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Danville church lawsuit aims to stop power struggle

June 20, 2013|By DAVID BROCK | dbrock@amnews.com

Church of God of America Inc. is suing a group that originally filed a lawsuit claiming to represent it.

The most recent lawsuit, filed June 11 in Boyle Circuit Court, accuses a group of disgruntled members of tarnishing the name and reputation of the Danville-headquartered church and its leader, Bishop and President Timothy Napier.

The complaint alleges the group, including two men who once served as pastors, published false and libelous statements without church authority last year.

Danville attorney Bill Erwin filed the suit on the church’s behalf, seeking both compensatory and punitive damages. Erwin also filed for a restraining order on behalf of the church and Napier to stop the defendants from continuing to meet and act on the church’s behalf.

It is the latest salvo in what has become a public and contentous schism in the church. Much of it stems from decisions about how to move forward after the church building on Martin Luther King Boulevard was destroyed by a fire Jan. 31, 2010. Church of God of America Inc., of which Napier is the registered officer with the Kentucky Secretary of State’s Office, eventually collected $918,000 in insurance money.

“What they have done has been harmful to both Bishop Napier and the church as they are trying to recover and build something new in this community,” Erwin said Wednesday.

Earlier this year, William Fay and Eric L. Barnes, both of Somerset, and Barnes’ son, Justin Barnes of Shelbyville, identified themselves as church elders and trustees in a lawsuit filed in Boyle Circuit Court on behalf of themselves and  27 church members.

In court documents, they allege Napier, James Hines, Charles Johnson and Perry Cunningham misappropriated funds for personal use, acted without proper authorization to rebuild the church in Danville, and locked the plaintiffs out of churches in Somerset and Shelbyville.

The plaintiffs in that case asked the court to halt construction on a new $1.5-million Church of God facility under way on Perryville Road and prevent Napier and the other defendants from taking any further actions on behalf of the church.

They also requested access to the Somerset and Shelbyville church buildings, church financial records and repayment for alleged embezzlement.

The Barnses and Fay said they were ordained elders of the church and questioned Napier's status as bishop and president, maintaining he was never properly elected by elders as required by church bylaws. The lawsuit also challenged the legality of Napier's actions over the last two years, most notably the purchase of land for the new church.

In a June 12 ruling on Erwin’s motion to dismiss the case, Circuit Judge Darren Peckler said the group could not file the lawsuit on behalf of the Church of God of America because it had no authority to do so. Erwin, who also represented Napier in the previous lawsuit, had filed a counterclaim asking for the suit to be thrown out with prejudice and for both punitive and compensatory damages.

Erwin filed the motion for a restraining order to stop the defendants in the more recent case from holding meetings in the church’s name. He said the group has continued to meet, including holding a summer revival.

While the primary complainants in the original lawsuit have accused Napier of seizing power by skirting church protocol, Erwin said the Barnses met with Fay at a Corbin restaurant after the fire to name themselves elders.

The new lawsuit names the Barneses, Fay, Charles Johnson Jr., and Perry and Amanda Cunningham as defendants. It says the father and son had no standing in the corporation to act on its behalf, falsified an elders’ report and a Special Team Review Report, and that the accusations contained in those documents and the lawsuit filed against Napier constitute libel.

Erwin also insists the statements about misusing funds were disproven when accountants hired to review the church books said all money has been spent appropriately.

It remains unclear how the group that originally sued will respond, individually or collectively, now that it is being sued by the organization the court recognizes as the Church of God of America.

Neither Erwin's counterclaim, the motion for the restraining order nor the filing of additional counts in the subsequent lawsuit, has received a response. Lebanon attorney Ted Lavit, who represented the Barnses and Fay, could not be reached for comment.

According to Erwin, stopping the meetings and accusations is the most important thing to Napier and others who side with him. He said his clients are not asking for specific damages because the conflict is ongoing and the defendants continue to claim roles in the church and make false accusations.

Erwin likened the case he acknowledged is extremely unique to a person or group of people claiming to speak for a company without permission.

“Coca-Cola would have a fit,” Erwin said. “The fact it is a church doesn’t make its standing as a corporation any different than if it were Coca-Cola. And they are trying to rebuild here in this community.”

Napier, who also owns Kentucky Tours and Travel in Danville, told a reporter in March he appointed Eric and Justin Barnes to serve as pastors of the Somerset and Shelbyville churches, respectively, but later terminated them from their positions.

Erwin said the Barnses and William Fay were the ones not legitimately chosen for their positions, meeting together at a Corbin restaurant to appoint themselves as church elders. Johnson and both Perry and Amanda Cunningham, defendants along with Napier and James L. Hines in the original case, have continued to act without church authority and participate in a smear campaign against Napier and other elders, he said.

Napier has maintained the legal action against him was fueled by "jealousy and envy."

"They do not want to see the vision I have for this community to come to fruition. This is an attack to destroy it. Some of them want to rebuild in Somerset, but this is the town for this church to grow,” Napier said in March.

Erwin believes the defendants are being motivated more by gaining control of the insurance windfall than real concerns about Napier's actions.

"There is a lot of money out there, and they want it for these other parts of the state. But the Church of God of America in Danville burned down in Danville, and they are going to rebuild here in Danville."

The defendants have 20 days from the date the summonses were received to answer the counterclaim and the new lawsuit.

The parties will meet for a hearing on the restraining order July 10.

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