In the weeks after a suspected white racist gunned down nine worshippers in Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, applause for the Rev. Norvel Goff Sr. swelled as talk of forgiveness inspired mourners nationwide.
Praise poured in — even mention of the Nobel Peace Prize — along with millions of dollars in donations to Emanuel AME Church and the families of the victims.
But others are coming forward to paint a much different picture of the man named interim pastor and now overseeing how the donations are doled out.
Across Goff’s path of past churches, from New York to Columbia to Charleston, accusations of poor financial oversight swirl amid lingering questions about how he is handling the huge pot of donations at Emanuel AME.
Among them, a woman who served as secretary to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, slain pastor of Emanuel AME, said she was terminated after raising concerns about the oversight of incoming donations.
And several members of Goff’s most recent church, Reid Chapel AME in Columbia, contend their former pastor took out large mortgages against the church without proper permission while amassing federal and state tax liens that reached $200,000.
Similarly, the pastor who succeeded Goff at his previous church, Baber AME in Rochester, N.Y., said Goff also left it saddled with debt and hard feelings among members.
And in the nine years since a New York State Supreme Court judge ordered Goff to repay the estate of a deceased parishioner who said she loaned him large sums of money, he hasn’t done so.
Now, attorneys and those mourning loved ones killed in the Emanuel AME massacre want to know what’s happened to the millions donated to the church, victims’ families and survivors.
“We’ve requested the church get in contact with us so everyone can be on the same page,” said attorney Mullins McLeod, who represents three victims’ relatives. “At this point, that hasn’t happened.”
Other attorneys representing victims’ families echoed that frustration.
But Goff strongly defended his ministerial record and told The Post and Courier on Friday that he hopes to announce within 10 days how money addressed to victims’ families will be dispersed. At that time, he will discuss how much the community donated to the families and to the church itself.
Goff, who was promoted to become the area’s presiding elder less than a year ago, said church leaders have worked diligently to address questions following the loss of nearly all of Mother Emanuel’s ministry staff in the massacre.
“We are confident that we’ll be able to have accountability and transparency,” he said. “The public has a right to know about our movements.”
Mother Emanuel concerns
One former employee of Emanuel AME is less confident.
More than a year before he was murdered at a Bible study, Rev. Pinckney hired Althea Latham to serve as his part-time secretary. The 63-year-old woman grew up in the AME Church but wasn’t a member of Emanuel AME.
After the tragedy, she helped field a deluge of calls that flooded the church, including dealing with the Secret Service and Vice President Joe Biden’s staff, she said.
Latham saw money pour into the church office from well-wishers worldwide. She also witnessed office workers open letters addressed to victims’ families that contained checks, she said.
She questioned the practice and suggested the church hire an outside professional to oversee the funds, her attorney Bruce Miller said.
“Money was coming in that appeared to her to be designated for the families,” Miller said. “She was concerned money was not going to those families, raised concerns and shortly thereafter her employment was terminated.”
Two months after the shooting, Latham received a letter stating her employment agreement wasn’t being renewed.
“The timing of her termination certainly raises questions,” Miller said.
Latham said she tried to reach Goff, including by certified mail, but he didn’t respond.
“I want some answers,” she said. “Just tell me why.”
Goff confirmed she was terminated but declined to discuss a personnel matter.
Last week, before the Wednesday Bible study’s now-large weekly turnout, Goff’s wife was a volunteer manning the secretary’s desk. It’s where Pinckney’s wife and young daughter hid from the gunman during the rampage.
Questions in Columbia
William Toney spent a career working for the federal government, much of it as a loan specialist in Washington, D.C. Before retiring, he directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s loan processing division, overseeing regulations for offices nationwide that processed housing loans.
His job had long involved checking public property records.
One day, he checked his own church’s records. He’d joined Reid Chapel AME in 2007 and served on its steward board, which assists the pastor and accounts for money spent.
Although Goff and church members had celebrated a mortgage burning a couple of years earlier, Toney said he had heard rumors that the church had amassed more debt and that Goff was spending money without accountability to members.
First, Toney saw a mortgage on the church’s property for $315,000 that had closed in March 2005, almost seven years earlier. The loan, signed by Goff and a church trustee, had closed shortly after the new pastor arrived from New York.
The mortgage was used to purchase a four-bedroom, 4,068-square-foot house for Goff to use as a parsonage about 10 miles away from the church, records show.
Toney saw other mortgages, too.
In 2008, one was taken out on the church for $109,238. In 2010, another was taken out for $150,000.
A few months later, in late 2012, Toney checked the church’s property records again. This time, he saw a new $75,000 mortgage that had just closed.
The mortgages all were signed by Goff and a church trustee. However, the AME Church’s bylaws say local churches can mortgage property “provided such action has been authorized by a majority vote of the membership present in a duly called Church Conference for this specific purpose.” The action also must be approved in a resolution at a quarterly conference.
Goff insisted proper protocol was followed to get the loans. But he wouldn’t comment in detail about a church he no longer runs.
“I would be interfering with a local church of which I’m not pastor,” Goff said. “I’m not going to interfere with another pastor, another presiding elder.”
Meanwhile, Toney also found a $193,269 federal tax lien placed against the church’s school for failure to pay employer withholding tax for its staff. Then he saw a state tax lien. And another and another.
It came as news to him.
So he asked around. Others didn’t know about the debts either, several church members agreed.
“That’s when I realized this has to stop,” Toney said. “We never had these problems before Rev. Goff.”
Toney resigned from the steward board.
In September 2014, he and a former church school board member wrote Goff a letter and copied the steward and trustee boards detailing what he had learned about the church’s debt.
“We felt compelled to bring these matters to your attention, even at the risk of isolation and criticism, after deep thought, reflection, and in the spirit doing this for the ‘good of the church,’” Toney wrote.
Shortly after, in an open letter to church members, Goff took them to task, noting Scripture says God hates “a lying tongue.”
“There are NO mortgages on the church. This is an untrue statement,” Goff wrote in the letter, which church members provided to The Post and Courier.
Instead, he referred to “construction loans” of the same amounts for several building projects. Church members said last week those projects weren’t completed.
Goff ended with: “Writing letters, having meetings outside the Body of Christ and making unfounded accusations does not meet the standards subscribed by Christ or the Doctrine and Discipline of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.”
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