TULSA — When Derricka Blue and her paralyzed grandfather moved into a small house owned by the Tulsa Dream Center in 2020, she thought the pair of pastors leading the nonprofit considered her a “dream team” member who deserved the chance to become a homeowner.
For years, even as she experienced homelessness, Blue had volunteered, worshipped and received services at the Tulsa Dream Center, a prominent nonprofit supported by Victory Christian Church that had rehabilitated and given away “dream homes” to others in need. As she cared for her grandfather, Blue hoped the house at 6327 N. Boulder Ave. would become her dream.
Instead, thanks to busted HVAC systems, burst pipes and mold that Blue fears affected her grandfather’s health, the North Boulder home has become her nightmare.
“I feel like I’ve been taken advantage of, and it’s fraud,” Blue told NonDoc this March, early in a series of interviews about the house, its ownership changes and public rental subsidies. “I thought I was part of the ‘dream team.’”
The latest chapter of her dream sequence is set to unfold Sept. 5 in the Tulsa County Courthouse. The home’s new owner wants her evicted and claims she owes $650 for “damages,” even though Blue says he has not set foot inside since taking ownership in July.
“I’m moving. There’s no AC. You can see the door barely closes,” Blue said Aug. 14. “They don’t fix anything, so there’s no point in staying.”
The house itself has changed hands twice since Blue moved in, with both transactions raising ethical and legal questions involving Aaron “AJ” Johnson, the charismatic owner of Oasis Fresh Market and the executive director of Oasis Fresh Foundation, a pair of intertwined legal entities that jointly operate the first grocery store opened in north Tulsa in the last decade. Johnson has been lauded for running the social service-focused grocery store and meeting a community need.
But the Tulsa Police Department has received two allegations related to 6327 N. Boulder Ave., both of which involve Johnson. Neither has drawn a criminal charge, yet each raises flags about a nonprofit leader who has sought millions of dollars in public financing from various government agencies.
First, while Johnson was executive director of the Tulsa Dream Center, he signed a quit claim deed in June 2020 that transferred the 1,200-square-foot house’s ownership from TDC to his own private company, DreamCo Solutions.
Six weeks later, Johnson took out a mortgage on the property, obtaining a $32,800 loan two weeks before he took out a pair of other mortgages — one for $510,207 and one for $53,688 — to purchase a 4,000-square-foot house in Bixby for $593,776. The mortgages were issued by three separate lenders.
Second, in October 2021, Johnson’s company received $12,500 of Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds “for the benefit” of Blue at the North Boulder home. But Blue alleges a series of fraudulent actions involving the ERAP payment:
- An ERAP application received by Restore Hope Ministries in March 2021 was completed by then-TDC program director Tim Newton without Blue’s knowledge, with an incorrect middle initial and a signature that misspelled her name;
- In October 2021, Johnson submitted an ERAP agreement to Restore Hope Ministries that said Blue owed $10,250 “for past due rent” from October 2020 through September 2021;
- That total did not reflect rent Blue says she paid or the housing assistance payments that Tulsa Housing Authority records indicate were made to Johnson’s DreamCo Solutions and Newton’s 61:4 Properties & Management.
The Rev. Jeff Jaynes, executive director of Restore Hope Ministries, confirmed that his organization reviewed its $12,500 payment to DreamCo Solutions this spring and that Johnson subsequently returned thousands of dollars of the ERAP money.
“When we learned about a potential overpayment in this case, we worked with the tenant and landlord, as well as appropriate partner agencies and authorities, to investigate exactly what was owed by the tenant,” Jaynes said in a statement. “Once the correct amount was ascertained, we worked with all involved to ensure that the mistake was corrected, any overpayment was returned promptly, and our funders were made whole.”
Blue said she had only missed rent in September 2021 when her grandfather, Oren D. Verner Jr., died and she had to cover funeral expenses. She said that is when Johnson told her ERAP — a pandemic-era program — could cover her rent from September through December 2021.
