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10.26.09

(Editor’s note: On August 20th Treasurer George Samra sent an email outlining troubling discoveries in the financial practices of St. George Church in Troy MI, one of the largest and most well-known parishes in the Archdiocese. (Read it here.) A special parish meeting held a week later failed to resolve the issues (Read that story here). A paradigmatic struggle for accountability and transparency on the parish level, Samra's story now continues...)

TROY STORY, PART THREE

The Bishop Speaks

On September 17th, Fr. Joseph Antypas, pastor of St. George, traveled to Toledo OH to discuss with Bishop Mark (Maymon) Treasurer George Samra’s allegations and questions. Attending the meeting with Fr. Antypas was his parish council president, Mr. Neal Norgrove, and fellow council member and Archdiocesan Trustee, Mr. George Darany. In an email and letter addressed to the parish council the following day, Friday, September 18th, the Bishop spoke about the meeting and outlined his thoughts on how to resolve the problem:

...”Fr. Joseph, George and Neil assure me that the records of St. George Towers; St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church and St. George Banquet Hall are open to anyone who de-sires to inspect them, including the check registers, bank statements and copies of the checks. As I understand it from our meeting, Father Joseph is making all accounts open to inspection. I was pleased with this meeting which Father Joseph initiated and hope that it sets forth a model for better communication among all of us in this Diocese.

As I expressed to our Metropolitan Philip some weeks ago in seeking his wisdom in this matter, I believe that it is healthy for a parish to learn to resolve its own problems to the extent possible, rather than expecting the hierarchy simply to impose its will. Further, although I am very much an advocate for clarity and transparency in financial matters, particularly in the Church, I do not lay claim to in-depth financial expertise which would qualify me to assess the questions which have been posed by your Treasurer or the quality of any responses to them. Rather than becoming deeply involved in the situation at this time, I would like to recommend that the Parish Council adopt the following simple approach:

• Those parishioners with questions regarding parish finances should be invited, by the end of the month, to submit a list of documents that they would like to review to satisfy themselves that the books have been kept conscientiously. Such an approach will ensure that no accusations may be levied that this or that document was concealed or not made available.

• The requested documents should be made available for all to review thoroughly on several mutually acceptable dates no later than October 15. If they desire to bring an accountant or financial advisor, they may do so at their own expense. Although Father Joseph has assured me of the complete openness of the parish and Towers’ financial records, I would expect that the council may require some time to assemble the requested records. You may wish to consider making the records available for review all day on various Saturdays to ease the burden on those who work during the week.

• Schedule a Parish Council meeting during which any questions which may arise as a result of the records review can be addressed in a peaceful and respectful manner.

If any questions remain after this, I would be happy to receive a letter clearly articulating those questions and to do all I can to assist the parish in identifying and obtaining the independent services of a person with appropriate financial skills to put those remaining questions to rest once and for all. Given Fr. Joseph has already given his assurance there is absolutely nothing wrong with the books and they are open and accessible for anyone to examine, there is absolutely no reason not to have the financial documents professionally examined for the well-being of the Church. ...”

Fr. Antypas Agrees

Appearing to agree with the Bishop's recommendations. Fr. Antypas writes him the following day:

Thank you for the constructive meeting we had with you yesterday. I wanted to put you in the real picture and to convey to you our concerns about the devious plot that some of my parishioners have engaged themselves in and threatened the unity of St. George.....
. ...As I shared  my concerns, my intention is not to sweep anything under the rug. Your fair approach can definitely reinstate your image as a unifying Bishop, as an icon of Christ....”


Fr. Antypas then clearly states he will publish Bishop Mark’s letter in the next parish bulletin ( (The Observer) and making all the financial records available as the Bishop suggested. He writes:

“I will include your letter in our next Observer, and I will assure you that all books and records will be made available. We always tell our parishioners that they are welcome to attend our Council monthly meetings...”
 

In fact, the Bishops’ letter was not published in the next Bulletin (September 20), nor in the next (September 27th) nor the next ( October 4th). In fact, Bishop Mark’s letter suggesting an audit be conducted has never been made public at St. George parish - nor have all the books and records been available, even to the Treasurer, George Samra, let alone the parish.

The Metropolitan Speaks
 

An episcopal letter did appear in The Observer, however, on Sunday October 11th. It was a letter from Metropolitan Philip, dated September 30th.

“Over the past several weeks”, Metropolitan Philip wrote,” many claims have caused a storm of controversy in your community. After many meetings and discussions, questions have been asked and answered. It is conclusive that no financial improprieties have taken place and it is time to move forward with a sense of unity and harmony in order to continue your mission of serving the greater Detroit area.” (Read the full letter here.)

