Inquiry Into Emanuel AME Church Donations Fails to Dispel Controversy

Christmas decorations and a small tree frame the Mother Emanuel AME Church after the federal trial of Dylann Roof who was found guilty of 33 counts including hate crimes in Charleston, South Carolina, December 15, 2016. | (Photo: Reuters/Randall Hill)

State investigators closed down an inquiry into the handling of millions of dollars donated to Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church without interviewing key church officials or a number of potential witnesses, according to a case file obtained by The Post and Courier.

Many hoped the review by the State Law Enforcement Division would settle a long-simmering controversy over the flood of donations that poured in after a racist gunman killed nine worshippers in 2015. Allegations had swirled over reported mismanagement of the funds and claims the church pocketed money intended for the shooting survivors and victims’ families.

But SLED shuttered the inquiry just a few weeks after it began in late October, leaving many questions unanswered as agents professed a dearth of evidence pointing to any wrongdoing.

The probe had been requested by attorney Andy Savage, who represents three survivors and several victims’ families. After reading SLED’s five-page report detailing its inquiry, Savage wondered why he bothered.

“I’m just disappointed,” Savage said Monday.

SLED spokesman Tommy Crosby said he was unable to answer specific questions about the probe posed by The Post and Courier. But he said SLED would consider reopening the inquiry in the future “if at any point credible evidence is brought forward showing possible criminal violations.”

Emanuel officials, who have long maintained that nothing improper occurred, had expressed hope that the quick end to the probe would finally put the matter to rest and help the church heal.

SLED’s inquiry came more than four years after the mass shooting, even though controversy over the church’s handling of the money erupted just months after the massacre. Savage initially took his concerns to Charleston police, but they asked SLED to look into the matter. SLED’s inquiry aimed to determine if a full criminal investigation was warranted.

The resulting report, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, shows SLED agents spoke to Savage and four others who had raised concerns about the oversight of the donations. Agents also spoke with Emanuel’s attorney and its current pastor, and they reviewed an audit of a church fund set up to house the donations.

But the report shows investigators did not interview other key figures, including the interim pastor and church treasurer who oversaw donations as they flowed in. Agents also did not examine the church’s overall finances to see if donations went into bank accounts other than the one created to receive them.

They also did not ask donors who they intended their money to benefit to see if the church kept funds meant for the survivors and victims’ families. That was the key question Savage wanted answered.

A flood of donations

The church’s former secretary, Althea Latham, told agents she was fired after pressing leaders to hire an outside auditor to process the donations. She said donations flooded into the church from around the world, including many envelopes addressed to the victims and their families.

Latham said church treasurer Rosetta Singleton told her that if envelopes had the church’s address on them, then the money belonged to the church. She saw people counting stacks of cash with no one keeping records of it all, the report states.

Her concerns echoed those of one victim’s husband, who told The Post and Courier shortly after the shooting that he watched women in the church open bags of letters and remove donations without recording them. Victims’ families later received mail sent to them at the church that had been opened and marked “empty.”

Liz Alston is a lifelong Emanuel member, the church’s historian and a former chairwoman of the Charleston County School Board. She told agents that a month or two after the massacre, she found a $10,000 check in a building adjacent to the church in a stack of books. It was meant for the shooting victims, the SLED reports says.

Shooting survivor Felicia Sanders gave agents names of three members who handled donations and one whom she said audited them. Agents also had the names of three other church members who opened mail.

SLED’s report gives no indication that agents reached out to any of those people. They also didn’t speak with Singleton, the treasurer, or the Rev. Norvel Goff, who was Emanuel’s interim pastor for the first seven months after the shooting and remains its presiding elder. Goff also is treasurer of the AME Church’s 7th District, which spans South Carolina.

Nor did SLED agents interview Richard Franklin Norris, then-bishop of the 7th District. They also didn’t interview the Rev. Betty Deas Clark, who led the church for five months after Goff. Norris suddenly moved her in the middle of the first anniversary commemorations.

Agents also didn’t interview shooting survivor Polly Sheppard, who reportedly found a bag containing $10,000 in a classroom and gave it to Goff and Singleton, according to the SLED report.

SLED spokesman Crosby said he wasn’t able to answer why agents opted against interviewing these individuals.

Neither Goff nor Singleton responded to requests for comment Tuesday.

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Source: Post and Courier