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Jury sets penalties in failed church construction project

(AP) — A Mississippi jury has set financial penalties against the pastor and another leader of a church over a failed construction project that caused tension in the congregation.
The dispute is over a sanctuary that never got built at Second Baptist Church in Starkville. A civil lawsuit was filed in 2015. Jurors in Oktibbeha County handed down their decision Wednesday after hearing the case for 12 days.
Jurors unanimously found that Pastor Joseph Stone and Head Deacon Terry Miller were responsible for negotiating a May 2013 contract to build a new sanctuary without church trustees’ approval, the Commercial Dispatch reported. The contract was with TCM Construction, based in Long Beach, Mississippi.
Jurors also found that Stone and Miller had withheld from trustees some money collected through church offerings.
Miller and Stone were ordered to pay a combined $500,000 in damages to the church for conspiracy and breach of fiduciary duty, and Stone was ordered to pay an additional $30,000 in damages for unjust enrichment.
Stone and Miller testified that everything they did was the will of the majority of the congregation. Plaintiffs and other witnesses said Stone would publicly vilify anyone who disagreed with him, creating a culture of intimidation.
Bennie Hairston, chairman of the board of trustees, said after the verdict that he felt like “a big burden has been lifted.”
“I’ve been threatened (for) doing my trustee duty as far as standing up for the church and fighting for the church,” Hairston said. “I still stayed there because I know this is what I’m supposed to do.”
The trustees paid TCM’s owner, Donald Crowther, more than $454,000 for the work he was supposed to do, but all that was ever completed was preliminary dirt work. The project has not been touched since 2015. Crowther has since pleaded guilty in criminal court to fraud for submitting false invoices, and he is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 13.
The jury in the civil lawsuit found Stone and Miller responsible for breach of fiduciary duty, meaning they violated their responsibility to act in the best interest of the church when handling its finances, and conspiracy to cover up this behavior.
Stone admitted to altering the signature page on the contract with TCM so it only needed to be signed by one trustee instead of the entire board. He pushed for the project to move forward after a Starkville attorney questioned the validity of the contract. Stone and Miller sidestepped the church’s treasurer to make payments to Crowther despite the lack of work on the project.

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