FORT LAUDERDALE- A new court filing from members of one of South Florida’s largest black churches questions $53 million in church bank account transactions.
The move is likely to extend the long-standing court feud over financial matters at New Mount Olive Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale.
The case, which centers on who is entitled to sensitive financial data and control over church expenditures, was thought to be resolved after a judge’s Feb. 1 ruling. The ruling stipulated that former members of the church’s oversight boards would receive copies of church audits, and be allowed to review financial records.
The plaintiffs in the case, however, say the church has failed to provide all of the financial records.
“Petitioner discovered over $53 million have been transferred through the church’s bank account(s) over and above funds previously disclosed to the trustees,” reads a motion filed in Broward Circuit Court on March 27 by Willie Jones, the attorney representing former board members Nathaniel Green, Patricia Davis, Kevin Mitchell and Kenneth Mullins.
All four are former members of the church’s Board of Trustees and Church Council board, which the church has disbanded. The plaintiffs allege that they were denied access to detailed financial information, and therefore could not carry out their oversight responsibilities.
Eugene Pettis, the Fort Lauderdale attorney representing the church, was clearly frustrated when the South Florida Times contacted him about the bank transactions.
“If those guys can show me even a tenth of that money, I’d be happy. They misunderstood what they think they saw, and are not even competent to understand it,” Pettis said. “This is reckless for them to file such a thing because Mt. Olive Baptist Church, and every other black church in this county combined, does not have $53 million. This is just outrageous and preposterous.”
In compliance with a ruling issued by Broward Circuit Court Judge Ronald Rothschild on Feb. 1, the former board members were allowed to peruse records for several hours each day at the church, on March 18 and 20, in the presence of church staffers.
There, they say, they found numerous deposit and withdrawal entries in Bank of America statements titled “investment transfers” made during the 2004 calendar year.
The plaintiffs also allege in court records that they have requested copies of the bank statements and other documents, and expressed a desire to meet with church accountants, as was stipulated in the Feb. 1 order. But so far, they say, the church has denied them access to the records and to the church accountants.
“The discovery of the undisclosed $53 million transfers through the church’s bank account supports some of the petitioners’ suspicions concerning the audits provided to them as either incomplete and/or inaccurate,” the court document reads.
The unexplained transactions, which the plaintiffs say were never revealed to them when they were board members, totaled more than $53 million for the 2004 calendar year after regular expenditures, according to the court documents.
The new filing asks the court to allow the plaintiffs to take new testimony and issue subpoenas for the records to find the source of the money and how it has been used. It also calls into question the accuracy of the audits that the church has provided.
Jones acknowledged that the plaintiffs have not had any certified public accountants look at the statements. But, he said, the reason they did not do so is that the church has not provided copies of the records, in violation of the court order.
“We offered to bring our own machines and was prepared to make copies, but my clients were not allowed,’’ Jones said.
Pettis said the copies are being made, and they will be provided when they are completed. He said nothing improper has taken place.
“The church has had since 1995, a reinvestment account with Nations Bank, which was later merged with another bank,” Pettis explained. “They have miscalculated, and misrepresented what has taken place. These are investments that are deposited at one point, and then reinvested at a later date.’’
Broward County School Board Member Ben Williams, a longtime member of the church, and its former treasurer, is named as one of the respondents in the case.
“I was treasurer during this time, and the accounts are with Bank of America, but if there are bank statements indicating this, then I need to see for myself because this is news to me,” Williams said. “We get statements every month and I don’t know anything about this.’’
Originally filed in August 2006, the case has evolved through the courts with numerous amended complaints, and counter filings from both sides. The dispute came to a head in June 2006, when years of tensions surfaced after members of the church’s governing Board of Trustees and the Church Council oversight board paid $5,000 to an outside firm to conduct an independent audit of church finances, including payments made to the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Mack King Carter.
The plaintiffs questioned the payments to Carter.
Shortly thereafter, the congregation voted to suspend the authority and activities of those boards. Stripped of their authority, some board members reacted by filing the court action.
The move forced congregants to choose sides. Eventually, a majority of church members voted overwhelming in support of a new church constitution, one that gave Carter more authority.
The restructuring gave Carter the authority to appoint new board members; have more say over day-to-day operations, and the autonomy to chart the future direction of the 8,000-member church.
The vote also resulted in the permanent dissolution of the former oversight and governing boards. Among the members of those former boards is Kevin Mitchell, former head of the church’s trustee board and one of the petitioners in the court case.
“There is nothing to be won here. We simply want the truth to be told, and if there is nothing to hide, then allow the independent audit to take place instead of fighting it in court,” Mitchell said.
Church representatives, however, are adamant that the case is a nuisance that never should have been filed.
“The judge made the ruling because we have repeatedly offered them what they asked for, and even though we have given them everything, it was never enough,” said Pettis.
The petitioners say board members have been unfairly accused of seeking to oust Carter, a popular pastor who is a nationally known biblical scholar and speaker. They contend that their motives have been questioned, from the pulpit, and that the church has circulated rumors that they harbor vendettas against church leadership.
“That aspect of the case regarding who has a right to accountings is over, and we still didn’t get what we sought. The ruling was a partial pacification of the issues because while we got audits, they were not done by an independent company,” Mitchell expressed. “It also prevented us from taking testimony from Rev. Carter, which was key to the case. But maybe now we will be able to do that.’’
Carter did not return calls to the South Florida Times or respond to phone messages left at his office.
Before the Feb. 1 ruling, Mitchell and the plaintiffs in the latest court action filed a separate lawsuit against Carter and his wife as individuals. That complaint alleges that the couple improperly converted at least $17,000 in church funds for their own personal use, without authorization or knowledge of the oversight boards, as required.
That case was filed after Selena Thomas, head of the congregation’s media ministry, revealed during an Oct. 8, 2007 deposition that she turned over proceeds from the sale of church audio and video recordings directly to Carter and his wife in 2004.
Mitchell said the money belongs to the church, and should have been handed over for deposit into church accounts, not given to the Carters.
That case remains pending in court, and board members point to it as another example of revenue for which there has been no accounting. They cite the need for audits to be done independently of church accountants.
As of press time, no response from the church to the latest complaint had been filed in court, but Mitchell said the discovery of the money transfers might finally shed new light on the case.
“I was the chairman of the board of trustees, which oversees the finances, personnel, properties, and church investments and we simply tried to carry out our duties and responsibilities,” Mitchell said.
“I’m still a member, but don’t want any positions in the church, because we have been grossly maligned and ostracized for trying to do good, so we must vindicate ourselves and clear our names.”
Photo: Nate Green