Emanuel AME Church under investigation after alleged mishandling of donations for massacre victims

Mother Emanuel AME Church
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. |

The finances of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine members were gunned down by an avowed white racist during a Bible study in June 2015, are being investigated by state authorities over the alleged mishandling of millions in donations following the tragedy.

Tommy Crosby, a spokesman with the state Law Enforcement Division, confirmed the investigation with The Post and Courier on Oct. 31.

Althea Latham, the church’s former secretary whose employment ended at the church two months after the massacre, said she spoke to agents with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division last week as well. She alleges that her employment ended when she questioned the management of donations coming in and suggested the church get an external financial expert to ensure appropriate accounting. Church officials argued, however, that her contract simply was not renewed.

The church’s current pastor, the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, told the publication that he could not confirm the investigation because the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division did not reach out to him.

“I have no earthly idea what’s going on,” Manning told the Post and Courier. “That’s news to me.”

Longtime Emanuel member Liz Alston, who is a former church trustee and Emanuel’s historian, told the publication that she also spoke with agents from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.

She noted that family members have not yet received proper financial accounting from church leaders even though flocks of visitors still leave money in the collection plate every Sunday.

charleston church shooting
The Rev. Anthony Thompson, husband of victim Myra Thompson, stands around photos of victims before a memorial ceremony marking the first anniversary of the shootings at Emanuel AME Church during a Bible study where nine people were killed by a gunman in Charleston, South Carolina, June 17, 2016. |

“I do hope some accountability will come out of this investigation,” Alston said. “Financial accountability is a big problem at Emanuel. Yes, SLED is investigating — at my blessing.”

In the wake of the tragedy in 2015, mail arrived at the church by the bagful with condolence letters containing cash and checks.

Despite receiving some $3.3 million in donations, church officials said only about $280,000 was earmarked for family members of the victims. A vast majority of donations sent to the church didn't specify where the money should go, they said. The church subsequently decided to give family members and survivors more than $1 million in addition the approximately $280,000 donors specified for them, but kept more than $1.8 million for the church.

Latham said in 2015 she witnessed people in the church open envelopes addressed to victims’ families and survivors of the massacre, the Post and Courier said. Survivors and families also told the publication that they received mail sent to the church but addressed to them that had already been opened and some marked “empty.”

Arthur Hurd, whose wife, Cynthia, was a casualty of the massacre, said he saw women in the church’s fellowship hall open envelopes addressed to victims’ families and witnessed them taking cash and checks without making a record of the donations.

He later filed a lawsuit, but it only examined a fund Emanuel created to house the donations. It did not look into the church’s broader finances.

Dylann Roof, was sentenced to death in 2017 for killing the nine African American worshipers as they prayed at the Bible study.

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