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Diocese of Washington Gains Control of Mrs. Soper’s Millions

Diocese of Washington Gains Control of Mrs. Soper’s Millions
Soper Trust Terminated. Diocese now controls over $27.4 million

By Sarah Frances Ives
Special to Virtueonline
June 12, 2014

For the past forty years, the Episcopal Diocese of Washington has been the beneficiary of the Ruth Gregory Soper Trust fund. Constructed as a trust handled by Riggs Bank and then its successor PNC Bank, the diocese received interest from the body of her money.

Under PNC’s careful investments, the trust had developed from about $7 million into over $27.4 million dollars.

In 2010 in a bold attempt to get control of the money, the administration of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington initiated legal action against the Ruth Gregory Soper Trust and its trustee PNC bank. This bank waged a valiant battle against these Diocese of Washington officials, yet ultimately failed. Secret maneuvers and agreements sealed the fate of the Soper trust.

Even though PNC bank persistently asserted that the Diocese of Washington's plans violated the expressed intentions of Ruth Gregory Soper, on April 11, 2013 a judge from the circuit court of Montgomery County, Maryland, signed a court order terminating the Soper Trust.

This long struggle began in 1967 when Mrs. Ruth Gregory Soper carefully constructed her will to make a lasting legacy out of her money obtained from Texas oil. She gave financial bequests to many organizations and people, including George Washington University, St. Alban’s School, and other Episcopal entities. Mrs. Soper made direct financial gifts to other people and institutions yet for the diocese, she had requested that the bank handle the money and not the diocese. In recent years all of the people to whom she left money died, so the diocese was the only remaining beneficiary.

When the Diocese of Washington became short of money in the last 15 years, the administration began to use interest from the Soper Trust for its operating costs. Within the diocese, numerous arguments and resolutions came out of the internal conflict over the Soper Trust, including a successful 2002 convention vote requesting that the administration of the diocese cease from using her money for operating costs and use it only for direct ministries to help suffering humanity.

Diocesan officials continued its practice of using the Soper money for operating expenses. Then in 2010 without making this information known publicly to the General Convention of the Diocese of Washington, officials quietly initiated the lawsuit to end the Soper Trust. Now speculation exists why the Diocese of Washington felt in need of financial resources to fight for control of the entire trust. After the release of future financial documents from the diocese, the trail of money should be traced to see where money, initially designed for ministry, eventually lands.

Final court papers highlight the major turning points in this lengthy lawsuit. After the Diocese of Washington began the lawsuit, PNC bank requested that Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler participate in order to help retain Mrs. Soper’s original intention to only give the interest from her body of money to the diocese.

To obtain Gansler’s assistance, PNC also argued that the Soper trust needed to be protected because she intended to have a future beneficiary in case the Episcopal Church became extinct or lost its charitable tax-exempt status. Gansler denied the PNC request. In legal documents from 2/23/2011, Gansler stated that this prospect of a change in status for the Episcopal Church is "too remote or speculative to justify the Attorney General's participation in the proceedings." (pg 6) So Gansler's refusal to be involved hindered the protection of Mrs. Soper's trust.

Following this, PNC bank requested that the United States District Court for Maryland dismiss the Diocese of Washington's action. The court refused this legal request. With this, the PNC bank suffered its second loss. This case now bounced back to Montgomery County circuit court.

Following these two losses, PNC bank made a confidential agreement with officials from the Diocese of Washington. The secret details of this agreement are not known. What is known publicly is that PNC bank agreed to resign as trustee of the Soper Trust and allow
the Diocese of Washington to nominate a new trustee to care for this trust.

After this, the powerful annihilation of the trust moved rapidly. PNC bank resigned as the Soper Trust trustee on about February 5, 2013 in a letter signed by its vice-president Leslie S. Carter. The letter stated that the Diocese of Washington nominated as the trustee Thomas D. Murphy, a lawyer with Murphy and Mood in Rockville, Maryland. Murphy agreed to this position and on about April 3, 2013, the judge designated Murphy as the new trustee in place of PNC bank. Murphy remained as trustee for about 8 days. Following his brief tenure, in cooperation with the Diocese of Washington Murphy agreed to allow the court to terminate the Soper Trust.

On April 11, 2013, the Soper Trust was terminated and the financial bequest of about $26,300,000.00 was handed over to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

So this long saga, beginning with Mrs. Soper’s generous contributions to many charities, ended sadly. In 1967 when designing her will, Ruth Gregory Soper believed that her money and its ensuing legacy be supervised by a bank she trusted, Riggs Bank and its successor, PNC Bank. The Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler seemed to consider the Soper Trust almost inconsequential and refused to help preserve this over 40-year-old trust.

As the trustee, PNC struggled to honor Mrs. Soper’s wishes, yet their lawyers lost the war following court decisions. A second trustee, Thomas D. Murphy, took the lead of the Soper Trust and, in less than two weeks, allowed the entire trust to be terminated and the money turned over to the financially strapped Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

Sarah Frances Ives is VOL's Washington correspondent

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