Ex-Chair Pleads Guilty to Stealing $11 Million From L.A. Church

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Former chairman of the board for the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, in Los Angeles pleaded guilty Monday to federal criminal charges of stealing more than $11 million from the institution, officials said.

Charles Thomas Sebesta, 55, of Huntington Beach, made false payments from the church’s bank accounts and siphoned off proceeds from the 2008 sale of the church’s prominent Hollywood Boulevard flagship to buy himself a home, according to a news release from the United States Attorney Central District of California.

Sebesta pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud affecting a financial institution and one count of bank fraud on Monday. He has been in federal custody since August.

For at least a 10 year period from Aug. 2006 to Dec. 2016, Sebesta made payments into bank accounts under his name, names of his family members and to accounts under fake company names, officials said. He also forged a church member’s signature on several checks to help conceal the fraud.

Sebesta was hired in 2001 as the church’s facilities manager and worked his way to serving as its board chairman, giving him control over the church’s financial assets and operations, officials said.

In 2008, Sebesta oversaw the $12.8 million sale of the church’s location at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue. He admitted that he siphoned a significant majority of the proceeds for his personal use, including for purchasing a home with more than $2 million in cashier’s checks drawn from church bank accounts, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office. The checks were falsely recorded in church records as donations and environmental remediation payments to a fake company named “Sky Blue Environmental,” officials said.

He also used the stolen church funds to buy a membership to Disneyland’s exclusive Club 33, where he hosted executives from high-profile entertainment companies and professional sports teams, prosecutors said.

In 2009 and 2010, Sebesta wired $1.86 million and $309,622 in church money to his own personal tax accounts to generate overpayment refunds to himself from the U.S. Treasury and the California Franchise Tax Board, respectively, officials said.

In an attempt to conceal his crimes, Sebesta impersonated a real estate developer, sending emails to church members about donations, including ones about making rent payments for the church’s new location, authorities said.

He also stole $36,282 which had been donated to the church through the estate of a donor.

In addition to stealing at least $11.4 million from the church, Sebesta also admitted to taking $34,032 from a private high school where he previously worked, officials said.

Sebesta’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for May 18 and he faces a maximum penalty of 60 years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

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