Members of the Rev. Norvel Goff’s former church in Columbia filed a lawsuit late Friday seeking access to its financial records, namely those that would explain how the church became saddled with multiple mortgages and large tax liens during his tenure.
Eleven members filed the civil suit against Reid Chapel AME and V.V. Reid Foundation Inc., which operates the church’s school. They want a judge to order the church, now led by the Rev. Carey Grady, to give them access to its financial records and bank accounts after church leaders repeatedly stymied efforts to inspect them, the lawsuit says.
For at least a year, the longtime members have sought access to the financial records but haven’t received them, despite being left to repay a $558,000 debt or risk losing their church.
Goff was named interim pastor of Emanuel AME Church in June after a racist gunman killed nine people during a Bible study. Goff is not named personally as a defendant in the suit.
However, his former members are demanding access to financial records to learn how the church and its school “generated debts necessitating mortgages on church property and mismanaged finances so that IRS liens were placed on Church property,” the lawsuit says.
The church and foundation have failed to comply with their legal obligation to let members inspect and copy those records, contends the lawsuit filed by Columbia attorneys Mitchell Willoughby and Elizabeth Zeck. The filing includes as exhibits various letters the members sent to church hierarchy and attorneys seeking access to the financial records.
Goff called the lawsuit’s allegations “disheartening and inaccurate,” although he did not detail specific inaccuracies.
“As pastor many years at Reid Chapel AME, as with all of my callings, I have tried to leave the church better than when I arrived,” Goff said through a spokeswoman. “While I have worked and continue to do the same at Mother Emanuel AME, after our unimaginable tragedy, some may find fault, both now and of late. While I understand their frustration, the facts will tell the story in time.”
The Reid Chapel members “became concerned about the financial welfare of the Church” after learning it had become burdened by a large debt without members’ knowledge, the lawsuit says.
One plaintiff, William Toney, retired from directing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s loan processing division, overseeing regulations for offices nationwide that processed housing loans.
After hearing rumors about the church’s debts, he made a trip to the Richland County courthouse.
There, he discovered the mortgages and tax liens by looking up the church’s public property records. He found that starting in 2005, shortly after Goff became pastor, a series of mortgages were placed on church property. Among them was a $315,000 mortgage to buy Goff a 4,000-square-foot house 10 miles away, even though the church owned a smaller parsonage barely 500 feet from its sanctuary, the lawsuit says.
Neither Grady nor Reid Chapel’s attorney, George Johnson, immediately responded to requests for comment.
Goff has said he cannot answer specific spending questions regarding Reid Chapel because he’s no longer its pastor and won’t meddle in its affairs from afar.
Last fall, 21 Reid Chapel members signed a letter to their district’s presiding elder seeking an independent audit of the church and school. They also asked him to remove Goff, Goff’s wife and his sister-in-law from involvement in church finances and to restrict Goff’s role to ministerial duties, according to the letter provided to The Post and Courier.
However, the presiding elder responded there was nothing he could do and that Goff had addressed their concerns.
The next month, Bishop Richard Franklin Norris promoted Goff to presiding elder of the 30-church Edisto District, which includes Charleston, a position he still holds.
Just months later came the horrific mass shooting at Emanuel AME that left nine people dead, including its beloved minister, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. The bishop then named Goff interim pastor. In that role, he has overseen millions of dollars in donations that have flowed through the church.
Last month, The Post and Courier detailed accusations that have followed Goff from New York to Columbia to Charleston alleging poor financial oversight amid lingering questions about how he has handled the donations at Emanuel AME. Goff also is treasurer of the 7th Episcopal District, which spans South Carolina.
Goff has insisted he did nothing wrong. He said he went through proper AME Church avenues — which require getting permission from Reid Chapel members and at a quarterly conference — before acquiring the mortgages.
He told The Post and Courier last month he would see what documents he had in his possession and could provide the newspaper. So far, he hasn’t provided any.
It’s the second lawsuit involving Goff filed in recent weeks.
In early October, the husband of a woman killed in the Emanuel AME shooting sued the church seeking a full accounting of all donations to the church and victims’ families.
Librarian Cynthia Hurd’s husband, Arthur, filed the civil lawsuit with attorney Mullins McLeod on behalf of her estate to keep the money from being spent until they can be sure it’s going where it was intended. Hurd told The Post and Courier that he watched people at Emanuel AME open incoming mail, including letters addressed to specific victims’ families, and remove checks and cash from the envelopes.
On Oct. 16, Goff and Emanuel AME attorney Wilbur Johnson agreed to provide McLeod access to documents related to donations received after the shooting. The church has 30 days to produce them.
Meanwhile, in a separate lawsuit against Goff stemming from his days pastoring a Rochester, N.Y., church, a judge ordered him to repay $13,060.50 to the estate of a deceased parishioner who said she loaned him large sums of money. A decade later, Goff hasn’t done so.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at (843) 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.