But Blue said Johnson never told her he had applied for $10,250 in back rent until she saw the number on a letter mailed to the house. Meanwhile, she said, the home continued to fall into disrepair while Johnson collected the public housing subsidies and lived 26 miles south in his nearly $600,000 Bixby abode.
“Wrong is wrong, and right is right,” Blue said. “I don’t know who the hell got the money, but at the end of the day (…) I got kicked off of housing. I got kicked off of everything.”
Records show Johnson collected $3,918 in Section 8 voucher payments from the Tulsa Housing Authority between September 2021 and March 2022, but the North Boulder house failed its April inspection, and DreamCo Solutions’ housing assistance payment contract was terminated in May 2022 for “landlords failure/unwillingness to make necessary repairs,” according to a THA letter.
Blue said Johnson has taken advantage of her situation.
“Why screw me like a little person that’s already struggling and going through enough?” she asked.
‘I personally think it’s illegal, but I don’t know the law’
While Blue refers to herself as a “little person,” she knows AJ Johnson has become a big personality in influential Tulsa circles.
A board member of the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce and a board member of a police-associated training program called Fit First Responders, Johnson has gained national notoriety for operating Oasis Fresh Market and its associated nonprofit, which some members of the Oklahoma Legislature wanted to send $30 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding earlier this year.
Questions about Johnson’s nonprofit Oasis Fresh Foundation derailed the legislative appropriation this spring, and they also led several of Johnson’s former co-workers to contact NonDoc regarding his April 2021 departure as director of the Tulsa Dream Center and administrative pastor at Victory Christian Church.
Outlined by more than 100 pages of provided documents and interviews with more than a half-dozen people connected to the Tulsa Dream Center, allegations about Johnson reported to Victory Christian leaders and Oral Roberts University involved financial mismanagement, academic fraud, verbal abuse, sexist statements, questionable travel expenses and the assignment of employees for personal matters.
Johnson’s transfer of the North Boulder house from TDC to his DreamCo Solutions corporation caught the attention of his employees.
“I personally think it’s illegal, but I don’t know the law,” said Brenda Lackey, a former TDC employee who handled accounting duties for the nonprofit. “We were getting it ready for a family, and then all of a sudden the quit-claim deed came along. (…) I was like, ‘What is this for?’”
Located about two miles north of the main Tulsa Dream Center location, the home had been donated to TDC in 2017 by ORU professor Mark E. Roberts. Although Roberts did not respond to inquiries about the house, multiple former Tulsa Dream Center employees said it was meant for a family in need.
“We were going to be blessing a family with that, and they weren’t going to have to pay rent or anything,” one former TDC employee said on the condition of anonymity.
In a June 14, 2020, email from Johnson to Lackey — five days after the quit-claim deed was filed with Tulsa County — Johnson implied the home had been transferred to his personal company because he had made $6,204 worth of donations to TDC over the prior two years. Johnson wrote:
Attached are the documentation for the Dream House & TDC Donations (From F1) that I have personally paid. There is also an Expenses TDC paid from 7/1/18-11/25/19. Let me know if you have any more questions.
Many employees of the Tulsa Dream Center did have questions about the house and other financial transactions involving Johnson. In his June 2020 email to Lackey, Johnson included a list of expenses related to the house totaling $18,002. To the best of her recollection, Lackey said she remembers those expenses being paid by TDC, which had repaired other “Dream Houses” for Tulsans in need.
“When I first met AJ, I thought he was a rock star and that he was going to change north Tulsa,” Lackey said. “We all thought that.”
The Tulsa County assessor website lists the house’s 2021 fair market value at $24,900. By this year, the valuation had increased to $27,387. Johnson’s personal company, DreamCo Solutions, was incorporated in January 2020, five months before he deeded the house to it and took out the $32,800 mortgage against it.
“I had a lot of questions about it,” a former TDC employee said of Johnson’s DreamCo Solutions. “I just remember thinking, ‘Why are we starting one on the side when we have Victory (Christian Church) and the Dream Center?'”
Another former employee, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they were told DreamCo Solutions might file for nonprofit status as well.
