Emanuel AME opening the books Documentation of donations to be made available to victim’s family

The shadows of people gathered in front of Emanuel AME Church on June 18. Church leaders will allow attorneys for a man whose wife was killed in the June 17 Bible study massacre to inspect documents related to donations inspired by the tragedy.

Emanuel AME Church leaders will allow attorneys for a man whose wife was killed in the June 17 Bible study massacre to inspect documents related to millions of dollars donated after the tragedy.

Lawyers for the church and the victim’s husband negotiated for almost an hour outside of a hearing scheduled Friday in a lawsuit that seeks to gain a full accounting of the donations.

Mullins McLeod, attorney for shooting victim Cynthia Hurd’s husband, Arthur, filed the lawsuit on behalf of her estate to keep the money from being spent until the families’ attorneys can be sure it’s going where it was intended.

Attorneys and the Rev. Norvel Goff, the area’s presiding elder who was named Emanuel AME’s interim pastor after the shooting, came to the agreement outside of court. It says the church must provide documents related to donations received after the shooting, data it provided to its accounting firm and documents that firm produces, the attorneys publicly agreed.

Emanuel AME has 30 days to produce the documents and cannot spend or disperse the money until attorneys have inspected the information. The agreement applies only to money the church placed into its “Moving Forward Campaign” fund.

“The church certainly will not make any distributions of any funds pending the inspection,” church attorney Wilbur Johnson said.

Filings in the lawsuit reveal conflicting views of what has happened to donations that people across the Lowcountry and beyond sent to Emanuel AME after the racially motivated deaths of nine worshippers.

“The Church has made great efforts to ensure that to the extent possible, that no donations identifiably made for the benefit of any individuals or families have been used or expended for any other purposes,” a church court filing says.

But in an affidavit, its former secretary, Althea Latham, said she saw donations “being mismanaged.”

“I have personal knowledge that employees and volunteers working for the Church opened envelopes addressed to the families of the shooting victims and which contained cash and/or checks intended for the families of the victims,” Latham’s affidavit says.

After she expressed her concerns, church officials ended Latham’s employment, the affidavit says. She was hired by the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was among those killed.

Yet church treasurer Rosetta Singleton said in a separate affidavit that she wasn’t aware of any money donated to the victims’ families being handled improperly.

“Generally, those contributions have been forwarded to the Hope Fund,” a separate collection overseen by the city of Charleston. The rest was deposited, her affidavit says.

Steve Bedard, the city’s chief financial officer, said the Hope Fund has not received money from the church for victims’ families.

If it does, the city will divvy up the money along with Hope Fund donations it already is dispersing to victims’ families and shooting survivors, he said.

In early to mid-July, a few weeks after his wife’s killing, Arthur Hurd stopped by the church. He walked past the secretary’s office and into the fellowship hall where his wife was slain. Along a wall, three women sat at a table.

Near them sat boxes filled with blankets, candles, crucifixes and other items people mourning with the church had sent.

Bags of envelopes also sat beside them, he recalled.

Hurd said he watched the women open each letter and remove cash, stacking it in one pile and then placing checks in another. Letters and cards went into a third pile, he said.

Hurd saw an envelope addressed to him that contained cash. It went into the cash pile, he said.

He saw another letter addressed to shooting victim Sharonda Singleton’s family. The women removed a $100 bill, he said. He saw another addressed to Susie Jackson’s family. The women removed money from it as well, he said.

Hurd said he watched them open letter after letter, he said, removing what he counted as “easily” $8,000 over about 15 minutes. He didn’t see a log or any accounting for the money.

“They did that all day,” Hurd added.

Later, he received mail sent to the church but addressed to him that already had been opened, he said.

“The checks, the cash stayed at Emanuel AME. The notes went to the families,” Hurd said.

At the time, he didn’t think much of it.

“People were grieving. The last thing they were worried about was money,” he said. “They were trying to plan funerals and put their lives back together.”

After the June 17 shooting, donations arrived at the historic Calhoun Street church in cards and letters containing anywhere from a few dollars to $10,000 checks. How that money was handled, especially before the church hired an outside accounting firm, remains a concern to some.

On July 22, Goff said donors had given the church more than $2 million, in addition to money for the victims’ families and for scholarships.

Church leaders also announced then that they had hired attorney Johnson and accounting firm BDO to advise the church. Both have said the church staff is providing information they requested.

However, several attorneys for different victims’ families said the church hasn’t responded to their requests for financial information.

Johnson has said he hoped the accounting process would be finished in coming days.

Goff announced Oct. 7 that donations would be divided into four categories, three of which relate to the church, and one for the nine victims’ families. The church’s pieces include the church itself, a planned memorial project and an endowment. The categories don’t include survivors of the shooting.

Goff has not announced the total amount of money the church received in donations.