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Former AME Zion bishop and lay leader charged with defrauding California congregations

Two ex-leaders of a historically Black church are accused of mortgaging California church properties to obtain loans exceeding $14 million and diverting the money for their own benefit.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A former bishop of the historic African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church swindled congregations throughout California by pocketing the proceeds of more than $14 million in loans obtained by fraudulently mortgaging church properties in Oakland, San Jose, Palo Alto and Los Angeles, federal authorities say.

Staccato Powell, 62, stands accused of conspiring with lay leader Sheila Quintana, 67, to secure grant deeds from local pastors to take out new mortgages on properties with mortgages that had long been paid off or had little mortgage debt. The properties housed sanctuaries, staff residences, and other structures used for religious purposes.

The properties were re-deeded in the name of Western Episcopal District, Inc., an entity Powell and Quintana created in 2016 after Powell was selected as bishop of the Western Episcopal District of the AME Zion Church.

AME Zion Church traces its history to 1796 and has about 1.4 million members worldwide, authorities say.

Powell headed congregations in roughly a half dozen western states before he was suspended and disrobed in 2021 following a church trial that found him guilty of mishandling millions of dollars.

Fake resolution documents in hand, Staccato and Quintana allegedly took out high-interest loans from private lenders and unbeknownst to the congregations, used the funds to buy real estate in North Carolina and pay off the mortgage on Powell’s North Carolina home. They are also accused of using some of the money to make cash payments to Quintana's spouse. 

According to Justice Department officials, WED Inc. listed 11 churches in California, Arizona and Colorado among its assets when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2020.

A federal indictment was unsealed Tuesday, though it remains unavailable to the public as of press time.

Staccato was arrested in Wake Forest, North Carolina on Tuesday and made his initial appearance in federal court in the Eastern District of North Carolina. Quintana was arrested in Vallejo and appeared in court in Sacramento. Both are set to appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kandis Westmore in Oakland on Feb. 2.

They face charges of one count each of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and mail fraud and two counts each of wire fraud. Powell is also charged with one count of mail fraud. Each count carries a maximum federal prison sentence of 20 years.

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