Former church planter in Valley files libel suit

EDINBURG (ABP)—A former church planter alleged in 2006 to be involved in Baptist General Convention of Texas financial improprieties has filed a defamation lawsuit against the BGCT, the Baptist Standard and several other Texas Baptist entities and individuals.

Otto Arango was one of three pastors investigated for allegedly misusing funds the BGCT provided for church starts in South Texas.

In addition to the BGCT and the Baptist Standard, the suit names blogger David Montoya and Calvary Baptist Church in Mineral Wells, where he is pastor; Palo Pinto Baptist Association, which includes the Mineral Wells church; David Tamez and Dexton Shores and the Rio Grande River Ministry, for which they worked; Roberto Rodriguez and the church he serves as pastor, Primera Iglesia Bautista in Harlingen; and Eloy Hernandez.

Arango’s legal action stems from allegations he and two other church planters misused BGCT church-starting funds. The trio claimed 258 churches had been started in Texas between 1999 and 2005 through a training system Arango had devised. The system was based on the house-church approach.

Questions about the use of some funds prompted BGCT officials to ask an independent counsel, Diane Dillard of Brownsville, to investigate. Her team included Brownsville attorney and former prosecutor Michael Rodriguez, certified public accountant and fraud examiner Carlos Barrera and investigator Gregorio Castillo.

The investigative team reported the BGCT had given more than $1.3 million for start-up funding for the program and monthly support for the church starters. Investigators noted 98 percent of the congregations they claimed to have planted either no longer existed or existed only on paper.

In the lawsuit, Arango alleges the defendants made “false and malicious statements” about him, and that they have harmed his “reputation, credibility and integrity.” He alleges the statements were published in the Standard’s print edition and on its website “with malice and a lack of good faith.”

The statements, he contends, convinced others he had “stolen funds, had improperly used church funds and had lied about the number of new Hispanic Baptist churches he had started.”

Arango is suing for lost earnings, including back pay and benefits, retirement benefits, and lost future earning or diminished earning capacity.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for past and future mental and physical pain and anguish. He also asks for unspecified punitive damages, claiming the defendants “acted with malice, actual malice and/or a specific intent to injure” him.

“The Standard denies the allegations and expects to be exonerated,” Editor Marv Knox said.

In a written statement, BGCT Executive Director Randel Everett expressed surprise and disappointment that Arango had turned to litigation.
“We believe this suit is totally without merit and that the BGCT has no liability in the matter,” Everett said.

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