LOS ANGELES (CN) – A former board chairman of a Southern California church pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $11 million in church money to purchase a $2 million home and a membership to an exclusive dining club at Disneyland.
Charles Sebesta, 55, faces 60 years in federal prison for defrauding the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist in Los Angeles, U.S. Attorney Nicola Hanna announced Monday.
According to a 17-page grand jury indictment from October 2018, Sebesta worked at the church as a facilities manager in 2001, but by 2005 served as a board chairman with access to church finances.
For a decade, Sebesta made the church cut checks and make other payments to fictitious companies he created, which were either in his name or in the names of his family members, the indictment said.
From August 2006 to December 2016, Sebesta embezzled money from the church coffers to his bank accounts and forged a fellow church member’s signature on several checks from the church accounts, authorities said.
Sebesta also oversaw the sale of property in Hollywood owned by the church for $12.8 million, with a large portion going to his account. Prosecutors say Sebesta purchased a $2 million home in cashier’s checks from the proceeds, which were labeled as “donations” and falsely recorded as environmental payments to a fake company, “Sky Blue Environmental.”
Prosecutors say Sebesta wired $2 million in church money to receive tax overpayment refunds.
He also impersonated a real estate developer by creating an email account with that person’s name and using the account to send messages to church members. Those messages praised Sebesta and stated that rent payments for a new church location were made.
In Monday’s announcement, authorities also said Sebesta defrauded an LA County private school of $34,000 and $36,000 from the estate of a donor made in the form of a contribution to the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist.
Sebesta will be sentenced May 18 in the Central District of California.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Christian Science Committee said they were “stunned and saddened” to learn about the theft of funds from the Fifth Church of Christ Scientist, Los Angeles.
“As a Christian church we value honesty, integrity, and compliance with the law. Fraudulent conduct has no place. We are grateful to see the alleged wrongdoing uncovered and brought to light," the statement said. "We also appreciate the expertise and efforts of the law enforcement officials who have worked on this case."
The committee said congregations throughout the world are “democratically-run and self-governed, including several active in the Los Angeles area.” But the branch where Sebesta siphoned funds is not currently meeting. The committee said they would not consider Sebesta as someone who served as a “leader” but simply someone who would take normal sharing of responsibilities.
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