Glendale minister William Steuart McBirnie and organizations he founded must repay 24 former members of his United Community Church nearly $195,000 plus interest and damages for unrepaid loans that were to have gone toward church-affiliated building projects, the judge in the case has said.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Commissioner Florence-Marie Cooper ruled Monday at a hearing in the Glendale division of the court that McBirnie's activities in connection with the loans were fraudulent.
Cooper is expected to determine the amount of damages within the next week. Christ T. Troupis, the attorney representing the plaintiffs who sued McBirnie a year ago, said his clients are seeking $250,000 in general damages--the amount of the loans plus the accrued interest--and $5 million in punitive damages.
Suit One of Several
The suit is one of several that have been brought against McBirnie-headed organizations in the past few years. Besides McBirnie, the suit named nine other defendants, all McBirnie-founded organizations operated out of Glendale. They include Community Churches of America, Concord Senior Housing Foundation, Heritage Foundation, Voice of Americanism, California Graduate School of Theology and World Emergency Relief Foundation.
The loans were made over an eight-year period from 1972 to 1980, Troupis said, and ranged in amount from $1,000 to $22,000. Twenty-three of the parishioners, many of them senior citizens, lent money directly to Community Churches of America, the umbrella organization for McBirnie's enterprises, and one lent money to the minister's anti-communist Voice of Americanism radio program. With the exception of Voice of Americanism, all of McBirnie's organizations are supposed to be nonprofit.
Troupis said that his clients made the loans under the presumption that the money would be used to build projects for Community Churches, including an auditorium and research library. But, he claims, that is not what happened. "Some of the funds were used for building projects for the various entities," Christ said. "Some were used to pay off loans for other entities and some were used by McBirnie personally."
McBirnie could not be reached for comment.
Lack of Evidence Claimed
Rick Manzano, one of two lawyers representing the 65-year-old clergyman, said there is no evidence to support the allegations against McBirnie and that his client should not be held personally responsible for the loss of the funds. Manzano said Cooper's decision probably will be appealed.
"There is no question that Community Churches of America, which is a Washington, D.C.-based corporation, borrowed money from different people and that entity may owe people money," Manzano said. "We're talking about whether Dr. McBirnie owes people any money.
"He signed notes as the president of the corporation, but he is not personally responsible for paying back the money or for its misuse."
Manzano said that officials with Community Churches and the other groups made poor investments with some of the money, but that McBirnie had nothing to do with that. "But then that story hasn't come out because we haven't had any response from any of those entities," Manzano said.
Manzano said the suits were brought against the minister because the plaintiffs "must have a vendetta against him or something."
McBirnie came to the Glendale area in 1961 when he accepted a position as senior pastor of the United Community Church of Glendale, then a 100-member congregation that met at a La Crescenta recreation center. Over the years, McBirnie built a religious empire that is housed in a block-long complex of white stucco, Spanish-style buildings in the 200 block of Kenwood Street in Glendale.
The complex is dominated by the $1.5 million, octagonal-shaped United Community Church at the corner of Kenwood and Colorado streets, which can hold up to 1,500 people in its amphitheater.
To support the contention that the organizations named in the lawsuit are all financially linked and are run by McBirnie, Troupis submitted written statements from all 24 of his clients, records from the Los Angeles County Recorder showing transfers of property between Community Churches and the theology school and a balance sheet from Community Churches that showed a co-mingling of assets among all the defendants.
In addition, Troupis said he presented testimony from Dr. Robert Hubbard, former senior services minister at United Community Churches, who testified to McBirnie's personal connection to the organizations named in the suits.
At the hearing Monday, McBirnie's lawyers were not allowed to present written statements or oral testimony because it had been ruled earlier in a separate hearing that the defendants had defaulted by not answering the complaints served on them last year. Manzano maintains that no such complaints were served on his client and said that service of complaint will be a main point of contention if the case is appealed.
Troupis said that, once he receives Cooper's decision on the amount of the award to his clients, he intends to collect the money by conducting a sheriff's sale of property belonging to the various organizations.
In a separate case in 1983, Troupis oversaw the public auction of eight buildings owned by McBirnie organizations and collected $76,000 owed to the Thomas Nelson Publishing Co. of Nashville, Tenn., for Bibles ordered by Community Churches of America.
McBirnie's legal entanglements began in 1982 when a class-action suit was filed in Los Angeles Federal Court against Community Churches by residents of the Concord, a Pasadena senior-citizen apartment operating under the rent subsidy program of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The McBirnie organization had paid off the 34 years of debt remaining on HUD's 50-year mortgage, put the building up for sale and notified tenants that their rents would be doubled, even threatening them with eviction.
The Concord became one of the eight buildings auctioned to pay off the debt to Nelson publishing and is now under HUD's authority.
Troupis is also the attorney in two other cases similar to the one heard by Cooper on Monday. In those cases, pending in the Glendale courts, the plaintiffs claim to have loaned McBirnie a total of $100,000, Troupis said.
Troupis said he has also been contacted by four other people who have asked him to pursue claims amounting to about $50,000. In addition, Troupis said, he has spoken with six other attorneys who plan to file claims on behalf of clients who lost about $300,000 in unpaid loans.