THE WHEELER INTERVIEW
On Saturday, November 4th, 2006 Protodeacon Eric Wheeler, former Secretary to Metropolitan Theodosius and former Treasurer of the Orthodox Church in America, answered questions from the editor and readers of OCANews.org. The following is his interview in full.
Mark Stokoe, Editor of OCANews.org: "Let's go back to October 2005. What made you finally go public six years after you were dismissed as Treasurer?"
Protodeacon Eric Wheeler: "Although the hurt I felt after being removed from my position at the chancery subsided fairly quickly once I secured a new job and got on with my life, what never left me was a nagging sense that God would never have exposed me to all that I witnessed and not expect me to act somehow. I just never knew how, when or through what medium I was to respond."
So how did it come about?
In the spring and early summer of 2005, as the Church prepared for the All-American Council, the Orthodox internet lists began to focus their activity on financial matters. Syosset was preparing to present the 'Fair Share' resolution in support of the work of the central Chuch. Through a friend I posted one, then two, finally three anonymous responses on the internet lists, addressing the financial mismanagement of the Central Church Administration.
With one of the main focuses of the 2005 Council being finances, the Midwest Diocese requested that a full presentation of the operating budget of the Church be presented at the AAC. Father Kondratick refused this request. The negative response given Archbishop Job and the subsequent correspondence was the actual impetus for my memo " A Call to Accountability".
(Read that document here)
Recognizing that he would probably be put on the hot- seat during the private sessions of the Holy Synod for asking that the operating budget be presented, I took it upon myself to provide Archbishop Job with a little support. The earliest version of this memo was sent to him at the Toronto Sheraton during the week of the Council. The issue, however, was never raised during the meetings of the Synod.
So what did you do?
In my discussions with Archbishop Job after the Council, and after prayerful consideration, I decided to address my concerns in a letter and memo directly to members of the Holy Synod. I delivered the packet of information to their hotel rooms prior to the 2005 Fall Session, primarily so that members of their staff would not become aware of its contents. It was my initial desire that the problems with regard to the finances of the Orthodox Church in America would be handled in a confidential manner.
But that didn't work?
With no response from the Holy Synod, I emailed a cover letter and the packet I had sent to the bishops to members of the Metropolitan Council prior to their 2005 Fall meeting. Fourteen hours after I sent the information to the Metropolitan Council, Peter Zwick posted the information on the Orthodox Forum. And, for the record, I am not Peter Zwick, nor do I know who he is.
Some have suggested that this is all about lost jobs, or it is personal; that the issues are really less important than the personal animosities and settling old scores.
I did have close personal relationships with Metropolitan Theodosius, Father Kondratick and many other people involved in the administrative work of the Orthodox Church in America - after all, we worked together for over ten years, often seven days a week. I deeply regret the loss of many of these close friendships due to the circumstances of this scandal. However, my actions have never been driven by the loss of these personal relationships, or for that matter, the loss of my position in the Church.
I recall a conversation I had with Father Kondratick at the 1999 All-American Council as we sat together on the dais during one of the plenary sessions. He asked me if I was prepared to single-handedly bring down Metropolitan Theodosius over the issue of the discretionary accounts and the financial mismanagement of the church I responded that I was, and pointed to the 1,000+ people sitting before us, stating that: "These people deserve a much better church administration than the one they are currently have."
My actions were based on the premise that the faithful were being short changed by the Central Church Administration as they continued to foot the bill for its existence. I never had a personal agenda with regard to the steps I took to correct the financial improprieties perpetrated by members of the administration.
You made specific allegations in your letter of October 2005 to the Synod. You said:
• Metropolitan Theodosius and Father Kondratick maintained discretionary accounts “disproportionate" to
the annual operating budget of the Church.
• An unqualified audit could not be produced for the OCA for the periods ending December 31, 1997 and
1998 because these funds were not included in the financial reports of the Church.
• On a regular basis, petty cash checks were cut from these accounts in the amounts of $10,000 with the
cash being given to Father Kondratick.
• A review of the financial records of the church during this period will show a deficit in the Charity Appeal
Fund of close to $275,000.
In the past year Syosset has admitted publicly that all these allegations are true. Vindication?
