The attorney who is prosecuting disciplinary proceedings against Bishop J. Jon Bruno of Los Angeles has called for a forensic audit of a corporate entity controlled entirely by Bruno, whom he describes as “a rogue bishop.” It marks a sharp escalation of the battle over the imminent sale of a huge padlocked church near the Newport Beach waterfront.

A forensic audit is a rigorous examination of financial records conducted, among other reasons, to gather evidence of suspected fraud or embezzlement.

Jerry Coughlan, a local lawyer serving as Church Attorney on behalf of the Episcopal Church, wrote that Bruno’s “most recent conduct is simply one more manifestation of his arrogant belief that the Episcopal Church has no rights over him and Corp Sole.” Corp Sole, which holds title to the church in question, is a corporation allowed under California law that has only one officer and director: the incumbent Bishop of Los Angeles, currently Bruno.

Bruno’s counsel, Vice Chancellor Julie Dean Larsen, wrote this week that the “confidential sale of the NPB Property is not contrary to any order, representation, or understanding given by the Presiding Bishop, the Conference Panel or the Hearing Panel in this proceeding. … The Bishop and the staff of the [Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles] made no representation that the property would be maintained in ‘status quo.’”

Since two years ago this week, Bruno has been in conflict with congregants of St. James the Great Church. Until June 29, 2015, when Bruno ordered the locks changed, the congregation worshiped in a 40,000-square-foot church on prime real estate overlooking the bridge to the yachts and mansions of Lido Island.

The congregation, led by the Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees, has been worshiping in a variety of places for two years, most recently in a community room at Newport Beach City Hall.

The lockout occurred less than three months after Bruno signed a contract to sell the property for $15 million, without previously notifying the congregation or the diocese’s standing committee. That sale, to a developer who planned to raze the building and build luxury condominiums, fell through after members of the congregation launched civil and disciplinary actions.

But earlier this month, after learning that Bruno might be again trying secretly to sell the property, the disciplinary Hearing Panel urgently directed Bruno to disclose “the exact status and related documentation of the alleged sales contract.”

Bruno’s counsel responded by the deadline with a list of legal and canonical objections to the inquiry, without mentioning any possible sale. The Hearing Panel, chaired by Bishop Herman Hollerith IV of Southern Virginia, sanctioned Bruno on June 17 and ordered him not to close any sale while the panel continued its deliberations.

The two-page sanction document said the secret sale plans, and the failure to provide information to the panel, “is disruptive, dilatory, and otherwise contrary to the integrity of this proceeding.” Bruno’s counsel later confirmed the planned sale, saying the confirmation had been forbidden under a confidentiality agreement with the buyer, Burnham-Ward Properties LLC. The sale, for an amount not yet disclosed, is scheduled to close July 3.

Coughlan, who had been affable and humorous throughout 20 hours of public testimony in March, pulled no punches in his latest brief. He described Bruno as “a rogue bishop” with a “personal vendetta against a congregation.”

Coughlan wrote that the secrecy and timing of the proposed sale “necessarily leads to serious questions about his motive. Is he covering up some financial impropriety? Does he stand to gain personally from this sale? Respondent’s conduct is so suspicious that the Church Attorney now believes a forensic audit of the books of Corp Sole is necessary.”

The brief was filed in response to Bruno’s appeal of the June 17 sanction.

The Hearing Panel has not said when it expects to rule on the original charges against Bruno, which include misrepresentation and “conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.” The panel has the authority to oust Bruno as bishop and even to strip him of his priesthood.

One side or the other is likely to appeal any ruling the Hearing Panel makes, which means the conflict will continue to dominate the closing months and years of Bruno’s episcopacy, which began in 2002. Like all Episcopal priests, Bruno, 70, is required to retire by the time he turns 72. His successor has been elected. The Rev. John H. Taylor will be consecrated as bishop coadjutor on July 8.

Kirk Petersen

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