By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Supreme Court judge is unsure whether she obtained “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” in an unholy battle over the land upon which a 2,500 seat mega Freeport “cathedral” now sits.
Senior justice Estelle Gray-Evans, in a mammoth 128-page judgment, concluded that “there are no real winners” in a dispute that featured multiple allegations “of skullduggery, conning, conniving and betrayal” made by prominent clergy members against their fellow brethren.
Acknowledging that the dispute over the site of St John’s Jubilee Cathedral “has dragged on for far too long”, given that legal action was first initiated some 12 years ago, she added that she “simply gave up trying to address” all the irrelevant arguments made by the various parties and their attorneys, and they must “decide for yourselves” whether she did justice to their submissions.
The battle, which has its roots in events dating back as far as the 1980s, ensnared both the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) and two of its subsidiaries that are Freeport’s largest landowners. Other defendants included a BISX-listed bank and Bishop Godfrey R. Williams, “leader” of the cathedral, as well as his company, Godfrey R. Williams Ministries.
Among those featuring in the ruling, although not as defendants, are the late Edward St George, the GBPA’s then-co-chairman, and Bishop Neil Ellis and his Full Baptist group. And the law firm that handled the conveyances at the root of the dispute was Christie, Davis & Co, now just Davis & Co, the law firm of the current - as well as a former - Bahamian prime minister.
Senior Justice Gray-Evans, whose November 16 ruling ultimately dismissed every claim made by the plaintiff, the Incorporated Trustees of the St John’s Particular Church of Native Baptists, against all defendants, indicated that she had been severely vexed by the sheer volume of evidence, arguments and submissions presented before her.
“This is another unfortunate case involving land disputes and churches,” she wrote. “This has not been an easy case. Not so much because of the difficulty of the issues to be decided, although they were difficult, nor because of the law and authorities cited, although they were many.
“But rather because, firstly, it is a matter dealing with deacons and bishops, and pastors and general superintendents and trustees, of churches where allegations of skullduggery, conning, conniving, betrayal and such were words used to describe witnesses and/or their actions in a matter that has dragged on for far too long where, in my judgment, at the end of the day, regardless of this or any other court’s decision, there are no real winners.”
And, while the Incorporated Trustees were accused by the defendants of “mischaracterising the facts” of the case, senior justice Gray-Evans said a review of the evidence suggested they were far from the only party guilty of this.
“While I readily admit that I do not believe that the evidence adduced at trial discloses ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth’, I have come to a decision in this matter,” she wrote. “I simply gave up trying to address every point that was raised either by witnesses or counsel which I determined were not, in my judgment, sufficiently material to the issues that had to be determined.”
The 12-year legal battle has its roots in events dating back to 1987-1988. This was when the GBPA was asked to donate land upon which a new church would be constructed, as the then 500-seat St John’s Native Baptist Church in Coral Road was becoming too small to handle an expanding congregation.
The Grand Bahama Development Company (DeVCO) responded on November 1, 1998, in a letter to then-Rev Williams agreeing to donate the 4.38-acre that now houses the cathedral for “your church”. No conveyance transferring title to the land was to be concluded until the new church was either completed or a mortgage needed to be secured upon it.
Bank of The Bahamas, in 1997, agreed to provide $1.05m mortgage financing to fund the construction. This was secured by a lien over the property, as well as a $500,000 fixed deposit that was assigned to the bank. Wallace Allen, an attorney with the then-Christie, Davis & Company, informed the GBPA that it represented the bank and that title was to be taken by the Incorporated Trustees.
The conveyance handled by Christie, Davis & Co thus transferred the 4.38 acres to the Incorporated Trustees from Freeport Commercial & Industrial Ltd, the GBPA subsidiary that is one of Freeport’s largest landowners, on February 10, 1998.
However, more than three years later, DeVCO discovered that conveyance was defective because Freeport Commercial & Industrial did not own that land. To cure the problem, DeVCO - which is Board and management-controlled by Hutchison Whampoa - began preparing a new conveyance upon this discovery in July 2001.
The second conveyance was sent to Christie, Davis & Co for it to check and the pass on to “St John’s” for its execution and signing. However, this did not happen and the second conveyance was never returned to DeVCO, meaning that the perfected transfer to the Incorporated Trustees never happened.
