Minister to pay $335,000 to settle suit

August 02, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A Baptist minister agreed yesterday to pay $335,000 to settle a suit filed by a small Pentecostal congregation after he refused to turn over the title to a Randallstown church it paid him to build.

The Supreme Highlights Ministry settled its case against the Rev. Gene C. Bradford because it needs the money to survive, said the congregation's lawyer, Thomas J. Schetelich.

"This is a church that's just hanging on," he said.

It was the second time Bradford has settled a suit with a congregation after a dispute over construction of a church. Lamb of Life Baptist Church settled its suit two years ago, but is owed $79,000 by Bradford.

Schetelich said the settlement reached yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court is subject to approval in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, where Bradford - a Randallstown minister, builder and real estate investor - has filed for Chapter 11 protection.

If Bradford's bankruptcy plan is approved this year, the church will probably collect only half of the $335,000 because Bradford owes $2.1 million to more than 30 creditors, said Schetelich and James B. Greenan, Bradford's lawyer. If the plan is rejected, Supreme Highlights' suit will go to trial Jan. 29, they said.

"This is a man with significant financial problems," Greenan said. "This is not a happy story."

Bradford, who has been a minister since 1980, did not return phone calls yesterday.

Supreme Highlights filed suit June 1, 2001, two years after Bradford signed a contract to build a 350-seat church for $370,000 in the 8000 block of Liberty Road. Supreme Highlights gave Bradford $335,000 as a down payment and the balance was due when the church was completed, according to court papers. But Bradford demanded an additional sum of more than $100,000 when he completed the church, Schetelich said.

He said that when Supreme Ministries balked at paying the extra money, Bradford leased the church to another church group for $3,500 a month.

"The church said, just give it to us unfinished, and he refused," Schetelich said.

Bradford had entered into the contract with Supreme Ministries under a corporate name, but retained the Liberty Road property under his name, which allowed him to mortgage the property and borrow $500,000 without the church's consent, Schetelich said.

That angers the Rev. Thomas Prioleau, who heads Supreme Highlights. "We never knew anything about the title. We never knew he could not turn the land over to us until we got a lawyer," he said.

Greenan acknowledged that Bradford mortgaged the property and later leased it to another church. But he said that Bradford obtained the mortgage because he needed money to complete the project and leased it because he needed cash to pay the mortgage.

Bradford has built and sold seven churches since the early 1990s, he said, and would have sold the property to Supreme Highlights if he hadn't run into financial difficulties. Greenan claimed those difficulties were partly caused by the church.

He said that Supreme Highlights at one point changed the plans for the site, which complicated the project and would have increased the cost to $500,000. The church later decided to proceed with the original plans, Greenan said.

He said church officials refused to pay Bradford the $35,000 balance as the project neared completion. "His position is that this church, and the legal problems that arose from it, are what caused his financial problems and pushed him into bankruptcy," Greenan said.

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