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Fraud, fiduciary breach claims upheld in lawsuit to regain Christian conference center

CAMDENTON, Mo. (BP)–In a round of procedural rulings, a Camden County judge has approved the Missouri Baptist Convention’s pleadings of fraud and fiduciary breach against its former chief executive officer for his role in orchestrating the breakaway of Windermere Baptist Conference Center. In an April 9 order, Judge Kenneth Hayden dismissed other counts against various lenders, developers, lawyers, and the Windermere corporate entity for actions which occurred after the July 2001 breakaway.

In a press release, Dan Bench, Windermere president and CEO, responded by saying he was “pleased” the judge “ruled for Windermere.”

However, MBC counsel Michael Whitehead said the rulings did not imperil Missouri Baptists’ standing to recover the $50 million property from the breakaway Windermere corporation. He said the rulings would permit the heart of the legal case to move forward, while requiring an amendment to the petition on other counts.

“This was not a ruling on the merits of any count, but a procedural checkpoint,” Whitehead said. “In 2005, we believed it was necessary to join every corporation, lender, title company and lawyer who had filed any record regarding Windermere with the Camden County Recorder of Deeds. Today, that may no longer be necessary. We are glad to trim down the pleadings to the necessary parties, and to focus our case on a few key issues, so that MBC can have its day in court before a jury as soon as possible.”

The MBC petition alleges that James L. Hill helped to orchestrate the incorporation of Windermere, the transfer of the real estate deeds, and the breakaway of the Windermere corporation, all while he was employed as the executive director of the MBC.

Hill now heads a rival state convention of liberal and moderate churches. Windermere has ties with this competing body, the Baptist General Convention of Missouri.

Hill also has family ties to the development company which acquired 941 acres of the original 1,300-acre Lake of the Ozarks conference center three years after the Windermere board defaulted on a loan of more than $20 million in 2003 and then conveyed 941 acres to a lender by a “deed in lieu of foreclosure.”

Hill’s brother, Jerry, and businessman Bill Jester of Springfield, Mo., created Windermere Development Company, LLC, which now claims ownership of that land.

Concealing his plans for the breakaway from the executive board constituted a breach of fiduciary duty, the petition alleges. Furthermore, Whitehead said, leading the MBC to transfer the deed to the Windermere property under these circumstances allegedly constituted “fraudulent inducement,” warranting “equitable rescission” of the deed to Windermere, and the return of title to MBC. “We expect to file an amendment with the court next month to provide more specific pleading of these facts.”

In the order entered by the Camden judge on April 9, the motion to dismiss by James L. Hill was overruled, while the motions filed by the various other parties were granted.

On Tuesday, April 13, the MBC Executive Board met in executive session to hear a report from Whitehead and legal team member Gregory Williams, a Camden County attorney who specializes in real estate development litigation in the Lake of the Ozarks area.

Also on April 13, MBC attorneys filed their application for appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court. Four of seven judges must vote to hear an appeal. A decision from the Supreme Court whether to take the appeal may occur next month.

Bench used the occasion to push the breakaway entity’s case with the public and urged the churches of “the MBC to accept these judicial rulings” and to put the litigation “behind us.”

Windermere was one of five former MBC subsidiary corporations which broke from the MBC in 2000-01 by changing their charters to create self-perpetuating boards.

The other entities are the Baptist Home retirement center, the Word & Way newsjournal, the Baptist Foundation and Missouri Baptist College.
Reported by The Pathway, newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention, www.mbcpathway.com.

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