Friday, November 21, 2014

Here's The Frammis

This is what I think the dissidents and the ACA had in mind, pretty much from the start. My surmise is based on the numerous published and web-based sources I've used here, as well as the legal documents in the post-2012 cases, supplemented by what appears to be informed speculation from law enforcement sources on the Freedom for St Mary site. (My understanding is that site is run by an individual with no religious affiliation and no direct connection with the St Mary's elected vestry; I don't know who he is, although he appears to work in law enforcement himself.)

St Mary of the Angels has had a history of dissent, most recently before this crisis with the resignation of the previous rector, Fr Wilcox, whose involvement in a cult-like get-rich-quick scheme divided the parish in 2006. Some bad feeling over this episode probably remained and fueled disagreements over the parish's direction as it went through discernment over the Patrimony of the Primate and applying to join the US Ordinariate in 2010 and 2011. A number of long-term members had divorces and remarriages, which would have complicated their efforts to become Catholic; some had also been raised Catholic and did not wish to return. While these issues probably underlay their objections to the Ordinariate, they focused in public on presumptive irregularities by the new rector, Fr Kelley, in order to widen the base of dissent. (No court has subsequently found any financial irregularity on Fr Kelley's part.)

Bishop Stephen Strawn of the ACA Diocese of the Missouri Valley had a history of identifying potential parish disputes, intervening with dissident parties to stir them up further (the opposite of a bishop's actual responsibility), and then using such a dispute as an excuse to try to seize at least one parish in Texas. In this, he was unsuccessful, but the pattern he followed in Texas would be repeated at St Mary of the Angels. Although the bishop ordinary for St Mary's during 2011 was David Moyer, Strawn communicated with parish dissidents during this time and, based on a discussion I had with Patrick Omeirs in December 2011, developed a plan with them to seize the parish before it could be received into the Ordinariate. It appears, based on remarks from Omeirs and Msgr William Stetson, that Louis Falk was also aware of this plan, tacitly supported it, and passed a letter with 40 pages of ungrammatical and wild allegations about Fr Kelley to Cardinal Donald Wuerl on behalf of the dissidents. (Falk himself appears to have secretly reversed his own public stance in favor of joining the Ordinariate and would have had motive to try to derail it -- his role here has never been fully established.)

In January of 2012, the ACA House of Bishops dissolved the Patrimony of the Primate and, via a letter on its website, effectively told the former Patrimony parishes and clergy that they were no longer part of the ACA. Parishes and clergy who had changed their minds about the Ordinariate would need to reapply to rejoin the ACA. A number did apply to rejoin, such as St Columba Lanaster, CA; several others did not apply and did not rejoin, including Holy Cross Honolulu and Holy Nativity Payson, AZ. The ACA never made any attempt to assert any further authority over these or other former Patrimony parishes, some of which went to the Ordinariate, while others did not. St Mary of the Angels did not reapply at the time the Patrimony was dissolved, and did not reapply until the parish was seized in April and May of 2012.

Although Strawn now no longer had any remote authority over the parish -- he had never been its bishop ordinary, and as of January 2012, it wasn't even in his denomination -- he continued to meet with dissidents and appears to have been aware of a plan with a former parish treasurer connected with the dissidents to leave IRS withholding amounts unpaid, something the vestry and rector were completely unaware of. The notice of unpaid withholding from the IRS in April 2012 then became the proximate cause of the ACA seizing the parish, although the plan not to pay taxes owed had been in the works for some months previously. (The parish's accountant immediately contacted the IRS, and that matter was quickly resolved, but the ACA had already moved in.)

In May 2012, the ACA and the dissidents represented themselves as the true ecclesiastical authority over the parish to a Los Angeles Superior Court judge and received a temporary restraining order giving them control over the building. The judge, however, reversed herself almost immediately, deciding the First Amendment required that she not involve herself in ecclesiastical matters, and ordered the dissidents and the ACA to return control over the building to the elected vestry and rector. This they refused to do, but the judge apparently felt that, having created the problem with her self-described error, she couldn't do anything to fix it. The result was the current set of lawsuits and countersuits between the elected vestry and the ACA, which it appears are slowly being resolved in the elected vestry's favor.