If all of this was based on a personal agenda, I could very easily say that I have been vindicated. The actions of a few, and the lack of response from many, for countless years, have made this a serious problem for the hierarchs, clergy and faithful of the Orthodox Church in America. My feeling is that vindication can only come from the faithful once trust in the administration of the church is fully re-established.
Syosset has kept silent about other allegations you made: inappropriate personal, behavior, blackmail, side-businesses being run from Syosset. Can you elaborate?
I first discussed these issues with Metropolitan Herman and Jonathan Russin in 1999. (Editor's note: Jonathan Russin is the OCA's legal counsel.) There is one page of my 'Call to Accountability' that was not made public, nor will I make it public. Within this past year I have discussed these issues with both Proskauer Rose and the FBI. I will leave it to the Metropolitan Council to determine what should appear in an official report presented to the Church. I will only add however, as I said before, that the secretive approach to the finances of the church was rooted in these problems.
Are you saying the FBI is now involved?
I have been asked not to speak at length about it, but yes, it is not a very well kept secret that there has been an ongoing investigation. While I recognize that there are many legal ramifications for our church as we sort through the intricacies of this scandal, including putting our tax exempt status in jeopardy, I personally think that the report from Proskauer Rose will go a long way in removing any impression that this scandal is personal. It will also begin the healing process for our Church and begin the process of closure.
Can you tell us more about your allegations of "Off the books sale of merchandise brought back from Russia. Large caches of liturgical items offered for sale. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits", then?
'Hundreds of thousands' of dollars may be an exaggeration - but just about everyone traveling to Russia and exposed to the church liturgical factory in Sophrino during the late 80's and early 90's got into the 'resale' business. One of our seminary bookstores was at the top of the list with pre-Memorial Day visits to Russia. I was even paid a commission of $500 once by Father Kondratick for my involvement in a sale.
And this was wrong, because....
The issue was not the resale business per se, but the fact that these revenues and expenses were never audited or even accounted for. In this instance cash was taken into Russia from the church coffers; yet no record of the distribution of funds in Russia was ever provided, even though mandated by the external auditors. Worse, the revenue from the sale of these liturgical items was never accounted for in the operating budget.
Where did those monies go?
No one knows where these money went 'cause no one can find it....
In the past year several new aspects of the scandal have been raised, of which you were not a part. Could you
comment on these:
The Kondratick Promissory note?
I do not think we have seen that last of the Kondratick lawsuit. My guess is that the next volley will be another lawsuit without Father Bob's name attached. Since I may be deposed with regard to this matter, I will withold any comment.
The Kondratick Tape?
I have never seen it - but I was made aware of its contents first hand in the early spring of 2005. It was another one of the reasons for pushing me to finally act. Since it is currently in the hands of the FBI, I would rather not comment further.
Have you spoken with Proskauer Rose?
I met with representatives from Proskauer Rose in March of this year for approximately five hours. I believe I was one of the first individuals they interviewed. I think there is a message in the fact that after all these years the only people that have asked me to present my story have been either lawyers or law enforcement officials.
Any thoughts on the investigation you wish to share?
I personally believe that the Proskauer Rose investigation was actually completed some time ago. So when we hear information from the Central Church Administration that the investigation is still ongoing, the reference is to the FBI investigation and not the investigation initially undertaken by Proskauer Rose.
So what do you think will happen now? What would you like to see happen?
If you review my initial letters to the Holy Synod and the Metropolitan Council you will see that I only asked for one thing to be accomplished -the re-institution of an independent audit. I understand that in our post-Enron society, the independent audit provides for good governance of all administrative aspects of an organization. If we look at the steps the current administration has taken in isolation of our financial scandal - re-instituting an independent audit, institution of Best Practices, establishment of a Donor's Bill of Rights, implementing job descriptions, following organizational flow charts, etc., we could become the envy of the majority of non-profits in this country.
However, no organization serving the needs of others exists in isolation. Trust must be at its foundation. Our Central Administration has lost our trust.
So how do we deal with that lack of trust?
There have been numerous recommendations put forth by the faithful of our Church and posted on the internet boards during the past year, all suggesting how this scandal can be brought to an end. My comments would only add to or duplicate much of what has already been expressed. I do agree that we need an All-American Council sooner rather than later, as part of an evolution to an entirely new Central Church Administration. What I do know is that until we begin to offer repentance and ask for forgiveness, individually and collectively, we will not see the beginning of an end to this crisis.