He continued:

The question of financial management and auditing is not something new. At our recent Archdiocesan Convention in California, this past July, the issue of auditing was brought up and was turned over to the Archdiocese Board of Trustees to make a final decision. In order for this matter to be rectified, the proper procedure must be followed and will happen only when all churches of our God-protected Archdiocese comply, not just large parishes or those selected at random.”

Apparently the Bishop’s letter suggesting an audit for St. Georges could not be printed; the Metropolitan’s excusing St. George from conducting one could.

Samra’s Response

Samra was so upset the Metropolitan’s letter he wrote a response that was e-mailed to as many of the Archdiocesan Board Member and his own Parish Council on October 15, 2009, so they could understand the real problem prior to the Board of Trustees meeting later that week in Houston. Samra writes:

“I was disappointed to see your letter in the bulletin this past weekend, in which you wrote about St. George’s finances: “…questions have been asked and answered. It is conclusive no financial improprieties have taken place…” It then occurred to me that you might not be fully aware of what has happened at St. George.

Please accept this letter for the permanent record.

Two years ago, I was asked by Fr. Antypas to serve on the Parish Council as one of his appointees. I accepted. About a year later, this past January, he asked me to serve as Treasurer, and the Council supported this move. I began to come into the office each Wednesday afternoon to work, and every Sunday after Divine Liturgy.

I brought in my own computer, bought a computer program to help organize parish donations. With this program, I was starting to gain insight into the donations and disbursements from the general parish account.
I was repeatedly praised in public by the parish council president, Neal Norgrove, for the amount of work performed. He would say I was doing more than any other Treasurer he could remember.

Other members of the parish became aware of my efforts as Treasurer and approached me with questions about the St. George Towers, which you know is a low-income senior high-rise the parish owns. I had to admit my ignorance about the Towers, and another parishioner suggested I speak to Fr. John Badeen, who was spending his summer in Detroit. Please recall that he was the pastor of St. George when the church decided to build the Towers. Fr. Badeen met with me and gave me a good history of the Towers and shocked me, and himself, when he told me he turned over funds in excess of $1 million in CD’s generated from the Towers to George Farris, the parish council president one week before his departure from St. George. These funds were generated between 1976 and 1985. His shock came when I told him there was no indication the parish had $1 million in reserves, and to the best of my knowledge, the Towers generated no income to the church.

I made a call to Wingate Management, the company managing the Towers on behalf of St. George to speak to the contact person who had worked closely with Fr. Badeen all the years he was at St. George. I discovered he had retired. The new person in charge made a call to Fr. Antypas questioning why I called. This incensed Fr. Anypas greatly. He accused me of going behind his back.

It became apparent rather quickly, that the parish was in dire financial straits. The Sunday collection did not provide enough to meet our debts. Creditors were calling, and I spoke with a number of them, seeking to delay payment and explaining our problem. Again, some of these creditors called Fr. Antypas inquiring who I was. Fr. Antypas was very upset, and again said I went behind his back.

On Wednesday, August 12th, I arrived at the church and was confronted by Fr. Antypas demanding my resignation from the parish council. I explained both the forgoing occurrences and politely, but firmly refused to resign. On Friday, August 15th, I received his letter formally requesting my resignation. I still have not resigned.  Sunday, August 16th, as I stood in line to receive Holy Communion, Fr. Antypas sent the Deacon out into the line to ask me to remove myself. I would not be receiving communion. This was my first ex-communication.

I wrote a note to Fr. Antypas with my plan to appeal this action to Bishop Mark, with whom I planned to and did meet on August 18th. Bishop Mark may have spoken with Fr. Antypas, because as I approached for Holy Communion again on August 23rd, Fr. Antypas made a point of asking me out of the other Communion line to receive the Eucharist specifically from him. At the end of Divine Liturgy, during Fr. Antypas’ remarks, he mentioned the August 25th parish council meeting would be replaced by an open forum for all to come with their questions.

Unbeknownst to me he also called a special meeting of all parish council members, excluding David Thomas and me, with at least two purposes in mind: First he invited a representative from Wingate Management to brief the parish council on status of St. George Towers. This was necessary, since the only person working with Wingate for the past few years was Walid Khalife, a parish council member. As far back as I could remember, the parish council had not been advised of the financial status of the Towers. A fact that David Thomas had attempted to address at several previous parish council meetings. Each time, Fr. Antypas would summarily dismiss Mr. Thomas’ request as unimportant. As originally established, the parish council of St. George was automatically the Board of Directors of St. George Towers. Somehow Mr. Khalife had been made the sole contact person. You will remember Mr. Khalife, as he was removed from the Archdiocesan Board. Some sort of vote was taken at the meeting in California that removed him and another person for reasons you know better than I. (Editor’s note: Mr. Samra is incorrect on this point. Mr. Khalife was not removed from the Board of Trustees as he is an “honorary member, appointed by the Metropolitan.)