I think the judge's reversal of the temporary restraining order is the key event in this whole story. I think Stephen Strawn felt he already had a foolproof plan for seizing any parish he wanted to seize -- he'd already tried the same thing in Texas. Never mind the result there was to drive that parish from the ACA; this time, it was going to work! I can only assume that both retired Presiding Bishop Louis Falk and current Presiding Bishop Brian Marsh were aware of this plan and gave it at least their tacit support. David Moyer was also aware that Strawn was meeting with dissidents under Moyer's nose and objected insofar as he could, but once the ACA dissolved the Patrimony, it purged Moyer, leaving Strawn an avenue to keep interfering.

But as I noted above, other parishes in the Patrimony left the ACA, some joined the Ordinariate while others didn't, and the ACA never made a move to assert its authority over any of these others. Why did the ACA seize St Mary of the Angels so uniquely? I think the answer is that none of the other parishes had multimillion-dollar properties, money in the bank, and a substantial income. It simply wasn't worth Strawn's while to seize Holy Cross Honolulu. The St Mary's dissidents may well have dangled the indirect opportunity for various payoffs and lagniappes to Strawn in the bargain. Strawn and his stooge Morello moved in.

The problem is that they were expecting a quick payout. I believe the scheme would have been to appoint a compliant vestry or hold a membership meeting along the lines of the one they eventually held -- Strawn inadvertently sent me an e-mail meant for Morello (which I promptly handed over to the elected vestry's attorneys) in which he explains to Morello that he knows they are acting outside the ACA canons, but they will soon call a "membership meeting" that will paper all this over with a vote to endorse their actions after the fact. I assume Strawn intended to work this way all along, and that fairly soon, a puppet vestry or restricted membership meeting would vote to dissolve the corporation, sell its assets, and pass them on to the ACA, less assorted payoffs, commissions, consulting fees, and lagniappes. The dissolution of the temporary restraining order and the subsequent legal actions prevented the quick payout, and the process has been stalled ever since.

What other circumstances support this view of the case?

  • It appears that members of the dissident group began removing parish property from the premises almost immediately after the seizure
  • The ACA did not hold services in the parish at all for months after the seizure -- the spiritual welfare of the parish was a very distant issue
  • Stephen Strawn, thwarted in his intention and with potential embarrassment, not to mention exposure to criminal charges, quickly withdrew as bishop ordinary over the parish
  • The ACA House of Bishops distanced itself from the failing scheme by putting Anthony Morello in full charge of it, an act which probably hastened Morello's death
  • The ACA continues a scheme whereby an absentee rector is in charge, with a series of priests-not-in-charge saying mass, preventing the parish from functioning as an ongoing enterprise.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

What Could Go Wrong? -- II

Yesterday, we made a rough estimate of the real estate assets of the St Mary of the Angels corporation. There are numerous other assets, such as altar furnishings, vestments, sculpture, art, religious artifacts, memorabilia, books, kitchen and office equipment, and so forth, some of which have been plundered in past years (such as documents containing the signatures of Hollywood figures), some of which have been plundered (or "taken for safekeeping") by the current group of squatters, and some of which may remain. As of 2012, there was also a safe deposit box containing jewelry that had been bequeathed to the parish. The value of these, while probably significant, is hard to estimate.

All of this material could be sold if the corporation elected to dissolve. The California Attorney General's guide to dissolving a non-profit specifies only that this may be done by a majority of the corporation's board of directors "or" a majority of its membership. The St Mary of the Angels bylaws do not cover how the corporation may be dissolved, only that this would presumably be done under the provisions of California corporation law. We know that the unelected "vestry" now pretending to be the corporation's board of directors would vote to do whatever the core group of dissidents wished -- if there were any disagreement, Frederick Rivers would remove any dissidents and replace them. The record shows this sort of thing has already been done. If anyone successfully argued that a general meeting of the membership would be needed, we've already seen how the ACA and Mrs Bush handle general meetings -- only supporters are allowed entry, whether they are qualified members-in-good-standing eligible to vote or not.

To some extent, I have to act like an amateur criminal profiler here to figure out what the dissident group's intentions are. I don't believe their dispute is doctrinal, other than some say they would prefer to be catholic rather than Catholic, but still use the capital-C but not quite -- I don't believe you could get much more than that out of, say, Mrs Bush or Mr Omeirs, and probably not even that much from the others. (For that matter, it would be an interesting exercise to try to get "Bishop" Williams to list, say, the seven sacraments without a crib sheet.) I simply assume that many of this group have in fact removed items from the parish, and whatever the stated intent, those items will not return. So petty personal aggrandizement is probably a motive among many in the group.

