(RNS) — Staccato Powell, the former president of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church’s board of bishops, has been federally charged with fraud and conspiracy connected to allegations of his mishandling the properties of congregations in California and fraudulently gaining millions of dollars for personal use.
Powell, 62, and Sheila Quintana, 67, were indicted on Jan. 6 and the charges were unsealed Tuesday (Jan. 25), Justice Department officials announced from Oakland. Both were charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud and two counts of wire fraud. Powell was also charged with one count of mail fraud.
Powell was arrested Tuesday in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and appeared in federal court in that state. Quintana was arrested Tuesday in Vallejo, California, and appeared in a Sacramento court. They are next scheduled to make an online appearance in a California court in early February.
Both face a possible maximum sentence of 20 years for each violation along with a maximum fine of $250,000 and three years of supervised release after a prison term.
Authorities allege the two diverted funds acquired through fraudulent loans, and the proceeds were used by Powell to purchase properties and retire mortgage debt on a personal residence and by Quintana for cash payments to her spouse. In all, they are said to have gained more than $14 million in net proceeds.
“The indictment alleges that Powell and Quintana conspired to defraud AME Zion Church congregations in Oakland, San Jose, Palo Alto, and Los Angeles by re-deeding the local congregations’ properties in the name of WED, Inc.,” reads a statement from the Justice Department about the announcement by U.S. Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds and FBI Special Agent in Charge Craig D. Fair.
The congregations previously had “little or no mortgage debt” on properties that included sanctuaries, other structures used for religious activities and pastoral staff residences. Some of these churches had paid off earlier mortgages years ago, according to the Justice Department statement.
Powell and Quintana were both officers of the Western Episcopal District Inc., an entity they created after Powell was elected in 2016 as a bishop of the similarly named Western Episcopal District of the AME Zion Church, a denomination that dates to 1796.
Powell was removed as a bishop of the AME Zion Church after he was found guilty in a church trial in the summer of 2021 for mishandling millions in transactions related to congregations.
Quintana is a former lay leader in the denomination’s California Conference, said Bishop Brian Thompson, who in August succeeded Powell as the leader of the AME Zion Church’s Western Episcopal District.
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The authorities also allege that Powell and Quintana used false statements to obtain grant deeds from pastors and “fake resolution documents purporting to memorialize the assent of the local congregations to new mortgages on the local church properties.” Without the congregations’ authority, the two officers are alleged to have obtained mortgages from private lenders, often on terms that did not favor the borrower.
“Powell and Quintana did not inform the private lenders of the true facts, and they did not inform the local congregations of the new mortgages using the local church properties as collateral,” the Justice Department said.
Bishop Kenneth Monroe, senior bishop of the AME Zion Church, said the denomination remains concerned about returning the property to affected churches.
“The news of the indictment and arrest of Dr. Staccato Powell and Dr. Sheila Quintana was very troubling to the members of the Board of Bishops,” he said in a statement on behalf of the board. “It has never been the desire of the Board of Bishops to pursue prosecution of Dr. Powell. Our intent was always to restore the property to the congregation(s) that had been foreclosed on.”
He added that they are praying for Powell, Quintana and their families as well as the congregations.
Powell could not immediately be reached for comment. Quintana declined to comment.
In an interview with Religion News Service after the church trial, the former bishop said he had “ushered in a new paradigm of growth and expansion” but AME Zion bishops said he violated their denomination’s rule book by altering the church deeds and using his corporation to handle district business.
Last year Monroe told RNS that more than half a dozen churches were in bankruptcy court concerning what denominational leaders consider an illegal transfer of deeds through an entity created by Powell that enabled the deeds to be used as collateral for loans. Bankruptcy proceedings are continuing.
Thompson said he has encouraged the churches in California to move forward with their ministries and not dwell on the court proceedings and he feels more strongly about that advice in the wake of the indictment.
“Are they affected?” he said. “Yes, affected. But I think everybody’s made up their minds (to) let the courts handle it. And we’ll go forward, but we’re going to continue to pray for them and ask God to touch them and their family.”
Asked last summer if, given the allegations leveled against him, he expected to be criminally charged, Powell responded to RNS: “I expect to be totally exonerated.”
This story has been updated.
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