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Adventists to Meet to Weigh Fate of Embattled Leader

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seventh-day Adventist leaders from around the world are flying into town this weekend for an emergency meeting to discuss the fate of the 10-million-member church’s president, accused of ethical and financial misdeeds in dealings with a Sacramento businessman who is suing him.

Some elders are already demanding that President Robert H. Folkenberg step down from his post atop the fast-growing denomination, but others want to hear evidence at meetings that begin Monday and weigh the gravity of the case, said Neal Wilson, himself a former president of the world church.

“There’s going to be some harm to the church obviously, but the question is how can we effect the least damage? Can the president exercise the moral character to lead this church?” Wilson asked.

One of Folkenberg’s attorneys, Joe Reeder, said the unusual meeting was requested by Folkenberg himself.

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“He said we needed to air this out,” Reeder said. “We believe these charges are frivolous . . . [but these are] serious allegations, and you want to put it to bed immediately and deal with it conclusively.” Folkenberg was unavailable for comment.

The church’s problems grow out of complicated business dealings Folkenberg had in the early 1990s with James Moore. The Sacramento businessman filed a lawsuit against the church in August, claiming that Folkenberg and the church cheated him and a charitable foundation he represented out of $8 million from a major land development in El Dorado County.

The church’s Latin American division had unspecified business dealings in the 1980s with Moore and his charitable foundation, which is affiliated with the Catholic Church. The Adventist church says it cut off dealings with Moore in 1989--the same year he was imprisoned after being convicted of theft in a separate investment scheme.

But Adventist leaders say they want to know why Folkenberg continued negotiating a payment to Moore connected with the El Dorado County land deal. They also want to know whether the church’s tax-exempt status was misused in the land deals, which were apparently coordinated through a Barbados account, and whether Folkenberg paid Moore anything to resolve the dispute quietly.

Church leaders say they are raising questions now because they were only recently served with notice of Moore’s lawsuit.

Most damaging to Folkenberg could be several dozen hours of taped telephone conversations between him and Moore from 1994 to 1998, in which the two men discuss the $8 million Moore claims Folkenberg and the church owe him.

Sources familiar with the tapes say the conversations leave significant questions about the exact nature of the financial arrangement between the two men. But Folkenberg repeatedly makes statements about his profound remorse over their dealings and his efforts to get Moore his money back without him or the church being sued.

“I’ve asked the Lord for forgiveness so many times,” Folkenberg said in one conversation with Moore. “The Lord knows I’ve told him I regret having taken a nickel.”

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Moore has played parts of the tapes for the opposing lawyers in an effort to reach a settlement. While he declined to discuss details of the case in an interview Friday, he maintained that Folkenberg signed a 1994 letter consenting to have their conversations taped and that “my hands are clean.”

Lawyers for Folkenberg and the church insist that the signature on the consent document was forged and that the tapes were made illegally under California law.

In one conversation, Folkenberg said he considered going to the church’s insurance department to arrange a settlement with Moore, but to do so, he would “have to confess to and be open to [charges of] fraudulent conduct. . . . I might as well just go ahead and resign [from the church] anyway and let the litigation find me guilty of something.”

Folkenberg also discussed whether he could pay off part of the $8 million Moore claimed he was owed by quietly diverting part of the donations from a telecommunications program set up by the church’s international relief agency, an idea he apparently rejected as too risky because of a potential “conflict of interest.”

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He even considered taking out a second mortgage on his home. “I don’t know where else to turn . . . I’m willing to risk everything,” he said.

Folkenberg also voiced concerns on the tapes about public exposure, saying at one point that “all I need is for a Los Angeles Times reporter to be digging into [the case].”

At the time of that conversation, reporters for The Times were looking into financial and ethical questions about mandatory tithing within the Seventh-day Adventist Church, as well as allegations of irregular use of federal aid for overseas relief work, and other issues.

Folkenberg became the target of criticism soon after he took over the church presidency in 1990. It was disclosed that he and another top church official had accepted tens of thousands of dollars in the form of salaries for their wives for phantom jobs. The anonymous donations from a wealthy donor were funneled through the church’s Worthy Student Fund, intended to be used for charitable scholarships. Folkenberg apologized to the church.

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His current predicament may be tougher to resolve, church leaders say.

“It’s very possible when this is all looked at, the president will recognize and admit he’s made a couple of stupid mistakes by keeping in touch with this man Moore out in California,” said Wilson. “Why didn’t he cut him off a long time ago, realizing his record?”

But it is still “impossible to say” whether Folkenberg will lose his job at next week’s meeting in suburban Washington, Wilson said. “There must be no rush to judgment here,” he added.

The leaders of nearly all the church’s divisions around the world--including Europe, Africa and Asia--are expected to attend next week’s meetings, with Folkenberg in attendance, officials said.

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Church spokesman Ray Dabrowski said officials want to determine: “What was the nature of [Folkenberg’s] involvement” with Moore?

“Questions will be asked, and answers will be given. The church is very serious about the way it deals with integrity, with trust, and with service . . . so that when issues arise, we have to deal with them,” he said.


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