Thursday, March 18, 2004

First Baptist ousts its dissidents

Stormy meeting includes a fistfight

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COLD SPRING - The Rev. Larry Davis, the embattled pastor of the First Baptist Church, tightened his hold on the church by orchestrating a vote Wednesday night to remove dissident deacons and trustees.

By a vote of 334-202, members removed dozens of people - ushers to deacons to the treasurer - from their posts at the once-thriving church. The people removed were accused of trying to start a competing church after Kentucky State Police launched an investigation into First Baptist's finances.

"Go to church wherever you like, whenever you like," Davis said from the front of the nearly full sanctuary, "but you cannot be a leader here and attend another church."

Church members never discussed what brought them all together: Fifth Third Bank's threat to call the church's $4 million mortgage loan.

Attorneys for the bank gave church members until Friday to agree on a detailed plan that would prevent them from foreclosing. Although the proposal was not discussed at the meeting, a copy of the three-page plan was handed out.

The bank wants the church to put up more collateral, to agree not to file suit against the bank and to pay 12.25 percent interest if the church fails to follow the plan. The interest rate on the mortgage is now 6.25 percent.

Church members said they are current with loan payments, but bank attorneys cited "a material adverse change" in the church's financial condition as their reason for calling the loan. The bank's attorneys said the church might not have spent its loan money according to the terms of its contract.

Church attorneys Phil Taliaferro and Chris Mehling, both of Covington, advised the congregation not to remove the deacons and trustees.

"You are not following your own bylaws in removing them in this way," Mehling said. "My concern, as your attorney, is that it only gives the bank more reason to foreclose."

Mehling questioned the legality of the ouster only to be interrupted by Davis.

"The bank doesn't run this church," Davis said. "The lawyers shouldn't either."

Despite the attorney's warning, Davis got the majority to elect a new slate of leaders from a list of names he was holding.

The church's former treasurer, Darryl Neltner, a certified public accountant, wrote police in January to say he had identified $500,000 in questionable transactions from accounts controlled by Davis. The congregation has since learned those transactions were at motels, trendy shops, casinos and at sports betting tipping services.

Emotions ran high at the business meeting.

A woman called for help to break up a fistfight on the balcony of the sanctuary. People whose families had attended the church for decades ran out crying. Others yelled that the devil had divided the flock.

Some members tried during the meeting to get Davis to respond to allegations he had improperly spent church funds. Davis shot every question down by saying his attorney advised him not to speak.

Kentucky State Police are investigating the church's finances but Davis has not been charged with any crime. Davis has maintained there is a legitimate reason for the expenditures but has provided no details.


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