By Chris Lane
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Downtown legal giant Vinson & Elkins stands to collect nearly $100,000 for representing the McGee Chapel Missionary Baptist Church board of deacons against Pastor Walter K. Berry. State Representative Sylvester Turner already has collected nearly $7,000 as the attorney for Berry and, according to the deacon chairman, is seeking an additional $10,000.
State District Judge Sharolyn Wood ordered a church election last month supervised by special court master Katie Kennedy. The McGee congregation voted 407-118 to keep Berry as pastor. That leaves the factions pretty much where they were when the legal battle commenced, but the church's bank account is now a whole lot smaller. Each side blames the other for wasting the small church's treasury.
Attorney Reginald McKamie enter-ed the fight last summer when the deacon board attempted to close the Rainbow Academy day-care center, which had been incorporated by Berry and operated on church property. McKamie volunteers his work on behalf of the parents and children who use the center, and calls the Vinson & Elkins fees outrageous.
"This is a church, and these are poor folks' tithes and offerings," says McKamie. "They are raping them and they are going to be the only winners To take that kind of money from those limited resources is criminal to me."
Neither Pastor Berry nor Turner returned Insider inquiries.
Deacon board chairman George Edwards agrees that McGee's resources have been wasted, but he blames Berry for allegedly trying to abuse and exploit church finances.
"The board took action to prevent that, and he sought to retaliate in the form of a lawsuit," Edwards says. "And the board took action to relieve him of his responsibility."
Edwards claims that staffing and educational problems at the day-care center forced the deacons to move to shut it. He blames McKamie for going to court to keep it open, forcing the deacons to turn to Vinson & Elkins.
"If I hadn't done that, they would have closed down the school, and impacted all the children and families," counters McKamie with a sarcastic laugh. He compares it to a victim hitting a mugger who then says, "Look what you made me do. I've got to spend money on medical expenses."
The unsuccessful attempt to close the school did not amuse Judge Wood. In an October hearing, she accused Vinson & Elkins attorney Suzie Johnson of coercion to gain strategic advantage in the lawsuit. "That was the most unprofessional thing I've ever seen ," the judge said. "All I saw was that there were children used to accomplish a discovery tactic in this lawsuit."
"I completely disagree with [Wood's] comments and her characterization," Johnson says. She argues that the judge violated the board's First Amendment rights by refusing to allow it to meet with the congregation before the election and present its grievances against Berry. The attorney says Wood "insulted" the church by sending police to oversee what turned out to be a peaceful vote. "I wonder if they would make those same allegations if it were First Baptist or Second Baptist" instead of McGee Chapel, she adds.
Johnson echoes Deacon Edwards in blaming the pastor and others for the mounting legal fees. She says Vinson & Elkins could not handle the case on a pro bono basis because it involved a dispute between elements of McGee Chapel.
"They are a church divided," she explains, "with infighting between Reverend Berry and the deacon board." Sylvester Anderson, an attorney representing some church members, notes that Vinson & Elkins employs one of the deacon's wives -- Johnson and Edwards deny that had anything to do with hiring the firm.
Anderson, who claims to have done more work on the case than anyone but has billed only $6,000, says hiring the expensive downtown law firm was "a rip-off compared to the other attorneys."
What happens next is uncertain. McKamie predicts a continuing court fight to prevent the deacons from paying Vinson & Elkins with church funds. The church's vote keeps Pastor Berry at the helm but doesn't solve the war over church finances.
In her postelection report to the court, special master Kennedy noted she had urged attorneys on all sides to try to reconcile and hold down costs. "Unfortunately, my admonitions were not heeded."
It may take a higher authority than a judge to get the McGee Chapel factions to start behaving more like Christians and less like legal sharks.