Church members in court battle over minister, funds
One thing is clear, all is not well with the members of the Good Hope Baptist Church.
The church, located on Eagle Street in Dunkirk, will apparently have its future leadership decided by the legal system, beginning with a May 12 hearing in state Supreme Court in Mayville before Judge Deborah A. Chimes.
The defendants include the church, Leo J. Nixon, Jean Jackson, Chad Butts and Charles Butts Sr.
The plaintiffs in the case include: John Butts, Henry Boyd, Bill Pittman Sr., Jerry Murphy, Dennis Hardwick, Myra Murphy, Jaquan Anderson, Catherine Tell, Johnnie D. Thompson, Betty R. Tell, Alberta Battle, Katrina Tirado, Randy Thomas, Earlene Smith, Emma Hooten, Douglas Lockett, Jesse Lockett, Melissa Babcock, Joshua Febus and Alberta Lockett.
At the center of the issues concerning the plaintiffs, all parishioners, is Nixon, who was hired by the church as pastor in June 2010.
The affidavit filed with the court April 14 provides a timeline of Nixon’s involvement with the church, beginning with his hiring under an oral agreement to serve as pastor for $200 per week. According to the affidavit, he was to conduct religious services on Sundays, with Wednesday prayer services optional. In addition, at that time Nixon was provided a copy of the church’s bylaws.
Complaints and pay hikes
Nixon soon requested more money and his pay was increased to $325 per week, in addition to “pastor aid” which came from monthly collections. Nixon sought another pay increase in 2011 and his pay was increased to $400 per week.
During 2011, according to the affidavit, Nixon began to gain control over the church, choosing trustees and officers after private meetings with those individuals. In addition, he refused to meet with church elders and deacons to discuss his conduct. In 2012, Nixon ran up $800 in extra hotel expenses while on a church-authorized trip to a Baptist pastor conference that the church had to pay.
In 2013 things got worse, beginning with complaints to church elders about Nixon’s conduct in church and as a confidant to members, divulging publicly personal matters given to him in confidence. Nixon attempted to take over the church’s bank account in May with trips to two local M&T Bank branches.
At an official corporate meeting of church members in June, a vote terminated Nixon’s services. Nixon refused to meet with church elders and deacons and countered by opening an account in the church’s name at Lake Shore Savings Bank, claiming he was still pastor and still soliciting funds.
In July, Nixon fought back in court according to the affidavit, seeking retribution in court against a church elder and deacon in retribution for his termination. The state Supreme Court allowed Nixon to continue with the church until valid elections could be held for trustees. In the meantime, Nixon continued to incur charges against the church.
The affidavit states a corporate meeting of the church was held in November at which Nixon, while not a member of the church, attempted to influence the election for his own financial benefit and contrary to state law. Nixon caused threats of arrest to be made at the meeting for those who were against his group’s control of the church. Nixon remains in control of the church with longtime members not allowed to worship unless they subject themselves to Nixon’s doctrine and control.
According to the affidavit, there is no proof Nixon is an ordained minister, however, records of convictions in Erie, Pa. on drug, food stamp fraud and bad check charges are included in the filing. The plaintiffs are concerned Nixon “will disappear across the state line as soon as Good Hope’s assets are depleted.”
The judgment sought includes that the defendants be individually charged with the loss to defendant Good Hope Baptist Church due to their malfeasance bad faith, breach of contract, breach of trust and fiduciary duty as set forth in the complaint.
The church would be repaid any monies, with the plaintiffs then reimbursed for their costs bringing the legal action. A court-appointed receiver of church property and an accounting of church finances are also sought, along with Nixon being enjoined from interfering with the business affairs of the church as set forth in the complaint.
In his affirmation to the court, John Kuzdale, the attorney for the plaintiffs, noted most of the plaintiffs have also filed a complaint with the state attorney general against Nixon, essentially based on his personal takeover of the church. Kuzdale added an assistant state AG advised the plaintiffs to also file separate civil action.
“Under the law Baptist pastors are kept apart from the temporal or business affairs of the church; they are hired solely by the bona fide members of the church. Based on the official minutes of church meetings, Leo J. Nixon individually through his self-appointed agents and co-defendants Jean Jackson, Chad Butts and Charles Butts Sr. has effectively turned Good Hope Baptist Church into his personal fiefdom,” Kuzdale stated in the filing.
“I don’t know how much else I can add. We’re prepared to prove our case in court and prevail. We have what we call a prima facie case,” Kuzdale told the OBSERVER. “We have facts and evidence and testimony that will support our case. That church has been in existence since 1945 or ’46, and ran for all these decades and generations without any problems. He shows up in 2010 or whatever it is, and look where we are, it’s not a coincidence.”
Kuzdale said the plaintiffs are looking for help from the court.
“There’s decades of devotion in many of these complainants, that’s their life and they’ve invested in it,” he added. “To have some guy who has never had a written contract come over and dictate policy, unbelievable.”
Attorney John C. Gullo is representing the defendants in the case.
“I proudly serve as the attorney for the three properly elected trustees of the Good Hope Baptist Church and its pastor. The three current trustees gained control of the church finances in November 2013, after elections were held with both myself and Attorney John Kuzdale present,” Gullo told the OBSERVER. “At that time, the finances of the church were depleted to under $1,000 by the prior church leaders. This is very significant because less than two years prior the church had a bank account balance of over $45,000. The now-current trustees were not aware of this issue because the previous leaders refused to disclose the bank records. We subpoenaed those bank records last fall and have turned them over to law enforcement for their investigation.
“Since the three current trustees have taken over, the trustees have kept track of the modest finances of the church with precision and integrity. In this lawsuit, in my opinion, the plaintiffs are trying to embarrass my clients and make them spend money defending a lawsuit. They apparently also sought publicity for their claims by sending a copy of the filing to the newspaper.
“We intend to fight this lawsuit and permit Judge Deborah Chimes to rule on the issues, as is proper. We are supremely confident in our eventual success.”
The legal wrangling will likely continue far after the May 12 hearing.
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