Church chairman stole over $11 million, treated religious institution as his ‘personal piggy bank’: Prosecutors

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Sep. 6 2021, Published 11:12 a.m. ET

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A former church chairman of the board must serve years behind bars after he was convicted of stealing millions of dollars in funds.

A federal judge in California handed down a sentence of 130 months in prison to Charles Thomas Sebesta, 56, of Huntington Beach after Sebesta pleaded guilty in February 2020 to one count of wire fraud and one count of bank fraud in connection to the theft of over $11 million from the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, of Los Angeles.

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According to prosecutors, Sebesta first began working at the church as its facilities manager in 2001. He eventually became a chairman of the board and was put in control of the church’s financial assets, including several bank accounts.

From between at least August 2006 through December 2016, “Sebesta caused the church to make checks and other payments to banks accounts in the name of fictitious companies he created, as well as to bank accounts he held in his own name and in the names of his family members and a female companion,” prosecutors said. “To further conceal these payments, Sebesta forged a church member’s signature on numerous checks drawn against the church’s bank accounts.”

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In 2008, Sebesta oversaw the sale of one of the church’s properties in Hollywood for $12.8 million. Prosecutors said Sebesta siphoned off a “significant majority of the proceeds for his personal use,” including purchasing a home using $2 million in cashier’s checks drawn from the church’s accounts.

“The checks were falsely recorded in church records as ‘donations’ and environmental remediation payments to a fictitious ‘Sky Blue Environmental’ company,” prosecutors noted.

In 2009 and 2010, prosecutors said, Sebesta “used church money to wire $1.86 million and $309,622 to be credited to his own personal tax accounts to generate overpayment refunds from the U.S. Treasury and the California Franchise Tax Board, respectively.”

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In a scheme to conceal his crimes, prosecutors revealed, Sebesta created an email account and impersonated a real estate developer. He then sent emails to church members from the fictitious executive and “fraudulently represented that the real estate developer held Sebesta in high esteem and was making donations to the church and paying the rent for the church’s new location.”

“Having wrested operational and financial control of the Church from its elderly members by 2006, [Sebesta] began a 10-year spree in which he treated the Church and its considerable assets as his own personal piggy bank,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum. “[Sebesta] stole $11,438,213 and destroyed a venerable church, its congregation, and the faith its congregants had in one another by employing sophisticated means to abuse his position of trust and cause the Church not only substantial, but ruinous, financial hardship.”

The judge ordered Sebesta to pay $11,438,213 in restitution.

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