“It seems kind of odd that you would start a nonprofit while working at a nonprofit,” the second employee said. “It seemed to me that would be like a conflict of interest. It just seemed like an unwise thing to do.”
While Johnson previously answered questions about the intersection of his for-profit Oasis Fresh Market company and his nonprofit Oasis Fresh Foundation, Johnson did not respond to NonDoc’s interview requests for this story.
Victory Christian Church leaders also did not respond to requests for interviews or statements about the tenure of AJ Johnson and the house on North Boulder Avenue.
Bryan Smith, a former Tulsa Dream Center advisory board member who now serves on the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Commission, contacted NonDoc and said he would attempt to convince an executive with Victory Christian Church to speak about the circumstances of Johnson’s departure, but no church leader responded to inquiries.
Following an OSBI Commission meeting in May, Smith said he did not know what Johnson’s official jobs at the Tulsa Dream Center and Victory Christian Church had been, but he did know Johnson left both entities.
“My knowledge of his departure was that he was asked to resign,” Smith said.
Smith clarified that although he had been listed by Johnson as an Oasis Fresh Foundation board member on the organization’s Form 990 IRS filing for 2021, he only supported the north Tulsa grocery store but never served on the nonprofit’s board. Other people listed on the IRS form as board members said the same thing.
‘There were no checks and balances’
Although church leaders chose not to discuss the North Boulder home or Johnson’s 2021 departure, Lackey and other former employees of the Tulsa Dream Center spoke with NonDoc about what they experienced working under Johnson’s direction.
Each person said they appreciated TDC’s provision of food, goods, recreation and medical services to those in need, but each said they chose to speak out because they believed the Oklahoma Legislature would make a mistake if it appropriated $30 million to a nonprofit run by Johnson.
“I did not observe best practices in financial management, HR management,” said Sarah Winders, a former TDC grant writer and development coordinator with a background in nonprofit administration. “His favorite phrase was, ‘I’ll ask for forgiveness, not permission.'”
Andrea Reeves, a former human resources employee at TDC, called the work environment under Johnson “toxic” and “chaotic.”
“There were no checks and balances. There were no guidelines. There was nothing keeping him from making bad decisions,” Reeves said. “I just never felt like he had integrity, especially in dealing with funds. Even after he left, I was done with the organization. I couldn’t continue to work there.”
The circumstances of Johnson’s departure from TDC and VCC unfolded in the early months of 2021. A series of verbal and written reports from employees led to multi-hour discussions with Victory Christian Church’s HR department, and a Thursday meeting with church leaders left Johnson stunned, according to people who worked at the church and the Dream Center.
Within weeks, Johnson left his positions as administrative pastor of Victory Christian Church and executive director of Tulsa Dream Center. Some employees thought he resigned to pursue the Oasis Fresh Market grocery store. Others believed he was forced out. Rumors of settlements, non-disclosure agreements, non-disparagement clauses and a golden parachute swirled.
“It was eye opening to see the lack of internal controls surrounding grants and deposits,” one former employee wrote in a report provided to VCC leadership. “At times, I have thought AJ just didn’t understand the importance of internal controls and oversight, but I have also thought that perhaps he wanted it that way.
“I consider it a miracle that TDC has not been under any major investigations considering how funds were managed.”
When AJ Johnson left Tulsa Dream Center, Tim Newton — the nonprofit’s longtime program director — was promoted to executive director. In an interview, Newton said he has tried to run the organization differently than his predecessor.
“My dynamic and my role as executive director — I’m big on accountability,” Newton said. “I’m big on just doing things aboveboard. Integrity is a big thing for me.”
Newton, who also operates a nearby tuition-free private elementary school called Drexel Academy, said the Tulsa Dream Center is doing better since Johnson departed.
“Whatever he did, we’re in a different place now, and the organization is much better,” Newton said.
But asked about the house just up the road on North Boulder Avenue, Newton claimed he knew few details, despite records indicating that Blue and the Tulsa Housing Authority had paid rent and rental assistance to his company, 61:4 Properties & Management.
