The Metropolitan Council Minutes:
Straining Gnats and Swallowing Camels
The Minutes of the recent Metropolitan Council meeting have been posted. (Read those Minutes here) While all the decisions taken have been previously reported, the actual Minutes as redacted by Syosset
give an insight into how much - and how little- has really changed. Structural and administrative personnel changes that fit the story line that the OCA is “moving on” from the crisis are detailed, but the
unrepentant attitudes and perspectives that led to it are clearly still in place.
Omission by Design
For example, Section 5 of the Minutes, headlined as the “ Financial Report and OCA Audit Committee Report” as published by Syosset, reads as follows:
“ Fr. Paul Suda, Chairman of the OCA Audit Committee reported orally and in writing on review of January - March 2007 transactions. Insummary, he noted: the Chancery presently has no credit cards, so no credit card transactions were reviewed; allocations to expense categories were appropriate for expense reimbursements; transportation expenses were properly documented; and all but “a few” transactions had
proper receipt documentation. He presented six recommendations, one of which, he reported, was already accomplished:
that a response be prepared to the audit report completed by Lambrides, Lamos, and Moulthrop, LLP, in September 2006;
that a quarterly budget review be completed by a CPA to “confirm the new administration is following best practices” (accomplished);
that the OCA Audit Committee chair serve on the MC audit committee;
that specific documentation practices be put in place for travel expenses;
that no expenses be reimbursed without receipt unless approved “by the appropriate party with a reason for the exception”; and
that the new financial software be used to identify ways to enhance audit capabilities.”
What is interesting is that between the evening of July 13 when MC members recieved their copies and the release of the Minutes on the 14th, Syosset unilaterally decided to alter the document. Somehow, someone decided a final comment of Fr. Suda contained in the Minutes would not be shared with the public, a comment that was included in the final, corrected version sent to MC members. The deleted sentence,
which followed “that the new financial software be used to identify ways to enhance audit capabilities” read: “Through discussion and
answers to members' questions, Fr. Suda commented, 'Things have been corrected. Normalcy has returned to the Church.'"
A minor oversight? Perhaps “spin” is the more accurate term. The opinion of the Audit Chair at the conclusion of his report, his judgement of whether or not things have been corrected and returned to normal is surely relevant (if not fully accurate). But the comment is
not convenient, nor does it fit the current dictum from Syosset that all mention of the scandal, or of past bad practice (except how it relates to Fr. Kondratick) is taboo. For Fr. Suda to report things have been corrected, implies they were in need of correction; or for “normalcy” to have returned, means things have hardly been normal.
At the top of the list of abnormalities would have been an Audit Committee that never met - as Fr. Suda admitted earlier this year that his did not, or when it did, to suggest (as did Fr. Suda in 1999) that “two out of three signatures” on the annual audit were “good
enough”. That was the same year $4.5 million in
ADM donations were discovered “missing”, Protodeacon Wheeler was fired, Metropolitan Herman took over as Acting Treasurer of the OCA, and John
Kozey, the Chairman of the OCA Audit Committee who broke the scandal and refused to sign the audit, was removedas Chairman, and subsequently replaced by, yes, none other than Fr. Paul Suda. The man who told us all was well in 1999 as the cover-up began, now tells us that all is “normal” in 2007. To the Metropolitan Council’s credit, a motion was made to call for a vote of "No Confidence" in Suda and his internal audit committee last December - but was withdrawn at the insistence of, yes, Metropolitan Herman.
Just this brief discursus should be sufficient to explain why Syosset is so eager to dismiss any discussion of the scandal apart from Fr. Kondratick. It becomes all too clear, all to quickly, that regardless of Fr. Kondratick’s misdeeds, the scandal did not and could not have gone
on for decades without what at best could be termed failure to do their duties, and at worse the complicity, of such as the Metropolitan and Fr.Suda, among others.
But the real spin comes in Section Eight of the Minutes entitled “The Investigation Committee Report”. It begins:
"Fr. Berzonsky orally reported actions of the committee. He reported on the Committee’s process and said they perceived insufficientcooperation from Proskauer Rose in providing records. He said plans
for further investigation were cut short by the suspension of their activities. Discussion followed regarding bills from and payments to
Proskauer Rose as well as processes to assure all bills are fully substantiated before payment. Fr. Kucynda stated that Attorney Alexandra Makosky is presently scrutinizing all current open bills from Proskauer Rose prior to payment."
