By Brian Roewe
Copyright © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company
A lawsuit against the Legionaries of Christ approaching trial in Texas alleges one of its priests attempted to extort, via text message, an additional $94,000 from a Houston-area developer as contingent to closing a land deal between the parties.
The suit, filed in Harris County State District Court, names the Legionaries of Christ, Legionary Fr. Daniel Massick, former president of Northwoods Catholic School, in Spring, Texas, and Northwoods Educational Foundation as defendants. Robert Pinard, the developer and president/CEO of Pinard Development LLC, is suing for fraud and breach of contract.
At the center of the case is a claim that Massick supposedly texted Pinard that he would need to provide an additional $94,000 donation for an upcoming school gala in order to secure the priest’s signature on the paperwork finalizing an 8.5-acre land deal.
The suit, filed March 3, was the third revision for a case first brought in April 2015. Pinard is seeking an unspecified monetary amount, though the suit claims $3 million in lost profits. A trial is tentatively set for July 25.
Cris Feldman, Pinard’s attorney, said in a statement that the land deal and extortion attempt were known to the heads of the Legionaries order.
“The fact that a member of the clergy would engage in this kind of conduct is shocking,” he said.
Jim Fair, Legionaries of Christ spokesman, told NCR that there was “absolutely no wrongdoing on our part or the part of the school.” The school is a private independent school and is not affiliated with the Galveston-Houston archdiocese.
“There was never any contract to purchase land, and we’ll vigorously defend any attempt to damage our reputation,” he said. Fair denied there was an extortion attempt and expressed confidence the suit will end in the Legionaries’ favor.
According to the lawsuit, Massick, acting as the agent of the board of Northwoods Educational Foundation, in February 2015 agreed in principal to sell 8.5 acres of land near Northwoods Catholic School to Pinard. The diocese had initially approached Pinard about buying 21 acres before the parties settled on the 8.5-acre plot. The suit said the Legionaries had sought the sale of the land since fall 2014 to reduce commercial debt held by Northwoods Educational Foundation and avoid potential foreclosure of the school.
A deal between the Legionaries and Pinard appeared a natural fit: Beyond his development background, Pinard had a daughter enrolled at the school, and Legionary priests had previously offered blessings at the openings of several of his buildings.
The sides entered negotiations in December 2014 for the land. An offer was put forward that Pinard would pay $2.5 million and oversee several improvements to the land. The suit said Northwoods Educational Foundation approved the transaction, “and left any minor deal points in the hands of Massick.”
In February, a “proposed binding letter of intent” was prepared, “and Massick agreed to the transaction and promised that the deal was done and all documents would be executed in due time,” the suit states. That same month, Pinard began improvements on the land, including a survey of the land and formation of a property owners’ association. Massick had requested the work be expedited so the school would pass licensing and permit issues, including a survey of the land.
A month later, Pinard said he asked Massick about the status of the documents. The priest replied in a text message saying he would sign his name only after Pinard provided a large donation to cover the remaining costs of an annual fundraising gala benefiting Northwoods Catholic School.
“I received the document about the 1.421 acres [one of the lots in the 8.5 acres]. Will send it after I get the $94k donation…Its the only way I’ll get it thru…April 10?!?!? Let me know. Once I get the money I’ll send it,” Massick said, according to a copy of the March 18 text conversation provided to NCR.
“The answer is no to the 94k,” Pinard texted back. “That was never part of our negotiations for the land. The LOI (letter of intent) has to be signed before we go any further. I have spent a lot of money based on our agreement.”
According to the lawsuit, Massick responded with “a veiled threat” toward Pinard’s daughter: “I hope nothing happens to your daughter.”
After Pinard took the apparent threat to Legionary Fr. John Connor, North American territorial director, Massick signed the letter of intent and gave it to Pinard’s wife. Still, new delays with the paperwork arose, with Massick eventually cutting off communication. The contract was never formally executed and payment was never given for the work Pinard had completed, according to the suit.
[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]