The director of operations for an obscure but wealthy Beacon Hill church stood before a federal judge Wednesday, accused of raiding the coffers of the congregation where he said he found redemption and enlightenment.
Federal agents arrested Edward J. MacKenzie, a 54-year-old self-proclaimed henchman for mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, after he was indicted by a grand jury on charges of racketeering, extortion, bribery, and money laundering.
MacKenzie, who lives in Weymouth, started working at the Swedenborgian Church on the Hill in 2003 and immediately began scheming with coconspirators, according to his indictment. Their alleged goal was to “obtain power and influence” and use both to “defraud the church of its considerable financial holdings and profit.”
The church, which sits in the shadow of the State House on Bowdoin Street, owns an adjoining 18-story apartment building. The building is worth about $30 million and generates $1.4 million a year from the 145 rental units.
Instead of arriving at work Wednesday, MacKenzie appeared in court disheveled in shorts and a jacket.
Prosecutors asked that he be held without bail, noting the prison time he faces, up to 20 years on most charges, and his history of violence. Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler agreed, scheduling another hearing for next week.
His lawyer, Edward Colbert, would not comment.
The church’s attorney, Nick Carter, said Wednesday that the church terminated MacKenzie “effective immediately.” Carter said MacKenzie was placed on administrative leave three weeks ago after FBI and IRS agents descended on the church and searched it for evidence.
Carter would not say whether MacKenzie had been suspended with or without pay. He received $200,000 a year as director of operations, although the indictment said he harvested nearly half-a-million dollars in kickbacks and stolen cash during his tenure.
The indictment said that MacKenzie used his position to “loot the church . . . through a combination of fraud, deceit, extortion, theft, and bribery.” Companies hoping to do business had to pay a kickback, often 10 percent, authorities said.
Carpenters, plumbers, painters, and floorers inflated their bids to cover the cost of kickbacks, to ensure that people paid, the indictment said, MacKenzie would intimidate them by providing signed copies of his 2003 autobiography, “Street Soldier: My life as an Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Boston Irish Mob.”
A convicted drug dealer with seven children by four women, MacKenzie did not hide his past from fellow parishioners.
In the church’s June 2012 newsletter, he mentions his past while discussing the recent trials and tribulations of the church. “I believe that salvation and redemption come to different people in different ways,” he wrote. “But I know that the support and understanding and enlightenment I have found in this faith, among you, in this house, feel good and right and full of promise.”
The Boston Society of the New Jerusalem runs the Swedenborgian Church, a small Protestant sect that follows the teachings of the 18th-century Swedish scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg.
Swedenborg believed that Christ has made a second coming, in spirit rather than in person. One of the tenets of the church is that believers, not God, decide their own afterlife.
MacKenzie joined the church in 2002 and, within months, became part of a new leadership circle. The changes caused the national church to file a civil racketeering lawsuit, alleging that MacKenzie and others orchestrated a hostile takeover to cash in on the 195-year-old church’s assets.
A federal judge dismissed the suit in 2004, saying a pattern of racketeering had not gone on long enough. But the church, which eventually seceded from the Swedenborgian national body, was monitored by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office for three years.
Now, federal authorities assert that MacKenzie began conspiring with other newcomers to take over the church in September 2002 and continued exploiting his ill-gotten position until December 2012.
According to the indictment, MacKenzie and the others gained control by maneuvering a voting majority away from mostly elderly members. They recruited friends and family to be church members, amassing the necessary “voting bloc to take control of the church,” the indictment said.
MacKenzie and his associates then began voting to grant themselves hefty financial benefits, according to the indictment. He arranged to have himself elected director of operations, the indictment alleges.
Church money, according to the indictment, was also used to buy four cars for personal use; to provide MacKenzie $50,000 for legal fees; and to pay tuition for a coconspirator.
MacKenzie allegedly tried to cover his tracks by laundering the illegal kickbacks and pilfered money — he is also accused of stealing checks — through sham bank accounts.
While MacKenzie no longer works at the small church tucked between a bar and shoe shop, his picture remains in the lobby, surrounded by photos of fellowship and worship.