October 25, 2014

Elyria
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Avon church’s bingo bonanza goes to court

Money dispute leads to threats, excommunications and lawsuits

AVON — For the past nine years, St. Clement of Ohrid Macedonian Orthodox Church has been a house of God
divided.
A bitter feud over how money raised in weekly bingo games was spent, the purchase of property for a new church and a dispute over who has the right to review the books has splintered a once-close-knit church whose original members fled the brutal communist regime in Yugoslavia at the height of the Cold War.
Now the lawsuits, legal fees, excommunications and changed locks all come down to a trial to determine which of the two sides in the struggle for control of the church’s money was right. That trial, before visiting Judge Lynett McGough, will wrap up next week.
Bingo bonanza
In 1990, the church began holding bingo nights once or twice a week to raise money, and it worked. The church was flush with nearly $1.3 million in the bank when it shut down its bingo operations in 1998, and it had a solid reputation among area bingo aficionados.
“The people loved the bingo because it was honest,” said Marge Walch, a self-described “bingo nut” who volunteered to help the church run its games even though she wasn’t a member.
But things began to change in 1995, said Eric Zagrans, the attorney representing 25 dissident members of the church suing those who were elected into the church leadership in the mid-1990s.
The profits for the games, once at about 50 percent, began to plunge, dropping below 20 percent by 1998, Zagrans said. And the old leadership of the church, many of whom were founding members, began asking questions that the new leadership didn’t like.
“Instead of showing us the answers so we would be satisfied, they started intimidating us,” said Stella Atanasovski, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
Lube Kotevski, a defendant who served either as treasurer or assistant treasurer from 1995 through 2003, testified Friday that he and the new leadership were doing what they thought was best for their church.
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” he insisted to McGough in accented English, “we tried to help the church.”
Kicking teeth
Not so, Atanasovski and her allies say, alleging that Kotevski and the others mishandled $200,000 in bingo money — spending it on Indians jackets, doling out excessive door prizes, not accounting for all the money that should have been in the bank and writing church checks to themselves that they couldn’t explain.
They also pushed to purchase seven acres of land in North Olmsted for $550,000 to build a new church and social hall, Zagrans said.
The plaintiffs also accuse the new regime of spending $400,000 in church funds to defend itself in the lawsuit.
The new leadership also launched a campaign of intimidation against the old regime, Zagrans said, changing the locks, barring its members from church activities and having critics of the new leaders temporarily excommunicated by the American-Canadian Diocese of the Macedonian Orthodox Church.
Elka Ioannidis, one of the plaintiffs, said the intimidation also took the form of threats of physical violence.
“They told my dad that if he didn’t stop asking questions that they’d kick his teeth in,” she said.
Atanasovski said she was told she would be taken into the woods and assaulted if she didn’t drop the lawsuit. A few people were charged with disorderly conduct and other minor charges over the years, including one ally of the new regime, who showed up to church armed with a knife, she said.
Edward Markovich, the attorney defending Kotevski and his fellow church elders who took over leadership in the mid-1990s, said the only person who was ever hurt was one of his clients, Mirco Jovanovski, who is involved in lawsuits with the son of one of the plaintiffs over a fistfight, which Zagrans said Jovanovski started.
The threats, Markovich said, were never reported to police.
“In the old country, they wouldn’t call the police for this kind of stuff,” he said. “They’d handle it themselves.”
Zagrans said that’s precisely why his clients came to the United States — to escape that culture.
Markovich said his clients weren’t immune to threats either, although they faced financial intimidation instead.
“The threats to my guys were always that we’re going to take your house,” he said.
Land deals
The proposed purchase of land in North Olmsted was a serious point of contention.
Markovich said his clients were trying to move the growing church forward because it seemed unlikely it would be able to expand in Avon, and the popularity of the bingo sessions made the French Creek Road location too small.
The opponents of the purchase, he said, were stuck in an Old World mindset that screamed, “It’s too much, it’s too much!”
Markovich said the old guard didn’t know what to do with their success, a far cry from what they had started out with when the small congregation built the church in 1978.
“Twenty years later, they go to court fighting over the embarrassment of their riches,” he said.
Zagrans said his clients questioned the wisdom of buying the land because it would cost another $1 million to build the church, forcing them to take out a mortgage, something that had only just been paid off for the original church.
“They didn’t want to go back into debt and use up all that cash they’d spent years building up,” he said.
They asked to hold a churchwide vote whether to buy the land as mandated by the church’s bylaws. When that request was denied in 1998, they sued. That lawsuit was dropped, only to be refiled in 2000 to include concerns over mismanagement of funds and threats.
Both the North Olmsted land deal and a second attempt in 2001 to purchase land in Eaton Township failed, but only because of the legal efforts of the old guard, Zagrans said.
Excommunication
After the second lawsuit was filed, the church leadership pushed the remaining members of the congregation to excommunicate the dissident members, doing so in June 2000. That vote, which didn’t include a majority of church members, later was overturned by the archbishop of the worldwide church, based in Skopje, Macedonia, Zagrans said.
But, he said, the new regime had friends in the American-Canadian Diocese in Ontario, which excommunicated the dissidents again in 2001. That led to criminal and civil trespassing charges against the old guard when they tried to enter the church, but Zagrans said none of those charges stuck.
It wasn’t until 2003, Zagrans said, that the archbishop fully realized the extent of the problem the new regime posed. He announced that he wanted a new group of people elected to lead the church and planned a visit to St. Clement to try to hold a prayer service and work toward ending the feud.
But when he arrived, he was locked out of St. Clement by the defendants, who had changed the locks, according to an Avon police report.
“You’ve got the archbishop, the equivalent of the pope, cooling his heels in a parking lot in Avon, Ohio,” Zagrans said.
That was enough to convince the archbishop to back the old guard in the lawsuit.
But Markovich said the archbishop’s desire to resolve the dispute internally had more to do with making sure the church didn’t lose money.
“The guiding principle was not the Gospel. It was the money,” he said.
Present and future
St. Clement hasn’t held a bingo night since the first lawsuit was filed in 1998 to stop the North Olmsted land deal. In that time, the church’s bank balance has shrunk to about $750,000, Zagrans said.
The church has no plans to relocate or restart bingo, no matter what happens in the lawsuit.
Atanasovski said St. Clement is once again supporting itself with candle sales and donations from the congregation, which has about 80 members.
“We’re back to the way we started, really,” she said.
Whatever happens with the trial, Markovich said he doubts it will resolve the case.
“I’m not sure anybody’s going to go home happy,” he said.
That could mean appeals, more legal fees and more discord, although Atanasovski said most of the defendants haven’t been to church since they were forced from power in 2003.
But, she added, the church doesn’t turn them away when they show up.
“This is not a personal vendetta,” she said.
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.