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Mo. convention legal tussle moves into deposition phase

JEFFERSON CITY (BP)–Depositions in the case involving the Missouri Baptist Convention and its five breakaway agencies began July 28 in the main conference hall at the Jefferson City Chamber of Commerce.

The depositions are being taken in anticipation of a trial involving the MBC’s declaratory judgment petition filed last year in Cole County Circuit Court in Jefferson City against five of its entities. The petition was filed after the convention obtained a legal opinion indicating that trustee boards for the five entities — Windermere Baptist Conference Center, Missouri Baptist Foundation, Missouri Baptist College, The Baptist Home and the Word & Way newsjournal — broke Missouri corporate law when they voted to become self-perpetuating. The trustee action ended decades in which MBC churches had been involved in the trustee selection process for the institutions which are said to have combined assets worth up to $200 million.

The taking of depositions represents the final phase of the discovery process leading up to an actual trial. The trial is expected to begin in early 2004. However, Missouri Baptist College on July 7 filed for a summary judgment and it is possible Cole County Circuit Court Judge Tom Brown could rule on key parts of the case as early as September or October. All hearings will be heard before Judge Brown.

Approximately 40 witnesses have been subpoenaed by attorneys representing all six parties involved and depositions will be collected over the next five weeks. It is possible that more subpoenas are forthcoming. The depositions, which are taken under oath, are being videotaped and transcribed but will be held in confidence for 21 days from the time they are taken. At that point they will become public record. The proceedings are not open to the public. Each party involved is allowed to have only one representative in the room — with the exception of attorneys.

Bart Tichenor, an attorney and employee for the state of Missouri, a leader in the new breakaway Baptist General Convention of Missouri (BGCM), was the first witness to testify July 28. The interest in Tichenor is due, in part, to his role on a 1978 study committee that analyzed ownership of MBC entities, which is often cited by lawyers representing the five breakaway institutions as authority for the trustee boards’ right to become self-perpetuating.

Tichenor also runs a website frequently critical of the MBC and the Southern Baptist Convention. He joined the legal proceedings by filing an amicus curiae brief opposing the MBC’s legal action against the five entities. Tichenor was questioned by Missouri Baptist Convention lead attorney Michael Whitehead for more than six hours.

During the depositions only the attorneys who have subpoenaed a witness may ask questions. Attorneys representing the witnesses are present but do not ask questions, although they may object to a line of questioning for the record.

Whitehead, from Kansas City, was joined in the room by the two other members of the MBC legal team, Stan Masters and James Freeman, both Kansas City attorneys as well.

The lone Missouri Baptist Convention staffer in the room was Bob Baysinger, managing editor of The Pathway, the convention’s new newsjournal, over objections based on his position as a reporter but supported by Whitehead in pointing out that Baysinger is a paid MBC staffer.

Also in attendance were Clyde Farris, a St. Louis attorney representing Missouri Baptist College; Jim Shoemake, an attorney with the St. Louis law firm of Guilfoil, Petzall, & Shoemake which represents the Word & Way, The Baptist Home and Windermere; and John Hardin, general counsel for the Missouri Baptist Foundation. Others in the room July 28 included Larry Johnson, president of The Baptist Home, and James Smith, president of the Missouri Baptist Foundation.

Tichenor was but one of more than a dozen people subpoenaed by MBC attorneys. Among the others:

— Bill Webb, editor of Word & Way, the longtime newsjournal of the MBC until it was stripped of that title in 2002 by the convention.

— Frank Shock, president of Windermere, a facility with miles of lakefront property in the Ozark Mountains, now facing a reported $2.4 million in liens filed by construction companies for work to upgrade the facility for which they claim to have receiving little or no compensation.

— Jim Hill, the former MBC executive director who resigned in 2001 because he said he could not work with the conservative majority on the MBC executive board. It was under Hill’s “watch” as MBC executive director that the trustee boards of the five entities voted to become self-perpetuating. Hill now serves as president and chief executive officer of Springfield-based Resource Development, Inc., which was in charge of the controversial Windermere construction project.

Other notables subpoenaed by MBC attorneys include Smith and Johnson of the foundation and Baptist Home, respectively, Alton Lacy, president of Missouri Baptist College; Don Wideman, former MBC executive director (Wideman was succeeded by Hill); and Arthur Mallory, board chairman for Windermere.

Attorneys representing the five entities have subpoenaed more than 20 people connected to the MBC. Among those: Roger Moran, a member of the SBC Executive Committee and research director for the Missouri Baptist Laymen’s Association; David Clippard, MBC executive director; and Monte Shinkle, MBC president and pastor of Concord Baptist Church in Jefferson City.
Don Hinkle is editor of The Pathway, newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.

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  • Don Hinkle