The posted Minutes say Fr. Berzonsky and the Committee “perceived" insufficient cooperation from Proskauer Rose. What Fr. Berzonky really
believes is better expressed in his own report to the Diocesan Council ofthe Midwest, given a week later, and unedited by Syosset. Fr.Berzonsky wrote there:
“We are and have been in denial. PR
unfortunately means Proskauer Rose, our peculiarly reluctant legal firm that is less than helpful in providing ample information to heal a wounded Church. We are or ought to be above politics and legalities. We
are Christians.” (Read his full letter here).
Clearly, Fr. Berzonsky did not just “perceive” a problem with Proskauer Rose; he experienced an ongoing one.
But the spin in the Minutes comes not just from shading the description of events as with Fr. Berzonsky’s report, or omitting comments such as with Fr. Suda, they spin as well by omitting the reasons for the discussion in the first place. For example Syosset’s Minutes record that following Fr. Berzonsky’s report “discussion followed regarding bills from and payments to PR (Proskauer Rose)” . Why? How does one go from discussing the suspension of the Commission, to whether and how bills are being paid?
The reason for the suspension of the Commission are well known - they wanted to investigate things the Metropolitan did not want them to. Or, as the Minutes themselves admit later: ''The commission’s activities were stopped temporarily when they went into a whole new direction, because of numerous other concerns.” (More on that later). But why be concerned about billing? Sources indicate that the Commission and later the Council as a whole asked for the detailed monthly billing records of Proskauer Rose. (It is customary for legal firms to bill monthly as Proskauer Rose did for the first six months or so of their employment.) Syosset refused. Instead, at the June Council meeting, Fr. Kucynda held up what he said was a five month "joint statement" from Proskauer Rose for the work done in that period and the amount owed -without giving any details, or offering the Council members any chance to review the invoice themselves.
Nor is this the first time the Council has tried to get the billing records. In October 2006 the Minutes of the Metropolitan Council record:
“5. INVESTIGATION BY PROSKAUER ROSE. After a discussion, Dr. Skordinski moved, seconded by Father Reese, that “as an interim solution, [that]
within ten days, Proskauer Rose provide a summary of all billings to date and a projection of the number of additional billable hours expected by Proskauer Rose.” The motion carried.”
They did not get the billings then, either.
The question here is what is to be found in PR’s billings that the Council tried to discuss it twice - and Syosset both times has denied access to it? Such billings normally offered detailed explanations of exactly what work was done, by which attorneys or paralegals, and is generally billed in 15-20 minute increments. It is the least clients can expect, when they are paying $700 or more an hour - that is, $175 every 15 minutes - for the work of a Proskauer Rose attorney or associate.
An Outbreak of Amnesia
Given the above, Fr. Mark Sherman, the new clergy delegate from New England, presented the following resolution:
“As also previously authorized and directed by the MetropolitanCouncil and the Holy Synod, the Special Commission is directed to continue, without delay, its investigation of financial malfeasance
affecting the Church, without any hindrance or limit, and to reports its findings and recommendations no less often than monthly to the Metropolitan Council and Holy Synod. Such reports shall include, once
available, the identification of what has happened and recommendations as to any possible means of the recovery of Church assets lost or misappropriated. All parties having relevant information, including
any legal counsel representing the Church, are authorized and directed to cooperate fully with the Special Commission in such investigation.”
"Mr. Popovich seconded. Mr. Nescott asked if all Special Commission recommendations went to the Holy Synod and were approved. His Beatitude replied that he would need to check on the recommendation
about releasing the report, but the other recommendations were accepted.”
It seems strange the Metropolitan can remember all the other recommendations, except the one he himself has already agreed to. Over a year ago, in April 2006, the Metropolitan stated in his Archpastoral
letter to the OCA:
“Additional audit reports as well as the results of the internal investigation will also become part of our public records when deemed appropriate to do so by the investigators. The Holy Synod of Bishops,
the Metropolitan Council, and then all of you will be made aware of the findings in a timely fashion and with good order.”
Of course, this does not include the Commission’s recommendation to release the Report (March 2007), the Metropolitan Council’s two uanimous votes to release the Report (March and June 2007) or, yes, the Holy Synod’s own agreement to do so last May...
The Metropolitan's sudden amnesia on this point is coupled with another noetic aberration - delusion. As the Minutes record:
“His Beatitude said he does not object to (Fr. Sherman's) motion because the suspension of the Special Commission has been misinterpreted.”
Much as Gregg Nescott’s dismissal was a “misunderstanding”, the suspension of the Commission has now been “misinterpreted”. Stop, friends, and consider which is more pathetic: that the Metropolitan
really believes such nonsense, or that he lacks such respect for his fellow Bishops, clergy and laity that he thinks they will buy such excuses? In fact the greater sadness is that he can continue to spin such lies in plain sight of the evidence, and few, if any of the hierarchs,
clergy or laity of the OCA object. And when a parish does, by withholding, it, not the liar, is chastised! Have we not become the blind guides Jesus complained about? Ever ready to “strain out a gnat” in others, but willing to “swallow a camel?” ourselves (Matthew
Syosset’s Minutes seek to explain the Metropolitan’s actions switching to the papal plural:
“We appointed the Special Commission to bring a close to the investigation into the Proskauer Rose findings. The commission’s activities were stopped temporarily when they went into a whole new direction, because of numerous other concerns.”