But the stakes are bigger than that. Even a parish tithe out of $20,000 monthly income is probably not what Brian Marsh wants to realize from the seizure when millions can be had with little more effort than has been expended so far. Marsh himself told a parishioner during his late-night visit in May 2012 that "it's about money". I've thought from the start that a very strong motive for the seizure could be to close the parish and sell the assets -- once the corporation is wound up, the proceeds would then go to a worthy non-profit that shares the goals of the former corporation -- to wit, the ACA. Less assorted payoffs, commissions, consulting fees, and lagniappes,of course. As I say, Marsh has likely been looking the other way as some of these have already been distributed.

The problem has been that the legalities haven't been a slam dunk. On balance, only two things went the ACA's way: the initial seizure via a temporary restraining order in May 2012, which was dissolved two weeks later, and Judge Linfield's ruling at the trial later that year, overturned on appeal. Everything else has gone against them, and a sale of the property would be very difficult given the ongoing litigation. Crooks don't think long term, and this group is having to think that way.

What are the likely outcomes, and what strategies might the elected vestry consider?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What Could Go Wrong?

I've been wondering just how much money is involved in the St Mary of the Angels dispute. I've mentioned the monthly income -- something over $20,000 -- in the past. Right now, I'm interested in the real estate assets, which are difficult to estimate. The assessed value of the property at 4510 Finley Avenue is $278.942, although this is based on a 1984 assessment. Since it is owned by a non-profit organization and is a historical landmark, there are restrictions on its use. However, the bank property at 1965 Hillhurst Avenue, which is owned by the parish, is valued at $2,852,851, again, based on a 1984 assessment. In California, properties are not reassessed until they are sold, so these values are based on the taxable assessment as of 1984, with limited adjustments for inflation. The actual value of the properties, especially if there were no restrictions on the church property's use, would be much higher.

A nearby commercial property on Hillhurst Avenue is listed for sale at $5,800,000. This might be a rough guide to the value of the parish's Hillhurst property separate from the parish lot. I've heard a knowledgeable individual connected with the St Mary's vestry estimate the value of the entire property at $8,000,000, which seems reasonable given the rough numbers above. This would probably be higher if the church building's lot could be sold for commercial purposes.

The next question is what a Realtor would earn as a commission for selling part or all of the property. This is also difficult to estimate, although one Realtor answered such a question as

As you know, commissions are negotiable and as Realtors we are somewhat constrained(legally) about naming the exact figure. I have heard everything from 12% (commercial deals) down to 2% (REO and Foreclosure)
So the gross value of a commission for a commercial sale of the full St Mary of the Angels property could be as much as 12% of $8,000,000, or $960,000. This could be split in various ways, but someone like Crosby Doe, a Realtor who owns his agency, could potentially net about $500,000 from a sale on commission alone. Mr Doe would, of course, have a massive conflict of interest in such a deal. It's worth raising the question of whether Doe, who specializes in selling historic buildings, would have a particular expertise in finding ways around historical landmark restrictions, so that the church parcel could also be converted to commercial use. This would potentially increase its value and increase any commission or even consulting fees (since Doe is an "expert") he could realize from such a deal. In fact, I would think that if any such deal went through with Doe on the "vestry" at all, it would raise red flags -- especially since Doe, under the parish bylaws, was not qualified to stand for election to the vestry in the first place and was placed there by the ACA in violation of canon and corporate law. Just sayin'.

There's more to think about here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lingering Questions

I've kept The Armchair Detective's ongoing ruminations at the Freedom for St Mary's site at the back of my mind throughout these events. He's kept noting odd threads that begged to be pulled -- and if I had mad money for that kind of thing, I would have hired a private investigator on a number of issues long ago. (The first mad money would go to some shamus in the Cape Canaveral area, if anyone wanted to know.)

One question the Armchair Detective raises won't go away: why aren't the ACA and the parish dissidents remotely interested in a negotiated settlement? The parish they have charge of is run in favor of a very small group of elderly people. There's been little activity on the official site after the initial fanfare this past summer of bringing in a bishop-pastor -- the parish calendar was updated for only a few weeks after that, and the most recent entry is for October 8, the feast of St Bridget of Sweden. Is Williams too busy with pastoral duties to update it? Fat chance. I certainly see no evidence of a revitalized parish moving forward under new leadership.

There's no evidence that much of a parish is actually operating there. The organization chart is strange: the "Pastor' (whose MFA degree qualifies him to teach basket weaving at a community college, not to serve as ordained clergy) is also a "Bishop", but since the web site designates an absentee "Rector" as well, it appears that the pastor-bishop isn't really in charge. What's going on?