By 'new Central Church Administration' do you mean systems, structures or changes in personnel?
While we can clearly point to a small group of individuals who abused their positions of leadership and placed our church in a most difficult financial position, we must also look at all the other administrative bodies that have been asleep at the wheel - the Holy Synod, the Metropolitan Council, the administration of the Central Church, the internal auditors, too many representatives at the All-American Councils - for many, many years.
Not for nothin', but all the information that I placed in my letter to the Metropolitan Council, including what I flagged then was a $1.8 million debt, was gleaned from public financial documents. Wasn't anyone else reading those reports?
Apparently not. Are there still things we are missing?
There is a great deal in there that has been overshadowed, especially the questions I raise about the investment funds. Re-read that letter.
(Read the November letter here.)
So what needs to be done?
What has been lacking in all of this throughout the entire year is an expression of humility and real repentance. From a very early age, all of us have been taught that repentance and forgiveness are essential to our salvation. I would therefore like to publicly confess and ask for forgiveness that due to my pride – the feeling that I could fix the problems of the Central Church Administration on my own - I did not take my concerns to anyone prior to the spring of 1999, and attempted to address the problems myself. I ask for forgiveness of all the people who have been scandalized by what I have done and of those driven away from the church due to the public disclosure of this scandal. I ask forgiveness of Bishop Tikhon, Father Dresko and Monk James Silver for disparaging them on the internet. I ask the forgiveness of my family for drawing them into this entire mess. I express this with sincerity and hope this can begin the process of healing.
The Church has lawyered up; the Kondratick's have a lawyer, even the Metropolitan Council has legal advisers now. Have you got a lawyer?
My wife has always told me that being naive was one of my more attractive qualities - a quality that has gotten me into difficult situations on more than one occasion.So no, I do not have, nor have I ever retained a lawyer.
You were officially told to be silent in 2005. Has that been lifted?
In the past year I have received four letters from Metropolitan Herman strongly suggesting that I refrain from posting on the internet for the good of the church. The receipt of each letter was followed by a phone call from me to Metropolitan Herman where I made my views known. I did make it clear that I would continue to post on the internet in a constructive manner when it came to commenting on the Church's financial reports, postings and press releases.
I would say, though, that the letters, which sounded as if they were written by someone else, did not match the more pastoral approach to the scandal expressed by Metropolitan Herman in our phone conversations.
There were pictures of you serving with the Metropolitan at your parish feastday this past Spring. You two have known and worked with each other for close to 30 years.
Actually my relationship with Metropolitan Herman goes back about 40 years. In the spirit of full disclosure, and as long as I am confessing past sins: Vladyka Herman, I was the kid who placed the bull frog in your tent during one of the summers I spent at St. Tikhon's Summer Camp.
Do you still speak with the Metropolitan?
Yes, Metropolitan Herman and I still speak. I have always admired the fact that whenever he is in residence, he picks up his own phone.
How do you handle the attacks on you, your ministry, your intentions, your family?
I have never viewed this scandal as personal, so I can honestly say that I have been able to harden myself against any personal attacks.
My wife and children were never aware of what was transpiring during the 1990's at the chancery until early 1999, when it became clear that my days were numbered. They have been my pillar of support throughout this entire mess. And although they do not have a great love for the leadership of the Orthodox Church in America, their faith has never wavered.
What do you do now?
I am currently the Finance Manager at a Museum and Botanical Garden on Long Island.
Would you ever go back to work for the Church?
I recently read the press release by Deacon Stephen Vernak of the OISM encounter in Kodiak, Alaska which was posted on the OCA website. It brought to mind the purity, naivety and innocence with which I entered seminary some thirty-five years ago. Seeing all that is good and blessed by God – and having that goodness consume all that which is negative and destructive – that is the spirit in which each person begins seminary. Despite the hard knocks of life's experiences we strive never to lose this spirit. My heart is still in the Church even though at present my service in the church has waned. One never knows what the future may hold.
Thanks for speaking to OCANews.org.
This was hard.