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Judge approves Living Water Church sale

Meanwhile, IRS officials continue their investigation of its ex-pastor by seeking church financial records.

By JEFF TESTERMAN
Published June 18, 2004

TAMPA - As IRS investigators seek more records in a criminal inquiry involving Living Water Church co-founder Ronald Clark, a bankruptcy judge Thursday approved the sale of the church property for $3.4-million.

The sale, to New Jerusalem Christian Church of Seffner, was approved despite a bank appraisal showing the 16-acre church property on Interstate 4 is worth $3.9-million.

"This was considered a distress sale," said Buddy Ford, Living Water's bankruptcy attorney. "I would have liked to get $3.9-million. But this was the best bid we got."

Living Water, a once-thriving, 2,000-member non-denominational Christian church, sought protection from creditors in bankruptcy court last October. By then, the church's checking account balance had dwindled to $60 and the congregation had fewer than 500 members.

Congregants left as details emerged from the divorce of Ronald and Belinda Clark, the couple who founded Living Water in 1988. Ronald Clark accused his wife of being mentally ill, unfaithful and a thief. Belinda Clark claimed in court papers that her husband had a secret plan to sell the church and funnel the proceeds overseas with the help of church board chairman Melvin Myer.

In March, the IRS issued a summons for bank records in a criminal investigation of Ronald Clark. This week, the IRS sought financial records from the church, according to Ford. Ford said he would comply with the IRS request.

Ronald Clark, who has resigned as Living Water's pastor, has retained Clearwater criminal defense attorney George Tragos and has denied violating any IRS rules.

Thursday, Ford also obtained an order from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thomas E. Baynes Jr. to quash a subpoena served last week on Myer, Living Water's board chairman. The subpoena compelled Myer to give a sworn deposition today and provide church records pertaining to Belinda Clark's statement that the church owes her $300,000 in retirement benefits.

Citing declining health, Myer resigned his chairman position last week while a process server for Mrs. Clark was attempting to serve the subpoena at Myer's financial consulting office in Tampa.

Myer sent Ford a letter of resignation dated June 10, along with a letter from his physician. In the letter, Dr. John Q. Stauffer advised Myer that he should reduce his business load and and "disengage from any legal matters or other matters that may bring stress into your life."

Thursday morning, Ford said Myer had rescinded his resignation. Ford said he urged Myer to reconsider so he can assist in completing the sale of the church. Myer does intend to comply with the subpoena at a later date, Ford said.

Myer did not return phone calls from the St. Petersburg Times.

Baynes has scheduled a hearing in August to take testimony on the issue of any retirement benefits owed to Belinda Clark. Funds from the church sale will be held in escrow until the question of any award to her is settled, Ford said.

- Jeff Testerman can be reached at 813 226-3422 or by e-mail at testerman@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 18, 2004, 01:11:13]


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