“There’s no records on my end,” Newton said. “When I took over (as TDC director) and started seeing the books, there were no records of any rental income for any of the properties, so that would be new.”
Tulsa Housing Authority records show Newton’s company received payments related to the North Boulder home, even though it was owned by Johnson’s DreamCo Solutions. Between July 2020 and August 2021, Newton’s 61:4 Properties & Management company received $5,616 in housing assistance payments for Blue’s tenancy at 6327 N. Boulder Ave.
In his March 8 interview with NonDoc, Newton acknowledged that he owns other rental properties in the area, and he said he was aware that Derricka Blue had lived in the Boulder Avenue house at one time.
“I know it was a young lady, but I guess [Johnson] uses it as a rental property,” Newton said. “So there’s no telling — like, is it the same tenant? I know it was a young lady. She was living, not living, but she’d get services at the Dream Center. I know she was staying there at one point in time.”
Newton said he did not know Blue was still living in the house on North Boulder Avenue, nor did he mention that his company had received rent from her and rental assistance from the Tulsa Housing Authority on her behalf, continuing for a full year after Johnson deeded the home to DreamCo Solutions and took out the $32,800 loan.
Blue said it was disappointing to learn Newton had claimed not to know her well.
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Later in March, Blue said Johnson told her he was returning the North Boulder home to the Tulsa Dream Center.
Similarly, Ginny Bass Carl, a nonprofit consultant who said she has worked to help Johnson address governance issues with his Oasis grocery store entities, approached NonDoc on March 24 and said Johnson was returning the North Boulder home to TDC.
“He signed the deed. Because he actually sent me the draft of the deed, and I found a typo,” Bass Carl said. “The deed has been filed. I’m doing the accounting.”
Despite Bass Carl’s statement, the North Boulder home remained the property of Johnson’s DreamCo Solutions for nearly four more months until he filed a quit claim deed in July giving the property to SLG Properity, the rental company of pastor Scott L. Gordon.
Asked what Johnson told her about his June 2020 decision to deed the house from TDC to DreamCo Solutions, Bass Carl replied, “You need to ask him.”
“What I do know for a fact is that the original transaction should not have happened,” Bass Carl said. “So he has corrected it once he found out and understood why it shouldn’t have happened. He corrected it, deeded it back, and we are doing a full accounting for it also.”
Bass Carl also said Johnson was addressing issues with “PPP loans.”
“I know only who they went to and the amounts. I don’t know any more than that,” Bass Carl said. “Because again, it’s public record.”
Records from the federal Paycheck Protection Program — the Small Business Administration’s pandemic-era program that offered forgivable loans to companies if they retained their employees — show no PPP loans for three of Johnson’s companies: DreamCo Solutions, Oasis Fresh Market and R3 Development.
However, a separate corporation Johnson registered with the state in 2012 named Chancellor Enterprises received a $20,000 forgivable loan in April 2020 under the industry designation of “supermarkets and other grocery.”
Chancellor Enterprises has no online presence, the payment occurred one year prior to the launch of Oasis Fresh Market, and the company was “suspended” by the Oklahoma Tax Commission on Feb. 3, 2021, for “for failure to comply” with OTC requirements, according to state records.
Bass Carl said she has worked to help Johnson gain compliance with various agencies and nonprofit best practices.
“He’s been incredibly willing to fix whatever has been wrong, whatever has been lacking, and bring it up to speed and do better,” she said.
‘The secret science to getting rich’
In a series of interviews, former Tulsa Dream Center staff members described a litany of financial matters they considered concerning, and records provided to NonDoc outline some of the details. Vague expenses ranged from a pair of $2,500 dinners in October 2020 to extensive travel to North Carolina and New Orleans for potential business ventures. Financial records showed the purchase of IV-fluids, which employees said were for Johnson’s personal use.
Between November 2019 and August 2020, TDC paid $28,000 to the Proctor Gallagher Institute in Arizona, which offers “events, programs and products — all based on decades of research, study and application — to elevate people’s thoughts and bring their genius to the surface.”
