The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church has removed a prominent bishop from office after his peers accused him of fraudulently having church property deeds transferred to a shell corporation that then secured millions of dollars in loans against those properties.
Staccato Powell, who presided over churches in several Western states, was removed in a vote Thursday by the denomination's General Conference, being held in Atlanta, upholding a previous committee decision to find him guilty on 20 counts.
The vote means Powell "would no longer be recognized as consecrated to the office of Bishop” and is returned to the status of ordained elder, according to conference minutes posted online.
While the minutes didn't specify the allegations, the vote follows Powell's suspension in January by the AME Zion Church's Board of Bishops.
That month, the bishops said in a statement that Powell was using “intimidation, manipulation and deception” to pressure churches in his district to transfer their property deeds to a shell corporation registered as AME Zion Western Episcopal District, which despite the official-sounding name was not a church entity.
The bishops accused Powell of using “fraudulent actions” to obtain the properties and alleged that the corporation was mortgaging church properties, some of which led to foreclosure notices.
Last year the corporation filed under Chapter 11 in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of California, estimating at least $10 million in liabilities.
The bishops said in January that they directed Powell in 2018 “to cease the practice of having deeds altered, (and of) mortgaging local church properties." He also was told "to relieve the debt that was improperly placed upon the churches, and to immediately begin the process of restoring deeds to language consistent with" church law.
The bishops alleged that proceeds from the mortgages were more than $14 million, with over $8 million of that unaccounted for.
There was no immediate response to a message sent via Facebook to Powell requesting comment; to a voicemail left with the Western Episcopal District he formerly oversaw; or to messages left with an AME Zion spokesperson.
In a statement Thursday, the Board of Bishops said: “A core principle of Methodism is accountability. No position, regardless of prominence, is beyond this proposition. ... While we grieve the circumstances, personal ethical lapses, and erroneous judgment that placed us in this difficult position, we are grateful for the historic and overwhelming affirmation of our standards of mutual accountability.”
Powell was appointed bishop in 2016. The Western District includes churches in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington. He also presided over the denomination's Board of Bishops in 2020 and previously served as a deputy general secretary for the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization.
The General Conference, which typically is held every four years but was postponed in 2020 due to the pandemic, is taking place with in-person and online participation from American and overseas representatives.
The historically Black denomination, founded in 1796 in response to racial discrimination in white-run Methodist fellowships, now reports having churches in 38 states and 33 countries, including several African and Caribbean nations.
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Peter Smith, The Associated Press