CLEVELAND — A former top accountant for the Cleveland Catholic Diocese cheated the church and defrauded the government through $785,000 in kickbacks, prosecutors said at Wednesday’s trial opening. The defense countered that church leaders — including the former bishop — approved the payments.
Anton Zgoznik, 40, of suburban Kirtland Hills, was instrumental in arranging the secret payments from church funds to Joseph Smith, former diocese chief financial officer, federal prosecutor John M. Siegel told a U.S. District Court jury.
Zgoznik’s attorney, Robert J. Rotatori, said the payments amounted to secret executive compensation approved in an exhaustive church budget process that included Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, who is now retired.
“That was the way of the diocese and priests — secrecy,” Rotatori said.
Zgoznik, the son of devout Slovenian Catholic immigrants, was raised to be respectful of priests without question, Rotatori said, and approved the secret payments to Smith at the direction of top diocesan leadership.
Zgoznik went along because he had been taught as a young Catholic to “never, ever, ever question the clergy,” Rotatori said. “You never doubt the priest. Whatever the priest tells you to do, you accept.”
Siegel said Zgoznik concocted the idea of secret executive pay approved by church leaders as a legal defense against a mounting church audit that eventually led to an FBI investigation.
Zgoznik is facing 15 counts, including mail fraud and conspiracy to commit mail fraud.