February 3, 2018 10:21:38 PM
Mississippi 16th Circuit Judge James T. Kitchens has, for the moment, declined to hold the deacons and pastor of Second Baptist Church of Starkville in contempt of court.
Kitchens' decision came during a full-day hearing on Friday in a lawsuit over a stalled construction project that's pitted warring factions within the Yeates Street church against each other.
Dorsey Carson, an attorney representing the board of trustees, asked Kitchens to hold deacons Terry Miller, Hobart Witherspoon, Don McGowan and John Moore, as well as Pastor Joseph Stone, in contempt for attempting to circumvent Kitchens' order not to interfere with the board of trustee's authority after the deacons proposed an amendment to the church constitution.
The amendment created two three-member oversight committees -- one for the board of trustees and one for the financial committee.
The issue was the latest in a string of contentions that have been aired in circuit court since December 2015 when the trustees sued Stone, Miller and contractor Donald Crowther in an effort to recover more than $400,000 in damages after Crowther's company, TCM Companies of Long Beach, failed to complete construction of a new church sanctuary. Crowther faces criminal charges of fraud and a court clerk said his trial will likely be scheduled for April. Meanwhile no work has been done on the church sanctuary since summer 2015.
'Do it properly'
Jackie Lindsey, the church treasurer, testified during the hearing that the request for the amendment seemed to be coming from Stone, and did not originate from the church's constitution committee.
Witherspoon was served with notice on Jan. 30, and McGowan and Moore were served on Jan. 31 -- only a few of days before Friday's hearing.
None of the three deacons were present at Friday's hearing. Kitchens, though he acknowledged their lack of attendance was likely intentional, said the three needed proper notice -- at least 10 days' worth -- before the hearing.
He told Carson to go through the proper process, and said any potential considerations for holding the men in contempt could advance from there.
"Get the deacons here, with proper notice like I've told you, and I will lay their ears back," Kitchens said. "Don't say 'Well, we think they're here and they're supposed to be here.' Get them here properly -- do it properly, and I will burn their ears. I will let them know not to trifle with me."
Carson argued that Stone and Miller, who were present, should be found in contempt. He said their alleged attempts at meddling behind Kitchen's order were attempts to "kill the lawsuit."
"If Pastor Stone is not held in contempt, there's going to be further efforts every time," Carson said.
Kitchens, however, said the oversight committees, which have not taken any actions in the church, amounted to an "exercise in futility." He also said that, while Stone's efforts were irritating, resistance to his order did not necessarily represent violation of it.
"I wish he wouldn't go behind and try to undermine everything I've done," Kitchens said. "I understand that. That's not a violation. He can have some silly vote that doesn't amount to anything. It's a waste of money and it's a waste of time, but it's not in violation of my order."
During the hearing, Carson played a video from a Nov. 5, 2017 service where Stone asked members of the church to make donations to help pay for the legal costs of paying Jackson attorney Matt Baldrich.
Lindsey said the financial committee had no prior knowledge of the collection, and didn't get the collection envelopes from that service until Nov. 26. By that time, she said, they were empty, save six checks totaling roughly $900 that were made out to Second Baptist. She said the envelopes reflected $4,650.17 that didn't go through the finance committee.
She also said the finance committee was able to determine, through bank statements, that Witherspoon made a roughly $4,000 check to Baldrich. During the hearing, Carson said the church paid Baldrich about $30,000 in legal fees.
Baldrich, who was present for part of the morning, left after Kitchens told him he could not represent all of Second Baptist Church, or seek payment from the church as a whole, but only the individuals who chose to hire him.
As the hearing progressed, Kitchens asked if donations made to pay Baldrich's fees were tax exempt, like regular church donations are. He warned that, if they're not and members assumed they are, it could expose Second Baptist to problems with the Internal Revenue Service.
"I want to see those deacons so that I can explain to them that this is not a game, this isn't funny and they're opening you up to IRS problems," Kitchens said. "You don't know problems until they show up, because you're guilty until proven innocent."
A scheduling for the case was entered Friday, though a firm date for the trial has not been set.
Kitchens, who was at several points exasperated with overseeing the hearing and refereeing the lawyers to keep them from sniping at each other, repeatedly said he wanted to push the case ahead to a point where it could be settled or go to trial.
"I've had car wreck cases that were filed around the time of this case that I've tried in front of a jury," Kitchens said. "As far as I'm concerned the main issue is still did Mr. Crowther violate the law and is Rev. Stone somehow involved in either negligently hiring him or some kind of intentional tort that may be involved in this? That's what this lawsuit's about."
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