New Orleans pastor admits defrauding church, school of $900K

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A well-known Baptist minister in New Orleans and Baton Rouge for more than 30 years has admitted defrauding his church, its housing ministries, his congregations and a charter school of almost $900,000.

At a hearing before U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey, the Rev. Charles Southall III, 64, pleaded guilty Tuesday to money laundering.

Prosecutors said Southall, who led First Emanuel Baptist Church in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, solicited and then stole tithes and donations from church members. In one instance, Southall took a $10,000 tithe from a congregant in 2019, then diverted the money to his own use, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reported. In another, he solicited donations from church members over four years for charity and church building improvements but converted $106,408 of the donations to his own accounts, the newspaper said.

Southall also created the Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy as a charter school in New Orleans and an affiliated school in Baton Rouge. Though Spirit of Excellence received funding from grants and loans, the Baton Rouge school never opened, and investigators said that between 2013 and 2017 nearly $221,000 was diverted to a bank account controlled by Southall and a co-conspirator referred to as Person A in court documents, prosecutors said.

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The church also owned rental properties from which Southall diverted about $150,000 of rental payments to his personal accounts. He also sold properties owned by the church, from which he pocketed more than $500,000, prosecutors said.

Southall has agreed to pay restitution as part of a plea agreement — $687,000 to First Emanuel Baptist Church, about $85,000 to the Spirit of Excellence Academy and more than $110,000 to individual victims of his schemes.

Southall is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 17. He faces up to 10 years in prison on the money laundering charge.