On the institute’s website, the homepage promotes a free webinar titled: The Secret Science to Getting Rich. The webinar was created by the late Bob Proctor, who “is known as America’s greatest prosperity teacher.”
Although Proctor’s institute appears nonsectarian, its language is reminiscent of “prosperity gospel,” which was partially pioneered by legendary Oklahoma preacher Oral Roberts. A Roberts disciple, the late Rev. Billy Joe Daugherty, founded Victory Christian Church and originally held services at ORU in south Tulsa. Eventually, Victory Christian constructed its current campus across the street.
After moving from Milwaukee to Tulsa in his youth, Johnson befriended Daugherty’s children and joined Victory Christian Church. On Instagram, Johnson follows prominent pastors who preach prosperity gospel, including Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen.
Scott L. Gordon, the pastor and landlord to whom Johnson deeded the North Boulder home in July, employs similar rhetoric in one of his books, Walking in the Overflow: Living a life of abundance by believing what God can do.
The pastor at Calvary Baptist Church Sapulpa, Gordon has accumulated an abundance of rental properties. On Aug. 7, he posted on Facebook offering “serious investors” an “exclusive package of up to 40 single-family homes and 4 sets of duplexes for sale.”
Gordon is a member of the city of Tulsa’s Gold Star Landlord Program. On its website, the program bills itself as one that “provides incentive and rewards for landlords and property managers who engage in the best rental practices.” Tim Newton’s 61:4 Properties is also a member of the Gold Star Landlord Program.
In a June 2021 video promoting the program, Gordon discussed collaboration with other landlords and shared his thoughts on eviction.
“I really try and stay away from evictions. It takes a lot for me to have to evict a person, and one of the last things that we want to do is evict someone in hardship,” Gordon said. “A lot of tenants are families, some of them are single families, (…) and it’s important to be able to meet their needs even in times of crisis, and in the midst of that to realize that what you do for others can always come back to you.”
Gordon seems to have departed from that philosophy in Blue’s case, initially providing her a 10-day notice to vacate the house and now pushing the issue in the hearing set Sept. 5.
On Tuesday, Gordon said he offered Blue to sign a lease and stay in the home, but he said she was “disgruntled” for reasons he didn’t know.
“I don’t know what all the backlash was or why she was so angry,” Gordon said. “I went through the proper procedure to get her out of there, and she didn’t want to sign a lease.”
Blue said she asked Gordon to see his proposed lease when he arrived a second time with the court summons. Gordon said he is an investor in north Tulsa and that he has worked with various agencies to acquire several houses, but he declined to discuss his agreement with Johnson on 6327 N. Boulder Ave.
“There was no money transaction, I can tell you that,” Gordon said. “After the fifth, I’ll be more than happy to talk to you.”
Meanwhile, during Johnson’s time leading the Tulsa Dream Center, records show the nonprofit paid more than $36,000 from February 2019 and August 2020 to D2 Branding, a Tulsa marketing company whose chief operating officer is Jonathan Conneelly, otherwise known as “Coach JC.”
Johnson and Conneelly work out together, and Johnson is listed as a board member for Conneelly’s Fit First Responders organization, which emphasizes fitness, body transformation and a drive to “win all day” for Tulsa-area police officers and firefighters.
Lackey said Johnson appeared to mix personal and professional interests during his time leading the Tulsa Dream Center.
“There were so many people that came to not trust him that it made it really uncomfortable to work there. And my problem is I thought we were doing good,” Lackey said, fighting back tears. “I thought we were doing good, so when that stuff started coming out, it broke my heart.”
Lackey said Johnson had a habit of frequently changing donation codes at TDC to allow him greater control over how money was spent. Winders echoed those concerns.
“The lack of internal controls was super alarming,” Winders said. “He was putting money in and using it however he wanted.”
‘He has no business receiving that money’
Although the Oklahoma Legislature ultimately decided not to grant his Oasis Fresh Foundation $30 million of federal funding, Johnson has sought significant public financing from other governmental entities for grocery store projects.
City leaders in Killeen, Texas, have been in talks to provide Johnson support for opening an Oasis Fresh Market on their community’s north side, which has struggled to land a grocery store as north Tulsa had.
