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The Boston Globe

Business

Charles St. AME church, OneUnited square off in court

The battle between the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church and OneUnited Bank moves back to US Bankruptcy Court Wednesday, after the two sides were unable to negotiate a settlement over real estate loans the church owes the lender, according to the church’s lawyer.

The bankruptcy case pits two of the most prominent institutions of Boston’s African-American community against each other and featured church members picketing the bank after it threatened to auction off the church in February.

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The Roxbury church is seeking approval to reorganize nearly $5 million in loan debt to the bank, most of it for use to build a community center, and repay it over 30 years.

OneUnited has argued the regional church authority that oversees Charles Street AME should be responsible for the debts and repay them more quickly.

The bankruptcy proceeding will probably force top executives of OneUnited to speak publicly about the controversy, including bank president Teri Williams, and possibly her husband, chief executive Kevin L. Cohee. A deposition with Cohee filed in court this week provides the bank chief’s first comments to date on the matter.

But in nearly three hours of questioning by a church lawyer, Cohee repeatedly demurred or refused to answer. He would often challenge the simplest of questions, including whether he had ever been deposed before and whether OneUnited is regulated by the FDIC (it is).

In one exchange, the church’s lawyer asked Cohee to list his titles at the bank:

Lawyer: “What is your position at OneUnited Bank, Mr. Cohee?”

(Pause)

Lawyer: “Are you unsure as to your position at OneUnited Bank, Mr. Cohee?”

Cohee: “I have multiple positions.”

Lawyer: “Thank you. Would you explain all of those positions.”

Cohee: “Sure. I’m the chairman of the board of directors, and I’m the chief executive officer, and I’m the head of the internal asset review committee.”

Lawyer: “Any further positions, Mr. Cohee?”

Cohee: “I was thinking about that.”

Lawyer: “Please take your time and think as to what your positions are at the bank of which you’re the chairman and CEO. Take your time.”

Cohee: “OK. Thank you.”

(Pause)

Cohee: “When you say ‘positions,’ do you mean positions as in title positions?”

Lawyer: “Do you not know what ‘positions’ means, Mr. Cohee?”

When asked if the church property was collateral on one of the bank loans, Cohee said, “With all due respect, I’m the CEO of the company. I have lawyers, I have loan departments. I don’t know. This is not my job. I don’t know.”

Cohee has come under bruising criticism since 2008, when OneUnited lost millions of dollars invested in the failed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and then sought help from the government. A meeting Cohee and his general counsel landed with US Treasury officials sparked a congressional ethics investigation because it was allegedly arranged by US Representative Maxine Waters, whose husband had owned stock in the bank. Waters has denied wrongdoing.

In late 2008, OneUnited received $12 million in federal bailout funds, which it has yet to repay. At the same time, it has received poor marks in recent years for community lending, making few loans in the Boston, Miami, and Los Angeles neighborhoods it serves.

Cohee agreed to extend nearly $5 million in loans to Charles Street AME several years ago, when the bank was launching a new branch in Grove Hall. The church, under pastor Gregory G. Groover Sr., was embarking on a big project, to build a Roxbury Renaissance Center for events and small business start-ups, and to house the church’s music program.

But between construction delays and cost overruns, the church fell behind on its payments. OneUnited several times extended the construction loan but ultimately called it. Charles Street could not pay it off in full.

Cohee did recall in his deposition how angry he got when a group of investors sought to acquire the loan from the bank at a deep discount. He testified that, “the people at Bain Capital and Groover had called and threatened officers of my bank, and we were highly upset. . . . ‘’

Bain’s Steve Pagliuca has acknowledged trying to help the church with its loans but denied threatening the bank.

In February, the bank threatened to auction off the church itself, spurring community protests and outrage from ministers and politicians.

Beth Healy can be reached at bhealy@globe.com.

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