The Rev. Corey MeGill Brown on Thursday pleaded guilty in federal court in Brunswick to a single mail-fraud charge in the alleged embezzlement of more than $200,000 from Savannah’s Second African Baptist Church where he was senior pastor.
Brown, 47, told U.S. District Chief Judge Lisa Godbey Wood he was pleading guilty to the charge because he was, in fact, guilty.
The count he pleaded to involved a $540 check, dated June 11, 2013, and payable to Second African Baptist Church from Hattie Scott for her June tithe. Scott, who had moved to San Antonio, mailed the tithe through her son, David, according to evidence presented at the hearing.
Brown, who did not inform church officers of the account, largely “created, controlled and used” the account, evidence showed.
As part of Brown’s plea agreement with federal prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorney Charlie Bourne told Wood the government would dismiss the remaining charges in the 64-count indictment. He said prosecutors would not pursue a forfeiture count in the indictment, but that Brown would be held accountable for restitution to the victims for the full sum identified in the indictment.
Several victims appeared in court, but none chose to make any statements during the court session.
Wood accepted the guilty plea and allowed Brown to remain free on his $20,000 unsecured bond pending sentencing at an undetermined date.
Federal probation officers will prepare a presentencing investigation and a recommended sentencing range for Wood’s consideration. While Brown pleaded guilty to only one count, the total criminal activity cited in the indictment may be used in determining his sentencing guidelines.
Bourne indicated the government sentencing recommendation would not exceed 28 months as “appropriate” for the case. Also as part of the plea agreement, the government is suggesting a two-level reduction in the recommended sentencing guidelines because Brown was accepting responsibility for the criminal conduct.
Wood is not bound by either the probation nor the government’s recommendation.
Brown, appearing in court with his attorney Tom Withers, told Wood he had been a pastor at Second African for 16 years. His comments were limited to responses to Wood’s questions.
Brown earlier pleaded not guilty to charges in a second indictment that added 16 counts of money laundering to an earlier indictment for mail and wire fraud.
The change of plea to guilty came just weeks before Brown was scheduled for a jury trial on Dec. 13 before Wood in Savannah.
Bourne said the scheme involved an account that Brown opened at SunTrust Bank in 2005 under the name of “Second African Baptist Church, Roman 12 Ministries” where his was the sole signature.
That account was used to deposit tithes and offerings from church members, many of whom were shut-ins or ill.
Another victim identified in court, “Coach” Floyd Morris, made monthly tithes and offerings in excess of $1,200, which Brown would go by and pick up before depositing them into the Romans 12 account, evidence showed.
Brown would then use that fund for personal items or expenses at Savannah restaurants or businesses. In several instances he deposited some of the funds into his personal accounts or used an ATM to withdraw the money, evidence showed.
Savannah-Chatham police officer Kenneth Whitcomb, who was working with an FBI task force, said a church trustee, armed with documents, “knocked on the door” at the FBI office and tipped off the two-year-long probe.
The indictment, filed in court on May 3, charges that he opened an account in March 2005, without informing church leaders.
Brown would then write checks to himself using the account and spend the funds on personal items, according to the indictment. Purchases listed in the indictment were made from retailers such as Victoria’s Secret, On Time Fashions and the Saddleback Leather Company.
Further, the indictment charges he concealed his activities from church elders, trustees or board members.
Brown had served as a chaplain for the Savannah-Chatham police department from 2010 through 2014, and at one time had an office in the department’s Habersham Street headquarters as the coordinator of that program.
His role as a chaplain ended immediately after the department became aware of the investigation in December 2014, according to police officials in a statement they released.