses for profit to a number of secondhand retailers. While the connection between Waste to Charity and Alamo remains unclear, Tempur-Pedic's complaint against Waste to Charity and Action Distributors calls Scarcello a "known associate" of the pastor.

Eight ex-members who spoke with the Voice independently described Action Distributors as part of a network of salvage businesses and nonprofits, all owned by Alamo devotees, that funnel their profits to Alamo. (When questioned, Scarcello testified that he never gave Alamo any money, but invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked if he kept the profits himself.)


The mattress scandal was of little surprise to those familiar with Alamo's way of doing business. The pastor had been operating his empire this way for decades, ever since his transformation from Bernie Lazar Hoffman, who was born into a Jewish family in Joplin, Missouri, on September 20, 1934, into (or so he claims) 1960s big-band singer Tony Alamo, and later into the controversial evangelist. In the late 1960s, Alamo and his first wife, Susan, offered salvation to the junkies, drunks, and hippies of Hollywood: They provided a place to live and regular meals in return for free labor for one of their many businesses. The most popular business venture was Alamo Designs, where church volunteers created dazzling airbrushed jean jackets that became popular among celebrities, from Mr. T to Brooke Shields, at least for a while. But their system of indentured servitude couldn't last.

In 1976, the Department of Labor determined that the Alamo Foundation was in violation of the Fair Labor Standard Act for failing to pay wages to its many workers. The IRS eventually revoked the church's tax-exempt status in 1985 after determining that it was really a profit-making entity meant to fund Alamo's luxurious lifestyle. However, the pastor continued to ignore his taxes, and the IRS eventually seized millions of dollars in Alamo's church property and business interests and put him behind bars. After Alamo served four years of a six-year sentence, all of his properties, businesses, and nonprofits were registered under the names of his followers. Since his release in 1998, he's been trying to make a comeback and has targeted New York/New Jersey as one of several areas for growth—and for his polygamous radio message.

Arm Full of Help's public image is a young girl—just a few years younger than Alamo's ideal marrying age. She is pictured on the charity's website, holding a stack of groceries under the text: "If children can help why not you?" The charity is registered as a domestic nonprofit in several states, including New York, where it purports to help people in a general way. (Alamo's people are not so good on specifics.) According to its mission statement, the charity was created to "provide hope for the hopeless, living facilities for the homeless, clothing for the naked, food for the hungry," by distributing donated goods to "far away places such as Romania, Africa, etc." There is little indication of where any of this goes on, and no mention on the website of its connection to Alamo. However, the website does contain links to thank-you letters addressed to Tommy Scarcello.

According to former workers for the charity, Arm Full of Help is an Alamo-controlled business that sells donated goods for profit. Ex-workers say the charity is part of the same network of businesses and nonprofits as Action Distributors, keeping Alamo's empire afloat. They estimate that up to 70 percent of the donations—meant to help the needy—are sold for profit.

"We knew it was just a scam," says ex-member Ian Mann, who worked in the printing and administrative offices of the Arkansas compound. He says he's sure because his wife, who left the church with him in 1995, was one of the original founders of the charity in 1989. Her signature appears on the incorporation papers as the secretary treasurer. Like other ex-members, he described the mingling of the nonprofits and business ventures in the New York/New Jersey branch, saying they operated essentially as one entity. Donations of food, clothing, and other products would come to Arm Full of Help, and much of it would be resold and shipped through Action Distributors.

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