East Feliciana preacher pleads in money-swap scheme

An East Feliciana Parish minister pleaded “no contest” Thursday to felony theft in connection with a scheme to illegally transfer funds from a nonprofit organization to private hands.

Until the Rev. George Veal, 64, of Ethel, entered the plea, he had been scheduled for trial next week before 20th Judicial District Judge William G. Carmichael.

State Police arrested seven people in 2010, including Veal, former East Feliciana School Board member Oliver Wingfield and former West Feliciana Parish Police Juror John Cobb, after investigating the finances of Cobb’s church, Union Bethel Family Church, in Weyanoke.

Wingfield and Veal operated a nonprofit organization, Feliciana Enrichment Center, but the organization’s building burned to the ground in August 2008.

State Police investigators accused Veal and Wingfield of giving $80,000 in insurance money to Cobb’s church in return for Cobb kicking back $25,000 to each to them through other parties.

A West Feliciana Parish jury convicted Cobb of three counts of felony theft in October, but Cobb has not been sentenced and is seeking a new trial.

Cobb’s wife is scheduled for trial later this year, and the charges against the other five defendants were settled through plea bargains.

Carmichael deferred Veal’s sentencing for five years on the condition that he pay a $1,000 fine and court costs and perform 60 days of community service work while on supervised probation.

Veal said after his court appearance that he used the $25,000 to buy a utility trailer, a pickup truck, tables and chairs, cooking equipment and generators for a hurricane and family assistance program operated by Richland Baptist Church, of Norwood.

Veal’s attorney, Clay Calhoun, filed invoices, copies of canceled checks and vehicle titles into the court record to support Veal’s contention that he did not personally gain from the transactions with Cobb.

“First of all, I’m not a thief,” Veal said, adding that his community service work is well-known throughout East Feliciana Parish.

“I had all intentions of helping that church (Union Bethel). I will not let this wound or scar stop me from carrying on the work of the Lord,” he added.

Cobb is accused of keeping half of the $30,000 in insurance money given to Union Bethel and putting the other half into the church’s bank account.

“I understand the state’s theory: that it was through an illegal, circuitous scheme to enrich himself through funds purportedly donated to Union Bethel Family Church that makes it a crime,” Calhoun wrote in a letter to District Attorney Sam D’Aquilla.

In his ill-advised and uncounseled effort to avoid the appearances of personal gain, Veal created that appearance with the check deposited into his personal account, the letter says.

Calhoun said Veal and Wingfield could have donated the $25,000 directly to Richland Baptist Church and avoided the appearances of impropriety.

Veal’s donation to the Norwood church, however, contrasts with Wingfield’s use of the insurance money for a Caribbean cruise and personal farm equipment and John and Carol Cobb’s trip to Hawaii and other personal expenditures, Calhoun said.