In Tulsa, civic leaders helped secure land and partnerships to develop what would become Oasis Fresh Market, with Johnson’s brief experience working at a grocery store in Nebraska leading him to join the effort. A lawsuit and other disputes led to Johnson taking charge, and he has proposed big plans to replicate the store in west Tulsa and other communities.
In January, Johnson and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation entered a memorandum of understanding to discuss a proposal under which the nation would build a grocery store and lease it to Johnson’s R3 Development for operations, but the project did not materialize.
Prior efforts had been more successful. In a November 2021 meeting, Tulsa County commissioners voted to give Oasis Fresh Foundation $1 million of ARPA funding. The appropriation was for “family caregiver assistance,” and half of the money went to Oasis immediately.
County officials, however, said they have received no request from Johnson’s nonprofit for the second $500,000 tranche, nor has Oasis provided accounting of how the first $500,000 was spent.
“We fund the awarded entities in tranches and require audited backup of all of their program expenses prior to distribution of the next tranche of funding. Once we have confirmed that these expenses fall within the applicable guidelines of their project, we proceed with subsequent distributions,” Tulsa County senior budget analyst Aaron Wiedman said by email. “In this case, Oasis has not yet requested additional funding and thus we have not yet completed our review of the first tranche of expense backup or initiated additional disbursement.”
Former TDC employees said it would have been a mistake for the Oklahoma Legislature to appropriate Johnson’s nonprofit $30 million.
“He has no business receiving that money,” said Reeves, the former donor relations employee at TDC. “I would much rather see that money given to an organization that is well run and has all their ducks in a row. He does not. He doesn’t have any business handling that money.”
The former employees said they decided to speak out so legislators would take a closer look at Johnson’s ARPA proposal.
“This is not because I have some deep-seated hatred for AJ. It’s not that. I know he has left a wake of people behind him — he’s damaged a lot of people. He’s done a lot of wrong, and I really kept hoping that he had learned a really hard lesson at the Dream Center,” said Winders, the TDC former grant writer. “And then when I’m reading this article, I’m just like, ‘He has not learned, he still has not learned.'”
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‘Wrong is wrong, and right is right’
Derricka Blue can hardly believe what she has learned about the house on North Boulder Avenue. Although she knew the inflated ERAP payment was improper, she had not known that Johnson deeded himself the house to take out a $32,800 loan.
“I got taken advantage of. (…) Victory has their own money, Dream Center has their own money. Aaron, you have plenty of money. But why take [my money]?” Blue said. “I already knew he was manipulative.”
This June, Johnson sold his Bixby home to a physician for $705,000, about $110,000 more than he and his wife paid for it in 2020. Johnson has been released from the two mortgages that totaled about $564,000, but no release has been filed for DreamCo Solutions’ $32,800 loan on the North Boulder home. Nonetheless, Johnson filed a quit claim deed in July that granted the home to Gordon’s SLG Properity.
With Gordon pushing an order to vacate, Blue and her fiancé, Dejuante Calvin, decided to move. Blue said it has been frustrating to deal with suspicious behavior from the three ordained ministers: Johnson, Newton and Gordon.
Calvin offered a reptilian analogy, specifically addressing how Johnson came to own the house and profit from the inflated ERAP payment.
“It’s kinda like that thing about going to church, but you don’t want to because of snakes within the church? It’s kind of something like that. Like, I never saw it firsthand myself until now. It’s just a fucked-up feeling,” Calvin said. “If he were doing a Robin Hood type thing, I wouldn’t have nothing bad to say about you. But that’s not what he’s doing. He’s doing the reverse. You’re taking from people that don’t really got nothing and just lining your pockets up even more. What kind of man of God are you?
“At the end of the day, when all of us are dead and gone, we all gotta ask forgiveness for the things we done. At the end of the day, he’ll reap what he sowed.”
(Update: This article was updated at 1:35 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 30, to clarify a type of mortgage. It was updated again at 7:35 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 20, to clarify reference to an ERAP application.)