The second reason for the special meeting was to get the parish council to sign a resolution in solidarity with Fr. Antypas. To save time and space I will print the first paragraph. The balance is available upon your request:

WHEREAS, it was recently revealed that George Samra, David Thomas, and others have allowed Satan to use them for evil and plotted on their own volition to be drawn into a circle of deceit and lies against out pastor, V.Rev Joseph Antypas, and other notable members of our Church community, and…

Fr. Antypas was unable to get at least two members to sign the document. Its very existence and the heavy handed request to sign such a document so concerned at least one of these two that he resigned from the council the very next morning. This document was not presented at the open forum, or made public on August 26th.

On the evening of August 26th, the open forum was convened. I was asked to remove myself from the council table by the President, Neal Norgrove, who told me Father only wanted the parish council at the table. I refused.

Fr. Antypas started the meeting with a 20 minute filibustering sermon, which included biblical references, after promising all who had questions could ask them. He then insisted on pontificating on the issues as he saw fit. He allowed those in attendance, who were in support of him, to take the microphone to speak, while discouraging opposing points of view by taking the microphone back. Ostensibly, I was the person who had caused all the controversy, but it was only after 45 minutes that I was allowed to speak. And then only with his constant interruptions and filibustering. He is very good at controlling a conversation. It most certainly was not an open forum. I was never allowed to ask my questions, and still they have not been asked.

I did present my copies of the checks on which he forged the signature of a deceased treasurer. His response was that he was honoring her memory. The checks and his excuse for the forgeries brought an angry response from the 100 people in the room, including the adult children of the deceased treasurer, who openly wept. He also stated that he had to sign checks because I was away for a period of three weeks with those “Catholics” (his word). I was indeed on a trip to the Holy Land, walking in the footsteps of Christ on a pilgrimage lead by a Catholic priest.

Article 4, sec D, sub e states:
The Treasurer, Chairman, and the Pastor shall be authorized to sign checks on the Parish Account. Any two (2) of such authorized signatures shall be sufficient to validate a check. In my review of records, Neal Norgrove, who is the Chairman of the Parish Council, and is retired, living only a few miles from the church, was not listed as a signer on the bank records.

It was at this meeting where Fr. Antypas formally excommunicated me again, in front of all in attendance, requiring me to meet him for confession and to meet whatever his penance would be, before I could come to the table of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

As I have written in the past, as you can see by visiting the following website, www.ocanews.org, if I were to confess to a sin I did not commit, I would commit sin again. I question a priest who would ask me to sin in order to receive Christ.

Since my second excommunication, I have attended St. George faithfully, singing in the choir as I have for some years, and watching quietly from the wings as others are permitted to approach the table of our Lord.


I attended the last parish council meeting on September 30th, and listened to both Walid Khalife and Fr. Antypas speak about me in the third person, as if I were not in attendance. I listened as Mr. Khalife made a motion that night to remove both David Thomas and I from the council. Though I received a letter requesting my resignation from the board, David Thomas received a letter specifically indicating he was no longer on the board. Unsolicited, Mr. Khalife also made a motion that St. George should not submit to an audit, and had to re-word his motion to indicate the council does not agree that an audit was necessary. The parish council president was astonished with the comment from Fr. Antypas at meetings’ end, that in fact both David Thomas and I were still members of the council.

Metropolitan Philip, it is clear our questions have been suppressed and no answers have been given.

St. George Towers was originally built and mortgaged for $6.5 million in 1976 with a 30 or 35 year note. How is it now that it is refinanced in 2006 for $5,885,900 with a note lasting 35 more years? Why was so little of the principal repaid? I spoke to other former parish council members who believe that sometime in the past, the original mortgage was refinanced as an interest-only mortgage, presumably to free up cash flow. If so, where is the cash flow? As treasurer, I saw no discernable income from the property.

By-laws require a special parish meeting to discuss any mortgage financing. Article 9, section 2 of church by-laws on page 28 state:

“The parish council shall have no right to mortgage, lease, transfer, sell, or purchase any real property on behalf of the Church unless it has been authorized to do so by a General Meeting of the Parish called for that purpose. “

No one I have spoken with can remember such a meeting in 2006, when Walid Khalife arranged this mortgage.

I would like to see copies of all real estate transactions and mortgage transactions relating to St. George Towers.

What happened to the $1,000,000 Fr. Badeen left with our parish council president on his departure in 1985? If it was spent, how was it spent? If those monies were not to be used by the church, because of the HUD rules, how was it spent? Did the HUD property not charge enough rent to sustain itself? That money could be worth over $6,000,000 today if it could have collected interest since 1985.

Why was Walid Khalife left in charge of all dealings for the Towers? What are his qualifications? Who set this up, and who removed the Board of Directors’ (the parish council) duty of oversight, while still leaving the Board with the financial liability? And perhaps most importantly, why?

