Renowned New Orleans Pastor Pleads Guilty to Stealing $900,000 from Church and Congregants to Pay Credit Card Bills

A renowned pastor, who led the First Emanuel Baptist Church in New Orleans and Baton Rouge for more than 30 years, pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $900,000 from the church and his congregants. Prosecutors said he used the money to pay off his credit card bills and personal expenses.

Charles Southall III embezzled donations from congregants that were meant to fund church charitable projects and building renovations. The 64-year-old pleaded guilty to money laundering.

Southall is said to have enjoyed close ties to some of New Orleans' political and business elite, including businessman Ashton Ryan who is facing federal fraud charges.


The Crime

Southall is alleged to have solicited, stolen tithes and donations from church members. Prosecutors said the pastor took a $10,000 tithe from a congregant in 2019 and diverted the money to his own use. He also solicited donations from church members over four years for charity and church building improvements, but converted $106,408 of the donations to his own accounts.

Moreover, Southall is said to have created the Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy as a charter school in New Orleans, and an affiliated school in Baton Rouge. The Spirit of Excellence received funding from grants and loans, but the Baton Rouge school never opened. Investigators outlined that nearly $221,000 was diverted, between 2013 and 2017, to a bank account controlled by Southall and a Person A (co-conspirator).

The Baptist minister also diverted about $150,000 of rental payments to his personal accounts. Prosecutors said Southall sold properties owned by the church and pocketed more than $500,000.


Plea Agreement

As part of the plea agreement, Southall agreed to pay restitution of $687,000 to First Emanuel Baptist Church; $85,000 to the Spirit of Excellence Academy; and more than $110,000 to individual victims.

The pastor faces up to 10 years imprisonment on the money laundering charge.