For more than three decades, Reverend Charles Southall III has led a flock of hundreds from New Orleans, preaching every Sunday behind the vibrant red doors of First Emmanuel Baptist Church downtown.
But in recent years, Southall’s business dealings have come under scrutiny, culminating last week with money laundering charges from the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana.
The shipping documents provided only the slightest detail, alleging that Southall had illegally transferred $100,000 from a bank account to a personal investment account, without indicating the source of the funds.
State-registered companies have been linked by Southall to the church address by other recent controversies. In 2018, the Orleans Parish School District alerted the Orleans County District Attorney and state legislative auditor about allegations that Southall had used money from a charter school that he oversaw as board chair to pay church bills. Soon the school lost its charter.
A 2019 New Orleans lawsuit alleged that he breached contracts related to pest treatment. The documents show Southall had business relationships with Ashton Ryan Jr., the former CEO of First NBC, which collapsed in 2017. Ryan is due to face charges of federal bank fraud next year.
Contacted by phone on Wednesday morning, Southall directed inquiries to his attorney, Clarence Ruby Jr, who also declined to comment, saying it would be “premature to do so”.
A spokesperson for the US Attorney’s office declined to provide additional details about the federal indictment, which was presented in a list of information that typically indicates someone might be cooperating with authorities.
‘I’ve never seen anything like that’
The information document contained scant information about what led to the indictment of Southall, 64, who began working as president of First Emmanuel in 1989.
According to his biography on the church’s website, which also has a Baton Rouge website, Southall has worked with several civic organizations around New Orleans, including the Delgado Foundation, the Central City Economic Development Partnership and The Greater New Orleans Faith Based Community Development nonprofit foundation. Affordable housing developed. He was appointed chaplain twice for the New Orleans Police Department and delivered the blessing at the inauguration of former Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
For years, Southall has led the board of Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy, a Central City charter school licensed in 2010 by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
In her final years of school, she was subject to numerous warnings from the district about her financial management. Officials found that the school was not properly paying employees’ retirement contributions and that the bank statements were sent to the Southall Church address on Carondelet Street rather than the school’s address on Willow Street.
At a community meeting in November 2018, Orleans Parish school district principal at the time, Henderson Lewis Jr., said he had “never seen anything like this before,” referring to the D-rated school’s financial management, leadership instability, and lack of compliance. He asked the board of directors to step down and eventually voted to abandon the school’s charter.
In a letter to the Orleans County District Attorney’s Office and state legislative auditor dated November 5, 2018, Lewis said the district had reason to believe that Southall had used school money to pay his church’s utility bill and that some members of his family obtained health insurance through the school, although He neither worked nor his family members there. (Board members are volunteers without pay).
The letter, which was sent to the then Orleans District Attorney, Leon Cannizzaro, Jr., did not result in charges being filed. Cannizzaro did not respond to inquiries on Wednesday.
The letter focuses on allegations made by Ashunta White, who served as the school’s principal for about four months in 2018. White said she was fired after inquiring about checks sent to people not working at the school, including a council secretary who also worked at a church Southall, according to court records.
In an interview on Tuesday, White said Southall kept the school’s money in a separate bank account and asked her to email him for money for payroll and other necessary operations. It is not clear if the federal charge against Southall is related to his supervision of the school. But Wyatt said she thought it sounded like a justification for her shooting.
“As a manager I thought I was doing the right thing. I had no indication that I was kicking a hornet’s nest,” she said.
The controversy over Harney soon followed a competition with the management of Latoya Mayor Cantrell. In 2019, the city of New Orleans sued Southall in Orleans Parish civil court, alleging that he violated a $500,000 agreement signed in 2004 to create affordable housing for low-income residents.
According to the lawsuit, the 15-year contract requires Southall and two of his businesses — Greater New Orleans Rehabilitation Inc. and Carondelet Homes of New Orleans — to convert six damaged properties on Carondelet and Rampart Streets into rental units.
The lawsuit alleges that Southall failed to meet several terms of his contract: rent apartments to low-income residents, maintain real estate and submit to city inspections. In one case, the city claims that Southall offered the units to ineligible low-income residents. Elsewhere, officials said they found one property closed, unoccupied, and abandoned.
Sutal denied the allegations against him in a 2019 court filing, and a final verdict in the case has yet to be issued. Lawyers representing Southall and the city did not respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.
Southall has allowed other buildings under his care to be corrupted, according to investigative outlet The Lens. In 2018, bulldozers demolished Cornerstone Homes, a 30-unit residence for low-income renters on Claiborne Street that Southall owned until 2017. According to The Lens, The building deteriorated over several years and had more than $100,000 in liens and penalties filed against the property.
In 2016, when another Southall building collapsed, he sold it to First NBC Bank, According to The Lens.
Relationships with First NBC
Sothal had other ties to First NBC, the New Orleans bank that collapsed in 2017 and is now at the center of a 49-count federal indictment alleging that its senior officers and borrowers conspired to commit fraud. His name was not mentioned in that indictment.
According to Louisiana’s Secretary of State’s records, Southall was a business partner with Ryan, a former bank chief executive who has been charged with 43 counts of bank fraud, false reporting and conspiracy in connection with the bank’s collapse.
In 2002, Southall and Ryan registered with the Louisiana Secretary of State a business as the New Orleans Inc. Southall and Ryan are both listed as directors of the company. Her registered business address is First Emmanuel Baptist Church, according to state filings.
According to a 2021 court filing, Southall is also linked to a company associated with larger allegations against Ryan and his co-defendants: Ryan, along with five others, who own Universal Pro-Vision.
One of those co-owners – a First NBC borrower identified only as “Borrower L” – was described in the court filing as “The Reverend”.
Universal Pro-Vision owned a building on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard that housed Southall’s now-defunct cadaver work.
Two sources close to NBC’s case against Ryan have confirmed to The Times-Picayune that Borrower L is Southall. The court document alleges that Ryan transferred the money to Borrower L, as well as giving him loans to settle financial disputes.
Sources told The Times-Picayune that Southall’s money laundering charge had nothing to do with the First NBC case, and that Southall had not faced any other charges related to First NBC.
According to a list of information on the money laundering charge, Southall will lose $100,000 and a 2017 Mercedes Coupe to the government.
Southall is due to appear in US District Court on October 5. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.