As I have said in the past, I was given access to only 4 of the 15 different bank accounts at Chase Bank. I was denied access to the Social Hall Account held at Comerica Bank, while the chef for the Social Hall was provided complete access. By-laws again state:

“the treasurer shall handle all income receive by the Church and shall give receipts for the same”. (Article 4, Paragraph D, sub. 2b on page 39)

I have spoken to two parishioners who were asked to pay for weddings using cash. One family was asked on Friday night, before the Saturday wedding to bring approximately $5500 in cash. When asked about the discount that should have been given because this was a wedding of a parishioner, they were told that the discount was that they would not have to pay sales tax. Why are people being asked to pay in cash? I want to see copies of all rental contracts for the past five years, showing names, address, and phone numbers. I also want to compare that to the check register of the Social Hall account at Comerica, to which I had no access.

I want to see records showing the type of payment (cash, check, and credit card) received for each hall rental.


In addition, I want to see copies of the Michigan Sales/Use Tax returns for the past five years.

I want to see a list of all persons authorized to sign checks on the social hall account.

I want to see a list of all persons authorized to sign checks on all St. George Church and St. George Towers accounts.

I want to see copies of the last 5 years of the Form 941 (payroll tax withholding) for St. George Church and St. George Social Hall.

I want to see copies of the last 5 years of the Form 990 for both St. George Church and St. George Towers. I also want to see 5 years of the Form 990-T (Unrelated Business Income Tax). Have these forms been filed with the Internal Revenue Service? If so, I want to see documentation.

I want to see copies of the last 5 years of Form 1099 (self-employment income) and/or W-2 (employment income) prepared for all persons at St. George Church, St. George Social Hall, and St. George Towers and to verify that these figures match with Internal Revenue Records.

I want to see a listing of all donations (cash and non-cash) for the last 5 years. For the last 5 years or more, the Church record of my giving does not match my records. It is always off. This happens to other people as well.”

Finally Samra asks:

“And why do you acquiesce to the excommunication of two Orthodox Christians for asking questions? As treasurer, it was my responsibility, based on the oath I took, in front of my parish, and God himself, administered by your priest, to safeguard and account for the money, given by God’s children, so that all, including you may lead all souls to salvation. Under what cannon of this church, were we excommunicated?

Metropolitan, you have been badly misinformed. It is NOT conclusive that no financial improprieties have taken place.”

Samra has yet to receive a reply to his letter.

The Cost of Discipleship

Five weeks earlier, at the end of August, Samra and his wife had written an earlier letter to Fr. Antypas (with copies to both Bishop Mark & Metopolitan Philip)  indicating they would stop all donations, putting their money into escrow until an independent, outside financial audit is performed on the books of St. George. Their letter reads:

“Please be advised that beginning immediately, our weekly contribution to the coffers of St. George will be deposited into an escrow account at Chase Bank, on Ann Arbor Road, in Plymouth Township, MI.


This practice will continue, until such time as an outside, independent financial audit is conducted on the parish, the Social Hall and the St. George Towers, or until our questions regarding Church finances, are satisfied.

We will be placing a hot pink slip of paper into the weekly collection basket as a reminder that we are not shirking our responsibility to support the parish, only delaying it. From time to time, it is our intent to let you know how much money that fund has accrued.

May peace be yours.

George D. Samra
Marilyn S. Trumper-Samra”
  

In the weeks that have followed, many have watched Samra place his hot pink piece of paper in the weekly collection basket. Fr. Antypas noticed as well - scoffing at the gesture during the September 30, 2009 Parish Council meeting, referring to Samra’s small protest as that “little toy”. More than once according to witnesses, Walid Khalife, a parish council member, and honorary Archdiocesean Board of Trustee member, has pulled Samra’s envelope from the collection basket lest it be seen by many.
 
On Sunday, October 18, 2009, a day after the Board of Trustees agreed to an internal audit of the Archdiocese, Mr. Khalife became very animated as the collection basket came to him, anbd appeared once again to put Samra’s “donation” into his pocket.

Samra , in a letter to a judge in regards to a Order of Profection he had previously sought against Khalife, describes what happened next:

“He then approached me where I was seated with the Choir, and threw the balled up envelope and letter at me.  My writing appears in the middle of the page, and states: We need an Audit.“

According to Samra Khalife had apparently added the following:

“Keep you money for your kids and we will have an audit on your dead body. Stop these silly things. Stop this paper. (See photo of note below)

But George Samra is not stopping. In a note to OCA news he wrote of his ongoing struggle:

This is the type of extreme resistance occurring at St. George against the idea of transparency, clarity, and full financial disclosure. As some of those writing to your site in the past have said, if there is nothing to hide, why do they fight so hard to avoid an audit, which the vast majority of non-profits perform annually?“

It is a reasonable question. And one George Samra, it appears, will not stop asking until he receives an answer.

- Mark Stokoe

 

 

 
 

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