Wednesday, July 04, 2001

Congregation sues pastor's estate for $1M

Daughter, fellow clergy defend him

By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The congregation of Southern Baptist Church in Avondale is suing the estate of its former pastor, the late Rev. James Milton, for $1 million — money trustees claim he stole from the church while he was alive.

        The Rev. Mr. Milton's daughter, Patricia A. Milton, on Tuesday said her family will vigorously defend themselves and the Rev. Mr. Milton's memory against “these slanderous accusations.”

        The church's board of trustees filed the civil lawsuit June 27 in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court asking for the money from his estate; his widow, Vivian Milton; and daughter.

        The suit accuses the Rev. Mr. Milton, who died of cancer in 1996 at the age of 63, of diverting church money for his private use. The suit seeks $500,000 in compensation to the church and another $500,000 in punitive damages against the Rev. Mr. Milton's family and his foundation and trust.

        “Anyone who knows my father, and his history of success building Southern Baptist Church and the respect he earned in this city, knows he is not a thief,” Patricia Milton said.

        “He was a man and he made mistakes. However, when he made mistakes, he was man enough to admit them. We will not allow his legacy to be tarnished.”

        Ms. Milton added that a complete audit of the church records was conducted after her father's death and at that time the church was financially prosperous.

        But according to the suit, trustees discovered a church account at Provident Bank of which they were unaware. The account used the church's name and tax identification number, but the Rev. Mr. Milton was the only signatory.

        Through that account, trustees said they discovered another account containing $135,000. The church froze the $135,000 until it can be determined how the money got there and how other money filtered through the account was spent.

        The lawsuit also accuses the Rev. Mr. Milton's widow and daughter of posing as church trustees to try to get the $135,000 released to them.

        Rex Wolfgang, attorney for the trustees, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

        The Rev. Mr. Milton, who ministered over Southern Baptist Church for 26 years before his death, was a well-respected religious and political leader in Cincinnati. He served as a member of the Avondale Community Council, member of the Baptist Ministers Conference and president of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission.

        But he was best known for his accomplishments at Southern Baptist Church. Under his leadership the church flourished, growing from a few hundred members to the 3,000-member congregation that it is today.

        “He brought that church way, way out,” said the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., pastor of New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Carthage and a longtime friend of the Rev. Mr. Milton. The two began pastoring at the same time in 1970. “This is very surprising because I'd never known him to be the kind of person to steal or be responsible for any kind of malfeasance or fiduciary mismanagement.”

        The Rev. Rousseau O'Neal, pastor of Rockdale Baptist Church in Avondale, a colleague and friend of the late pastor, was also taken aback by the allegations.

        “James Milton is a Cincinnati legend,” the Rev. Mr. O'Neal said. “He had a very good reputation in terms of teaching and preaching, and just being there for ministers and partitioners alike.”


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