The leaders of a megachurch in New Orleans East are at the center of a sweeping state criminal investigation focused on allegations that they lied to collect federal education grants and film tax credits and that they used church resources to enrich themselves, according to several sources with knowledge of the probe.
Criminal-justice sources confirm to WWL-TV that the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office is investigating financial mismanagement at City Church of New Orleans. And multiple people tell the station they have been interviewed by investigators from the DA’s office and the New Orleans Police Department, who told them they are building a criminal case against Owen McManus Jr. and his wife Tammy, the lead pastors at City Church.
Owen and Tammy McManus sent WWL-TV an email stating the allegations against them are “grossly unfounded.” But the station has gathered hundreds of financial documents and conducted a half-dozen interviews with former church members, and those who have been interviewed by law enforcement say that information forms the basis of the state’s current criminal probe.
City Church has become a powerful force in New Orleans East in recent years. It has more than 4,000 members. Its huge campus off Interstate 10 is hard to miss, with an imposing circular building that looks like a spaceship from the highway. A twin complex attached by a breezeway is an affiliated grade school, Bishop McManus Academy, named for the pastor’s father and church founder, Owen McManus Sr.
And as City Church grew over the last decade, its financial activities started moving beyond those of the typical church.
The McManuses expanded their media presence, from an evangelical TV show, to a conspicuous billboard on the High Rise, to producing professional-looking testimonial documentaries online and, finally, to making feature films.
One of the witnesses interviewed by law enforcement is Robert McGill Jr. He was the star of the McManuses’ movies and other media ventures, the golden boy of City Church — until he began speaking out against the pastors late last year. His Facebook posts inspired several other former church deacons to share similar stories alleging financial mismanagement and emotional abuse.
McGill and another former church deacon, Jon Trosclair, told WWL-TV that criminal investigators focused on federal education grants that went to Bishop McManus Academy through the Orleans Parish School Board.
A former Bishop McManus Academy teacher, who spoke to the station on the condition of anonymity, told investigators she fabricated professional development classes so school employees and others affiliated with the church could collect thousands of dollars in federal money.
“Me personally, I would have to make up courses and slides and say we did these hours and log them and submit them and allocate how much everybody got paid, but in reality we were cleaning floors, scrubbing, cleaning upholstery, anything that needed to be done in the school or the church, we were doing that week,” the former teacher said. “We never sat in a single course.”
She says the school invoiced the Title II Grant program for more than a dozen staff members, which is reflected in school board documents provided to WWL-TV under public records law. The people listed supposedly took professional development classes at Bishop McManus Academy, but the source says none of them actually took the classes she designed.
Robert McGill’s wife, Shawanda, was listed on the invoices, but Robert McGill told investigators his wife never took a single one of the classes named.
McGill and Trosclair say the criminal probe is also looking closely at the feature films McManus produced, allegedly using the tax-exempt church’s money to cover expenses while steering the income and royalties to a private company he created.
McGill’s tax and payroll records show he was paid by the nonprofit church, under the name Covenant Christian Fellowship. Eventually, his paychecks came from what’s called the “City Church Film Account.”
However, he says a for-profit company called Redd Bone Productions actually made the money when the movie was distributed to theaters and sold on DVD nationwide, in stores like Walmart and Best Buy.
McGill says investigators asked him about the connection between City Church and Redd Bone. Secretary of State records show Redd Bone Productions was created by Pastor Owen McManus Jr., was owned by him and his wife when the movie was released and is still owned by City Church leaders.
LSU Law Professor Philip Hackney, a former IRS attorney who specialized in tax-exempt nonprofits, says that type of setup can be a red flag.
“A very common situation that you look for is, is there some for-profit that private individuals run attached to the nonprofit?” Hackney said.
City Church of New Orleans applied for Louisiana film tax credits to cover $400,000 in purported in-state production expenses on a movie sequel called “The Good Life: Awakening.”
Among the church’s production expenses listed in the tax-credit application is $30,000 budgeted to be paid to Redd Bone Productions, the private company then owned by the McManuses.
The church is tax-exempt, but it is allowed to transfer or sell tax credits to other entities that can, in turn, claim them.
