Questions remain after SLED releases details of investigation into Emanuel AME church finances

Updated: Jan. 13, 2020 at 8:31 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - From the opening to the closing date of the investigation, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division took less than a month to complete its probe into how Emanuel AME church handled its donations following the 2015 massacre.

The report obtained by Live 5 News via the Freedom of Information Act shows SLED interviewed five people connected to the shooting and how the funds were distributed in the aftermath. Agents found there was no criminal wrongdoing once the investigation was closed.

Althea Latham, the church secretary at the time of the shooting, saw stacks of cash, checks and letters when she walked into an office one day, the report stated. After suggesting the church hire professional accountants, she told SLED agents she was fired. Latham added she never saw anyone making a record or keeping track of who sent in donations. Latham’s daughter, Eia Richardson, helped her count money and told agents most donations were $200 or more.

Rev. Norvel Goff, the interim pastor at Emanuel after the shooting, denied ever firing the secretary in 2015, but said her contract, which expired that August, was not renewed.

Elizabeth Alston is a retired former chairwoman of Charleston County Schools and a lifetime member of the church. She told agents she found a $10,000 check in a stack of books one to two months after the shooting. She said the check was for the shooting victims, according to the report.

Felicia Sanders survived the shooting. Sanders’ son, Tywanza, was killed. Felicia told investigators that she received many cards and letters delivered to her by the church, but they contained no checks or cash. One envelope had the word “empty” written on it. Sanders said she was told the church received $3.8 million in donations and kept $2 million. She also provided evidence proving she received a check from the church’s “Moving Forward Fund” for $153,380. Sanders added that interim Rev. Goff said that any money addressed to the church belonged to the church.

When agents met with Rev. Eric Manning, he provided them with an audit prepared by the firm Burkett, Burkett and Burkett, which dealt with the donations received by the church after the shooting. Investigators wrote that the audit showed the church received $3.5 million in donations, with $400,000 specifically received by the church which listed the intended recipients as victims.

The report states that prominent Lowcountry attorney Andy Savage initially made the allegations to the Charleston police department that the church stole or misappropriated funds meant for the victims.

Savage gave officers documentation and statements which were then turned over to SLED and prompted the beginning of an investigation, the report stated.

He has a close relationship with the Sanders’ family, which he detailed in an interview with Quintin Washington on his YouTube show “Quintin’s Close-Ups” the week after the investigation was formally closed in November of 2019.

“I’m not sure how in-depth that investigation was," Savage told Washington. “They didn’t look at any bank statements, they didn’t look at any of the checks of the many donors who gave these millions of dollars. You would think they would start off by looking at the checks and seeing what the check said. Was it addressed to the church? Was there a memo on it? We know, Quintin, that the families of the victims received envelopes addressed to them, that were sent to the church, the street address of the church, but with their names on them, that were open and the money was missing.”

The report states two SLED agents met with Savage in his office when the investigation was closed and explained to him that nobody can say they know of or saw anyone steal money which was donated to the church. According to the report, Savage told agents he didn’t know anyone who had personal knowledge of the thefts.

The allegations of mismanagement of church funds has a long history dating back to 2015. “It’s like pouring salt in an open wound,” Goff said then during a news conference. The report stated shooting survivor Polly Sheppard found a bag with $10,000 in it and gave it to Goff, but neither was interviewed as part of the SLED investigation.

Agents said there is still a “significant amount” in the Moving Forward Fund, but didn’t state how much.

SLED agents stated they discussed the matter with Charleston police officers and decided to close the inquiry. Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson was also contacted after the investigation was concluded. According to the report, she agreed with a Charleston police officer that it sounded like a civil issue, but she was not given a copy of the report.

“If any additional information is developed, this inquiry will be reopened,” SLED agents wrote.

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