Where to begin?
First, the Metropolitan finally confirms what OCANews.org reported months ago - that the Special Commission, named by the Metropolitan and confirmed by the Council and the Synod to discover the truth, was “hijacked” by the Metropolitan and his lawyers for a much narrower purpose. Secondly, he confirms that when the Commission, having faithfully fulfilled that purpose, attempted to get back on track, he stopped it.
And t he questions that arise from these two sentences! For example, what does “stopped temporarily” mean? Temporary, as in a month? Three months? Six months? Until Fr. Kondratick’s trial is over, till
the great unwashed get tired and quiet down, or until “we” have enough time to get a better story in place?
Whatever the questions, what we do know is what the Metropolitan means when he said the Commission “went into a whole new direction.” Among others, it meant investigating him.
And we know what “numerous other concerns” means. It means the $4.5 million in missing ADM donations to the OCA, the missing million dollars from the Church’s endowments taken in 2002, the unexplained or
missing $800,000 in bequests estimated by Peter Zwick, not to mention the scandals involving things other than money...
Whatever the questions remaining, one thing is clear: accountability, transparency and prudence continue to be subordinated to the Metropolitan’s self-interest, even in the “new” OCA.
Section Eight of the Minutes continues:
“The Council discussed the benefit of passing the motion and agreed the objective is to prevent recurrence of the malfeasance, not to engage in
muckraking, which is contrary to canon law. "
Round and round, the spinning gets faster as there are more and more camels to swallow. While one can believe that the Council discussed the benefits
of passing the motion, and even that all agreed that an objective was to prevent recurrence of the “malfeasance”, it is hard to imagine the Council, as a whole, or even the greater part, was ready, willing or
even able to discuss sacred canons regarding “muckraking” - let alone "agree" on it. One may safely assume this reference reflects more a threat from the spinmeisters in Syosset, than an actual discussion or decision of the members of the Council. Of course it is a threat - for since the “malfeasance” is now over we are told, and we have been told to “move on”, any further discussion or actions, such as the author of this article and those reading it, could be construed as “muckraking" - and subject to canonical sanction. And if it is not a threat, what is it? An arcane historical reference that just happened to be tossed in?
Omissions, spin, distortions, amnesia, lies and now threats from Syosset. It is the week of Bastille Day, so as the French say: "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
As usual, it ends in farce.
This section of the Minutes concludes:
“On the other hand, a good outcome of the investigation would be to support Best Practices."
What more evidence does one need to realize that this Administration is incapable and more damnable, unwilling, to deal with the realities of the OCA’s long defeat? Syosset’s only words after 18 months of scandal and turmoil: “Support Best Practices!" Allons, enfants!
From Syosset’s first word on this scandal the mantra has been the same: "Support Best Practices” - even though the Metropolitan himself admits, that he had no idea what they even mean. “I must admit,” he said of his October 2005 statement "...Best Practices was only a concept for me.” Concepts aside, the reality is that from October 2005 when Protodeacon
Eric Wheeler ‘s letter broke open the scandal to today, 18 months later, the Metropolitan has chosen to ignore, divert, lie, and hinder every effort to be honest, open, transparent and accountable for the “malfeasance” that has been so laboriously uncovered.
How long is the OCA going to continue trying to swallow this camel? After 18 months we're talking about a caravan....
Fortunately, before this part of the Minutes could degenerate even further into shameless advertising, reflective only of Syosset’s goals and priorities, rather than those of the Council about which they were to be reporting, the question was called. Fr. Sherman’s motion (remember the motion?) passed by a vote of 20 to 1.
So where does this act of resistance by the Metropolitan Council leave us? Has anything been resolved?
No, and yes. Some good administrative and needed personnel changes occurred.
But nothing with the scandal, the scandal that continues to sap our very corporate and spiritual life has been resolved. We still do not know the truth, the vehicle for ascertaining it has been suspended, and no indication has been given when, or even if, this will change.
Certainly the attitudes and perspectives at the top that led to it, allowed it, and sustained it, have not changed. Until Syosset stops straining at gnats and we, the Bishops, clergy and laity of the Orthodox Church in America stop swallowing camels, nothing will.
As the Minutes witness, our long defeat continues...
- Mark Stokoe