McGill said he told investigators that the tax-credit application, a public record filed and signed by Tammy McManus, listed a false salary for him of $19,200 for acting in the movie. Tax and payroll records show he actually got paid about $5,000 less that year — and not to act in the movie, but to be the church’s maintenance man.
McGill also told law enforcement that locations the church supposedly rented for filming and listed as eligible expenses on the tax-credit application were never actually used.
The McManuses declined to be interviewed to answer WWL-TV’s specific questions, but emailed a statement about the financial allegations in general.
“One of the hallmarks of our success has been the uprightness with which we have administered funds entrusted with the church,” the McManuses wrote. “Our entire operations, including all finances, are overseen by an independent board. Furthermore, we rely on outside consultants to make sure we are fully compliant with all laws and government regulations. Additionally, our finances are reviewed on a regular basis by the federally chartered banking institutions which handle all church offerings and other income.”
Louisiana Economic Development preliminarily approved City Church for film tax credits, but the church never got them because the film was never finished — because McGill, its star, left the church without completing post-production work.
McGill said he had joined City Church 13 years ago because of a humble stage play it produced, called “Will You Be Ready?” He said he joined the church to escape a life of womanizing, drinking and drugs. He quickly became the star and music producer for the stage play, which showed the pitfalls of the lifestyle he was trying to leave.
He thought he had found salvation.
“At the very beginning you feel privileged to give everything you have,” he said.
But “The Good Life,” the 2013 film based on the stage play, seemed to be less about spreading an evangelical message and more about capturing a criminal underworld, McGill said.
The film’s marketing focused on secular themes, with the DVD package summarizing the movie thusly: “A story filled with secrets, seduction, drugs, wealth, power and greed. Protagonist Mikey searches for the alluring good life in an underworld where antagonist Fabian holds all power. Younger brother Kevin wants in, against Mikey’s will.
Forced to choose between family and the good life, what will Mikey choose?”
The actors were all City Church members, many of them employees like McGill who received no additional pay for their work on the film, McGill said.
“The Good Life” opens with an extended scene of models in skimpy outfits — all church members, including the McManuses’ daughter, Ally. The first hour and 10 minutes of the film is almost entirely focused on sex, drugs and organized crime. The real-life pastor, Owen McManus Jr., plays a drug-running Mafia figure who sets up a money-laundering scheme and brags: “Basically, no IRS, and the cops don’t know the difference.”
The second half of the movie does lay out a religious moral. Some of the characters go to church, and a full scene is dedicated to a pastor character preaching.
McGill’s Mikey character, deep into the criminal business enterprise set up by McManus’ character, refuses to go to church. He then has a nightmare with haunting imagery about a dead former girlfriend who delivers the evangelical message, “Jesus! Only he can save you!”
The movie ends with Mikey’s younger brother in a coma following a car accident that kills a girl. In the most overtly Christian segment of the movie, a spirit appears as a nurse and tells Mikey’s brother that he will walk again because Jesus died for him. When the brother character wakes up, he tells his family, “I want to do what’s right; I want to follow Jesus.”
But the Mikey character never fully accepts the need for faith. He walks out of the hospital after visiting his brother, and just as he says in a voiceover that he’s “thinking about making a change,” he gets shot by an underworld rival and ends up on a hospital gurney, flat-lining.
The planned sequel, “The Good Life: Awakening,” was described as a $500,000 venture in the church’s tax credit application. McGill said it was while filming that movie that McManus took all the Hollywood-style production efforts to another level.
The cast and crew flew to Italy to film part of “The Good Life: Awakening.” McGill said he was encouraged to go on real dates and alcohol-laden all-nighters with six female co-stars, to make their on-screen romances more believable.
McGill said the philandering lifestyle he thought he’d left behind when he joined City Church had gradually become an integral part of his church experience.
“It led me to adultery,” McGill said. “I mean, like, I never questioned it. Until it was over. Until it was too late, until I had gone too far.”
Watch Friday’s 10 p.m. news on Channel 4 and check back with WWLTV.com to see how some former church members say they were forced to provide free labor for McManus under the guise of their service to God, raising new financial questions for the tax-exempt church.