Vt. Elks lodge owes thousands in gender-bias case
By DAVE GRAM
The Associated Press | October 18,2013
MONTPELIER — Members of the Hartford Elks lodge were urged to pay their annual dues in cash last year so the money could be used for club bills and not to pay off a court-ordered award in the discrimination lawsuit brought by four women who were denied club membership.
A lawyer for the women said he doesn’t believe the practice is illegal, but accuses the club of hiding income. Club officials dispute that, saying the organization loses money each year.
In 2012, then-club treasurer Barry Betters wrote to fellow members, citing the 2011 seizure of nearly $17,000 from a club bank account. The money was a small down payment on the more than $700,000 the club is now in debt for damages, lawyers’ fees and interest in the 16-year-old case.
Betters said in an interview Thursday that his goal in writing the letter was “to get as many people as we could to pay me in cash, then go around and pay our bills in cash.” He said he kept the club’s bank account open, but monitored it. If a check went into it, he would “go down the next day and get a money order” and move the funds out of the account.
“That was to prevent (plaintiff attorney Ted) Hobson to go in and steal our money again,” Betters said.
Betters said he did not know whether cash payments were still being encouraged by the current treasurer, Elaine Churchill. A phone number for her could not be found.
Hobson said in an interview that the $17,000 was the only money the plaintiffs and their lawyers have ever collected in the case. The Burlington-based attorney described the club as “a cash operation,” making most of its money from the sale of gambling tickets, drinks at its bar, renting its function hall to outside groups and other activities.
“In our view, they’re doing very well,” he said.
The women sued in 1998, three years after members of the club voted twice not to change its all-male policy.
The case eventually went to the Vermont Supreme Court, which ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor.
Each woman was awarded $7,400 in damages and granted membership in the club. But most of what the club owes is attorney fees. Hobson and the state Human Rights Commission were each awarded between $200,000 and $300,000. Betters said the club also owes about $25,000 to Norman Watts, the lawyer who represented the club in the initial lawsuit brought by the women.
In his letter to club members, Betters said that a judge signed a court order March 28, 2011, to seize the money in the club’s checking account. “We have stopped using the checkbook and have avoided depositing large amounts into the account,” he added. “Unfortunately, this lien will be with us until it is satisfied.”
He then urged members to pay their dues in cash. “We will never refuse any member’s check, but for the immediate future cash would be preferable,” he wrote.
The letter came to light Thursday as lawyers for Elks club officers, the plaintiffs and the state Human Rights Commission went to Washington Superior Court to discuss before a judge what the next steps in the case should be.
Only one of the four women remains active in the club. Two transferred to other lodges and the fourth left the organization.