In the meantime, Bishop Williams had created his own company, Godfrey Williams Ministries, on December 11, 2002. And, just one day later at his request, DeVCO conveyed the 4.38-acre tract to that company. Not only did this render the first conveyance “null and void”, but the land was transferred to Bishop Williams and his company - not the Incorporated Trustees.
Bank of The Bahamas, in 2003, lent funds to Godfrey Williams Ministries that were secured via a mortgage over the cathedral property. These were subsequently paid off, and the third conveyance and mortgage were recorded at the Registry of Records on December 9, 2003.
The Incorporated Trustees, alleging that it had never been informed of the first conveyance’s defects or any subsequent events, including the land ownership transfer to Bishop Williams’ company, said it only found out what had happened when it searched the Registry and uncovered the third conveyance.
Ultimately raising holy hell over the situation, the Incorporated Trustees finally initiated legal action against Freeport Commercial & Industrial and DeVCO on September 8, 2009, alleging negligent misrepresentation. DeVCO subsequently served notice of a third party claim against Bishop Williams’ company over the instructions to convey the land to it.
The Incorporated Trustees then alleged breach of fiduciary duty against Bishop Williams, asserting that he held the property for them as a “constructive trustee”. Damages were also sought, but the defendants denied all claims against them.
Rev Dr Michael Symonette, the Trustees’ chairman and superintendent, alleged that he wrote twice to Albert Gray, the GBPA’s then-vice-president, in 1987 and 1988 requesting a donation of land for the new church. He added that it was made clear that Bishop Williams was only acting on behalf of the Trustees.
However, the date on which the 1987 letter was written was challenged, with attorneys for the defendants suggesting it did not seek a land donation from the GBPA. And, when challenged that he had failed to copy Bishop Williams on his letters to Mr Gray, even though the latter had done so for him, Bishop Symonette replied: “He had to copy me. I’s the Bishop. I didn’t have to copy him. He had to copy me. I’s the chief.”
And, when asked why he took two years to make inquiries of the GBPA after finding the conveyance to Bishop Williams’ company, Bishop Symonette replied: “Wait on the Lord.”
Mr Gray, whose evidence the judge appeared to lean on heavily, testified that Mr St George held Bishop Williams “in high regard and was very fond of him”, with the former Freeport Power Company employee providing “spiritual guidance” to the late GBPA co-chair.
He added that it was Bishop Williams who had approached the GBPA and its affiliates in the late 1980s to seek a land donation “in anticipation of breaking away” from the Incorporated Trustees and becoming affiliated with Bishop Neil Ellis and his church.
“According to Mr Gray, at no time was he contacted by the plaintiff or any person on the plaintiff’s behalf regarding a donation of the property,” senior justice Gray-Evans wrote, noting that the ex-GBPA executive said he had never seen the purported letters from Bishop Symonette until the trial came up for hearing.
“Mr Gray said he was aware that the fourth defendant [Bishop Williams] had first approached Edward St George on a personal basis with a request for land; that Mr St George made it clear to him that the land so identified was meant for the fourth defendant personally, and that the title was to be taken in the name of the fourth defendant or whatever entity he chose to take title.
“Mr Gray’s evidence is that the reason the letter of offer was addressed to the fourth defendant at St John’s Church was ‘probably because the second defendant [DeVCO] could only make offers to entities licensed by the Port Authority, and at the time the third defendant was not yet incorporated’.”
Finding that DeVCO never intended to grant the 4.38 acres to the Incorporated Trustees, the judge also ruled that the Incorporated Trustees’ claims against the GBPA subsidiaries were statute-barred under the Limitation Act as they should have been brought in 2004 and 2003, some five to six years before legal action was initiated.
Having dismissed the claims in any event, she also declined to find that “Christie, Davis & Co’s knowledge about the error with the first conveyance, and the circumstances relating to the second and third conveyances, ought to be imputed to the plaintiff [the Trustees] on the basis that that firm was the plaintiff’s attorney”. It was unclear whether the law firm was representing Bank of The Bahamas, the Incorporated Trustees or both.