LOS ANGELES – The former chairman of the board for the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, of Los Angeles pleaded guilty today to federal criminal charges that he stole more than $11 million in church money via bank accounts for phony companies and tried to cover his tracks by impersonating a real estate developer.
Charles Thomas Sebesta, 55, of Huntington Beach, pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud affecting a financial institution and one count of bank fraud. He has been in federal custody since his arrest in August 2019.
According to his plea agreement and other court documents, Sebesta was hired in 2001 as the church’s facilities manager and joined the church in 2005, ultimately serving as its local chairman. In this capacity, he had control over the church’s financial assets and operations, including some of its bank accounts.
From at least August 2006 through December 2016, Sebesta caused the church to make checks and other payments to fictitious companies for which he had opened bank accounts that he controlled, as well as to bank accounts he held in his own name and in the names of his family members and a female companion. To further conceal these payments, Sebesta forged a church member’s signature on numerous checks drawn against the church’s bank accounts.
In the fall of 2008, Sebesta oversaw the sale of church property in Hollywood for approximately $12.8 million. He admitted that he siphoned a significant majority of the proceeds for his personal use, including purchasing a home with more than $2 million in cashier’s checks drawn from church bank accounts. The checks were falsely recorded in church records as “donations” and environmental remediation payments to a fictitious “Sky Blue Environmental” company.
In 2009 and 2010, Sebesta wired $1.86 million and $309,622 in church money to be credited to his own personal tax accounts in order to generate overpayment refunds to himself from the U.S. Treasury and the California Franchise Tax Board, respectively.
To conceal his crimes, Sebesta impersonated a real estate developer by creating an email account in the executive’s name. Posing as the developer, Sebesta sent emails to church members in which he fraudulently represented that the real estate developer was making donations to the church, including making rent payments for the church’s new location, and held Sebesta in high esteem.
Sebesta also admitted to defrauding another former employer – a private high school in Los Angeles County – out of $34,032.
He also embezzled $36,282, which had been donated to the church by the estate of a donor.
In total, Sebesta stole at least $11,438,213 of church assets, according to court documents.
United States District Judge Stephen V. Wilson has scheduled a May 18 sentencing hearing, at which time Sebesta will face a statutory maximum penalty of 60 years in federal prison.
The United States Secret Service investigated this matter.
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Valerie L. Makarewicz of the Major Frauds Section.
Release No. 20-018
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