Congregants sue pastor for alleged theft of over $1 million
Published Tuesday, July 27, 2010 12:56PM EDT
Members of a church in Ahuntsic have launched a lawsuit against their pastor, who they say took them for more than a million dollars in donations.
Reverend Mwinda Lezoka, a Congolese native who has served as pastor for 20 years, allegedly borrowed or was donated money from at least 24 members of the Bethel Christian Community. He never repaid money he promised to return, congregants say.
Among others suing Lezoka is everyone listed on the church's board of directors: Vancol Frantz, Munida Lezoka, Vanguin Mdjako, Ven Lezoka, Yonel Eugene, Ruth Eugene and Marie-Pierreta Julien.
Lezoka has not been seen in weeks, after he was evicted in June from his apartment in Lorraine, northeast of Montreal.
"He gave us a cheque, but it bounced," said landlord Michele Beaudry.
Lezoka resigned from the United Church in 2002 after officials noticed irregularities in his financial statements. Lezoka owed the church $12,000.
"He didn't respond to anyone's request for payment and then there was an out-of-court settlement," said Shaun Fryday of the United Church of Canada.
Many congregants say they re-mortgaged their homes or took out high-interest loans to provide Lezoka funding, which he said would be used for various expansion projects on the Henri Bourassa Blvd. church.
Congregants say they were surprised because they knew Lezoka to be an affable pastor.
"He was extremely sociable, very outgoing, polite, friendly, and a warm person," said Gaetan Paquette, whose stepfather allegedly lent Lezoka $150,000. Paquette's mother tried to reclaim the money after her husband's death, and is now a member of the group suing Lezoka.
Parc Safari among those suing
Among those involved in the lawsuit is Parc Safari in Hemmingford. Court documents show the zoo's accountant and church member, Ruth Eugene, transferred $750,000 of the zoo's money into Fonds d'Actions Bethel, a company Lezoka owned. It is suing for that amount, plus $100,000 in punitive damages.
Parc Safari was notified of the irregularities by the Caisse Populaire in Napierville in 2008.
The zoo sued both Eugene and Lezoka, and obtained a seizure on the church building in 2009. The seizure, however, was lifted after the reverend promised to reimburse Parc Safari.
Lezoka, however, issued a stop-payment on his cheques in May.
No criminal charges have been filed against the pastor.