It's hard to avoid wondering if the purpose behind the group now squatting on the premises isn't to run a Christian parish -- it may be to act as a shell to hold on to the property until it can be disposed of to the profit of other parties. The Armchair Detective notes that Crosby Doe, a real estate broker who specializes in historic properties, was brought onto the unelected vestry following the parish seizure. Doe had not been an active member of the parish for years prior to the seizure and was not qualified to stand for election under the parish bylaws, had any real election been held. What is Doe's function?

Is the Lancaster-Anastasia argument that the courts can't get involved in a religious dispute (which the courts have now rejected) essentially a way to get a pass for other irregularities? Without the putative First Amendment cover for the ACA and the squatter-vestry, what else might come to light?

My wife and I are very fond of true crime shows on TV. We can't help noting that people who cover up crimes and conspiracies, from what we see on such shows and from books like John Dean's The Nixon Defense, just keep on covering up and stonewalling until they've run out all possible options. Negotiation isn't an option for them, we have to surmise. Much as I want to have the most charitable possible interpretation of the squatters' motives, I just can't shake The Armchair Detective's suspicions.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Good News, Potentially, For The Elected Vestry And Fr Kelley

On November 12, the California Supreme Court declined to review the appeal of the Appeals Court's decision by the dissidents and the ACA. This sends what is essentially an eviction action back to the trial court, based on the question of who actually owns the property. Following the parish bylaws and California corporation law, there is a strong case that the elected vestry owns the property, and the dissident group, along with "Bishop" Williams, must vacate it.

The cardinal virtues include justice and fortitude. I have got to say that the elected vestry and Fr Kelley have been good examples of pursuing justice and displaying fortitude in this matter. My own view is that the dissidents at this point need to recognize that they have very little chance of prevailing, and continued litigation will simply deplete parish resources. Although a strategy of delay may have seemed appropriate, the fact is that the parish dissidents are all in their 70s and 80s, while the elected vestry and Fr Kelley are at least a decade younger. An actuarial strategy will not succeed in the long term, and frankly, Bush, Omeirs, et al need to be looking to other things now.

The best solution at this point should be a negotiated settlement. The outlines of what would probably succeed are fairly clear: the dissidents and "Bishop" Williams vacate the property and end any claim to ownership and control. The dissidents pay all monies owed to Fr Kelley for salary and benefits to date. In return, the elected vestry does not pursue the ACA and the dissidents personally for expenses and damages. I hope something along this line can be worked out.

I do note that a report from the joint national synod of the ACA and APA says that the groups are continuing to pursue merger. Frankly, if I were clergy or vestry in any APA parish, I would be very wary of giving the ACA bishops any opportunity to seize any APA parish in the way they tried to seize St Mary's. If I were Bishop Grundorf, I would make a settlement of the St Mary's case, based on the ACA withdrawing any claim to the parish, a precondition to any further talks over merger. (I would guess, though, that any merger would also need to wait for the passing of Louis Falk, the initial cause of the split, in any case.)

But the parish dissidents, as well as the ACA bishops, are neither competent nor rational.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Another St Mary's Lawsuit!

While poking around on Google, I stumbled across another lawsuit: The Rector, Wardens, and Vestrymen of St. Mary of The Angels Parish et al v. Church Mutual Insurance Company et al, filed October 23, 2013 in California Central District Federal Court. The et als on the Rector Wardens and Vestry side (the plaintiffs) are none other than Langley Brandt, Patrick Omeirs, Marilyn Bush, and Carolyn Morello (I believe she is Anthony Morello's widow). In addition to the Church Mutual Insurance Company, there are also some John Does, which of course we've seen before.

I'm not ready to pay to get more info on this lawsuit, but it looks like the plaintiffs want money, which of course we've seen before.

My wife suggests that the amount in dispute must be significant to take the matter into federal court. The plaintiffs are represented by Lytton, Williams, Messina & Hankin LLP, which means they are also spending big bucks, presumably from parish resources.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Calendar Not Updated?

For a couple of weeks after "Bishop" (or "Pastor") Williams arrived, the calendar of masses was updated at the St Mary's web site. No longer. apparently: the blooper over the "Exultation" of the Holy Cross is still there. Could the interdict signs have discombobulated the occupiers?

If I were Mrs Bush, I'd be pretty upset if Marsh and Rivers hadn't given me a heads-up over whatever circumstances were involved in Williams's departure from Trinity.