The lawsuit filed this week alleging several churches cheated the state out of millions of dollars in rental fees for use of school facilities for worship services and other church events is going to be one to watch.
Honolulu attorney Jim Bickerton, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church, distributed a press release and copies of the complaint on Thursday.
The lawsuit alleges the churches made false statements when applying for use of the school facilities, “knowingly concealing or knowingly and improperly avoiding or decreasing obligations to pay….”
In addition, the lawsuit alleges the churches were never required to obtain general liability insurance, although in some cases their applications stated that as many as ten thousand people were expected during a weekend. The failure to obtain insurance “put the State of Hawaii and its taxpayers at risk,” the suit alleges.
The suit also alleges the churches “have cost the State of Hawaii several thousand dollars each month as a result of their excessive use of electricity, water consumption and sewage usage at public schools.”
One revealing document is an October 4, 2012 letter from John Tilton, “executive pastor” of the New Hope Oahu to the chairman of the Board of Education arguing for changes in the way rental fees are calculated for school facilities used on a regular, ongoing basis for religious purposes. The letter asked for rent reductions valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for New Hope, which rents the Farrington High School Auditorium as well as 10-12 classrooms, several days a week, year round.
In addition, the letter asked for relief from the Department of Education’s “5-year rule,” which limits ongoing rentals of school facilities to no more than five years.
The New Hope letter was addressed to BOE chair Donald Horner, with copies to Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi and her assistant.
The letter could have been addressed to Pastor Don. In his “Pastor Don” hat, Horner is “a licensed minister of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel and serves in a teaching ministry at New Hope Diamond Head Church.”
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The New Hope request for a significant reduction in rental fees came while the Department of Education rental policies were being investigated by Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church. The investigation was launched at the end of 2011, and was ongoing at the time of the New Hope letter.
According to Bickerton, Matayoshi initially cooperated with the investigation and, for the first six months, provided public records “without quibble or charge.”
“However in late June, 2012, Matayoshi unexpectedly changed her position and the DOE began stonewalling efforts to obtain information from the schools,” Bickerton said. “School principals were instructed to refrain from any further communicating with Mitch Kahle or Holly Huber.”
The plaintiffs in the case produced a 2,242-page report containing a detailed comparison of the amount of time stated in applications to use the school facilities, and the actual time involved based on direct observations and review of the churches’ own schedules and publicity.
This extensive and detailed “Relators’ Report” contains substantial material evidence of widespread abuse and outright fraud perpetrated by churches, often with the explicit approval or knowledge of school principals and/or their designees. There are literally hundreds of churches operating out of Hawaii’s public schools every weekend, some of whom who have been holding worship services and other church activities at the same schools for 5, 10, 15, even 20 years and longer, without ever attempting to find an alternate location.
This case is rich in detail, with hints of high-level collusion resulting in millions of dollars of benefit to these churches.
More to come, I’m sure.