Voris: “Somehow, things have gotten out of control”
By Damien Fisher
At the end of Tuesday’s emergency court hearing held the day after Christmas, United States District Court Judge Joseph LaPlante had pointed parting words for Michael Voris and Mike Sherry.
“Mr. Voris, Mr. Sherry, I look forward to your retention of counsel,” LaPlante said.
Sherry, the current president of Church Militant’s board, and Voris, the now disgraced former board president and founder, agreed to an order that essentially gives New Hampshire priest the Rev. Georges de Laire control over Church Militant finances pending the outcome of the defamation lawsuit. Neither is currently represented by a lawyer, the result of Voris’ so-far disastrous legal machinations.
In perhaps the first good decision Voris has made in the case, he appeared in Tuesday’s Zoom call as an audio-only participant.
Voris and his assistants at Church Militant, Christine Niles and Simon Rafe, are accused in court documents of hiding and destroying evidence. Voris is also accused of lying about basic facts of the case, hiding the identity of key figure Marc Balestrieri, using Church Militant money to give Balestrieri an interest -free loan, and later threatening Balestrieri when it seemed his testimony could hurt Voris.
Voris and Church Militant defending themselves in court; judge advises a different plan
LaPlante was blunt with the pair, telling them Church Militant’s legal defense up to this point has been “troubling.”
“Unorthodox is the most charitable word I can use,” LaPlante said. “The way it’s been conducted is troubling from the defense’s perspective.”
In August, Voris’s attorneys Kathleen Klaus and Neil Nicholson quit the case, a day after Niles admitted under oath that she had been sitting on texts with Balestrieri that should have been turned over as evidence. LaPLante said Klaus and Nicholson quit because they “could not continue due to the conduct of one of the parties in the case.”
Last week, LaPlante allowed New Hampshire attorney Richard Lehmann to quit the defense. Lehmann cited an untenable conflict of interest that meant he could not represent both St. Michael’s Media and Voris.
Howard Cooper, de Laire’s attorney, said in court the conflict came about because members of Church Militant’s board want to pursue criminal charges against Voris.
Voris: “Somehow, things have gotten out of control”
Voris, perhaps trying to refute the idea he is criminally liable, spoke up during the hearing to set the record straight about Lehmann’s departure.
“Somehow, things have gotten out of control,” Voris said.
Voris started to explain that he and Sherry, as a pair, did not ask Lehmann about separate defenses. Instead, Voris started to say that both he and Sherry had private conversations with Lehmann about different possibilities for the defense.
It was at this point, LaPlante stopped Voris from speaking.
“I don’t know where you’re going with this,” LaPlante said.
The judge then explained to Voris that his statements were approaching a legal line, and if he continued talking, he would be effectively waiving attorney-client privilege with Lehmann, and all his communications with the former attorney would become discoverable in the trial.
Voris tried to simplify his message while protecting his interests.
“Mr. Sherry and I have not arrived at a decision that we’re two competing parties,” Voris said.
Voris followed this statement with a drawn-out explanation that the pending sale of Church Militant’s only real assets, two office buildings in Ferndale, Michigan — which were the subject of Tuesday’s hearing — have nothing to do with the de Laire lawsuit. LaPlante responded that the reason for the sale is not relevant to the hearing to decide what happens to the money.
“I don’t know what you want me to do with that information,” LaPlante said.
When Voris then tried to explain he had not had a chance to speak to Sherry about these matters before Tuesday’s hearing, the Judge seemed surprised.
“That’s mystifying,” LaPlante said.
Church Militant sale proceeds to go into escrow so it doesn’t disappear
The lawsuit against Voris and St. Michael’s Media is now a legal slow-motion car wreck, playing out as St. Michael’s media operation, Church Militant, scrambles to stay afloat after Voris was pushed out in November amid allegations of sexual and financial misconduct.
Hemorrhaging donations in wake of the scandal, the Michigan non-profit is about to close on a deal to sell the two office buildings, one which is home to Church Militant’s offices and studio. But under the agreement reached Tuesday, the proceeds of those sales, set to close Thursday, are now frozen in an escrow account.
Sherry was authorized by his board to agree to a capped escrow of $200,000, saying any more could mean the end of Church Militant.
“I can accept a $200,000 attachment, but we cannot do the full amount; we might as well shut down,” Sherry said.
Cooper stressed on Tuesday that de Laire is not trying to end Church Militant, but simply to secure funds that are likely to go to him either in a settlement or in damages awarded by a jury. To that end, Cooper offered to allow Church Militant to access the funds to keep the lights on. But the non-profit would first need to prove the figure they need.
Church Militant must disclose operating expenses
Sherry appeared alone in the Zoom hearing, streaming from an empty studio. He did not seem to understand the proceedings at times. After Cooper’s proposal was repeatedly explained to him, Sherry agreed to allow all the building sale money to go into an escrow account. Sherry is now under court order to file an affidavit stating Church Militant’s monthly operating expenses. The organization will be allowed to draw out that amount from escrow in order to keep operating.
LaPlante said the escrow order is temporary and will be revisited once Voris and Sherry both find new lawyers. The judge suggested whoever Voris and Sherry find to defend them in court, they be first allowed to speak with the attorneys who quit the case.
Image: Mike Sherry in a Church Militant studio during Tuesday’s virtual hearing. Courtroom sketch by Simcha Fisher