Los Angeles

Ex-Chairman of Christian Science Church in LA Pleads Guilty to Stealing $11 Million

Charles T. Sebesta faces up to 60 years behind bars.

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The former chairman of the board for the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, Los Angeles, pleaded guilty Monday to federal charges stemming from the theft of about $11.4 million in church money.

Charles T. Sebesta faces up to 60 years behind bars at sentencing May 18, and is expected to be ordered to pay about $13.4 million in restitution and fines, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Sebesta, 55, appeared before U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson shackled at the waist and ankles wearing white jail clothing. The Huntington Beach man pleaded guilty to one federal count each of wire and bank fraud.

The defendant used the money on personal expenses, including the purchase of a house and a membership to Club 33 -- an exclusive Disneyland dining club, prosecutors said.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Sebesta stole a total of $11,438,213 from church assets and $34,032 from a private high school that also employed him.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Valerie L. Makarewicz of the DOJ's Major Frauds Section told the court that Sebesta also looted royalties from a song whose earnings were bequeathed to the church. The song was not named.

Sebesta was hired in 2001 as the church's facilities manager and began to gain the trust of church administrators and members. The indictment states that four years later, he joined the church and served as its local chairman, controlling the church's financial assets and operations. From 2005 to 2016, he directed the church to make payments to fake companies' bank accounts that he had opened, the indictment states.

For at least 10 years, Sebesta falsely recorded the thefts in church records as donations, as well as environmental remediation and other payments to fictitious companies, which Sebesta named so they appeared legitimate, according to federal prosecutors.

When the church sold a Hollywood Boulevard property in 2008 for more than $12 million, prosecutors said, Sebesta used most of the proceeds from the transaction for his personal use -- including the purchase of a $2 million home.

Makarewicz said Sebesta faces sentencing enhancements for causing hardship to the fraud's victim -- the church -- for the scheme's sophisticated means and for abusing his position of trust.

"In the end, the church was stripped of everything," the judge said.

It took the church about 15 years to unravel the scheme, which was investigated by the U.S. Secret Service, according to prosecutors.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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