City council's lawyer sides with reincarnation of the biblical Elijah against the taxpayer

The Scranton Times-Tribune/August 29, 2010

As if Scranton didn't have enough problems of biblical proportion, it is now being sued by a prophet recognized by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike as a messenger of God who raised the dead, rained flame on earth and ascended to heaven in a whirlwind on a chariot of fire.

Good luck getting this guy to empty his pockets at the courthouse metal detectors.

I kid. The city is actually being sued by Olde Good Things, a salvage and antiques business owned by a religious cult founded by a former atheist and vacuum cleaner salesman who claims to be the reincarnation of the prophet Elijah.

So it's not as weird as I first made it seem.

Anywhere else, such a development would inspire amused disbelief, but this is Scranton, where truth is almost always stranger than fiction, the sacred and profane are often one and the same and lawyers routinely and successfully argue that up is down, black is white and the moon is just the sun at night.

Conflict of interest?

Speaking of lawyers who make a good living straining credulity, Olde Good Things is represented by Scranton City Council solicitor Boyd Hughes. That's right - council's solicitor is suing his employer on behalf of a cult founded by a former atheist and vacuum cleaner salesman who claims to be the reincarnation of the prophet Elijah.

I'm still not making any of this up.

While news of Mr. Hughes' obvious conflict of interest had tongues wagging all over town last week, most of their owners likely had no clue that his client is the business arm of a cult. In fairness, it's possible Mr. Hughes didn't know the background of Olde Good Things, either.

The business is owned by the Church of Bible Understanding. I reported on the cult shortly after it set up shop here in a series of stories published in 2003.

The series made a brief splash, but like anything else, Olde Good Things' cult connection soon faded from public attention. There are only so many businesses (one) in Scranton where you can buy doorknobs from the original New York Times building. The business also has locations in New York and Los Angeles.

Former Forever Family

For the uninitiated, here's the short course on the mysterious organization cult experts and ex-members call COBU: Stewart Traill, now 74, founded the Church of Bible Understanding in Allentown in 1971. It was originally called the Forever Family and soon spread to Bethlehem, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. Within three years, the group was recruiting wayward youth in Philadelphia, New York, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Baltimore.

Wherever its army of proselytizers turned up, COBU soon wore out its welcome. A March 1, 1976, Time magazine article described vigilante attacks on "fellowship houses" in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. Time quoted Monsignor and future Bishop James C. Timlin, then chancellor of the Diocese of Scranton, warning local youths not to be "taken in" by the Forever Family's "easy and simple solutions to very complex problems."

Mr. Traill changed the cult's name in 1976, the same year he started Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning Inc. in Manhattan. The "carpet cleaning cult" lampooned in an episode of "Seinfeld" was a spoof of Christian Brothers.

COBU members believe the Bible is written in a color-based code only Mr. Traill can interpret. If you really want to grasp the good news of the gospels, you must enslave yourself to him and work in his sweatshop businesses for little or no compensation.

Mr. Traill's followers reportedly live in squalor while he lives it up between Philadelphia and Pompano Beach, Fla. He has access to at least two private planes. COBU once claimed 10,000 members, but most experts suspect it actually peaked at around 3,000. Today, membership is believed to be fewer than 50.

Cult's assets $7.4M

The latest federal tax records available show that COBU reported total revenue of $3.5 million in 2008, including $3 million from contributions. It listed $1.9 million in total expenses, including about $546,000 for a pair of orphanages COBU operates in Haiti. Even ex-members who say the cult is destructive to its adherents insist the orphanages are legitimate and truly help people.

COBU reported assets of $7.4 million as a nonprofit organization in 2008. Unlike other nonprofits, it pays property taxes because Olde Good Things is a for-profit business. Based on county assessment records, COBU paid $43,782 to the county, school district and city in property taxes last year. Deadline came before I could find out if it pays mercantile, business privilege, occupational and wage taxes.

Olde Good Things' lawsuit against the city and the Scranton Sewer Authority stems from a December 2007 fire at a warehouse it owned at North Ninth and Lackawanna avenues. The sidewalk above the building crumbled, and the damage was worsened by heavy rains. The city contends that the fire and subsequent demolition of the remains of the building caused the damage. Olde Good Things claims the sidewalk collapsed because the sewer system failed, and wants the city to take responsibility for stopping the flow of raw sewage onto the property.

To hear neighbors tell it, the sewage backups aren't confined to the Olde Good Things site. The property is an eyesore, strewn with debris and wood.

A neighbor I talked to last week said she and others are fed up with the mess and want the city to do something about it. That seems unlikely as long as the lawsuit is unresolved.

Legal case not issue

The fact that Olde Good Things is owned by a cult is immaterial in terms of deciding its dispute with the city. This is America, where we are free to follow any former atheist vacuum cleaner salesman we choose. When an employee of the taxpayers of Scranton takes sides against them, however, they deserve to know all the details. In a sense, it's hard to blame Mr. Hughes for taking COBU's case. When a prophet as important as Elijah asks you to represent him, you at least have to take the call. Beyond that, Mr. Hughes apparently represented the cult before he was appointed to his council post.

Now that the taxpayers are on the hook for any award he might win on behalf of the cult, however, Mr. Hughes should find someone else to handle the matter. His involvement may not legally constitute a conflict of interest, but he clearly has one.

To put it in a local perspective that can't be misunderstood: Johnny Damon plays for the Tigers now. He doesn't bat for the Red Sox or Yankees when they're in Detroit.

Council silent

If Mr. Hughes can't see his obvious conflict of interest, it is up to city council, and particularly President Janet Evans, to educate him. Council may have conveniently suspended the summer meetings Mrs. Evans and others once called sacrosanct, but that does not preclude her from weighing in on this issue.

Mrs. Evans won't talk to The Times-Tribune, but it's a safe bet she has Mr. Hughes' telephone number. She should call him and explain that his representation of Olde Good Things against the city he is paid to serve is not only counterproductive, but morally and ethically wrong.

Up is not down, black is not white, and the moon is not the sun at night.

That such things need to be said would be remarkable anywhere else, but this is Scranton, where personal gain at the expense of the public good is a time-honored tradition, arrogance is a virtue and the loudest critics of corruption are often just sore about being denied a place at the trough.

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