Ex-priest admits to fraud

Author: Nicole Tsong
Date Published: 12/06/2002

Embezzle: The Rev. Eugene Bourdukofsky allegedly skimmed $70,000 from church in Sitka.

For 23 years, Eugene Bourdukofsky was known as a good Russian Orthodox priest. He was respected and well-liked by his parish at historic St. Michael’s Cathedral in Sitka. But in 1997, he left suddenly and was deposed. No explanation was offered.

Over the past year, federal authorities disclosed that Bourdukofsky was skimming money from the church he led.

Last week, Bourdukofsky pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to one count of mail fraud. According to the plea agreement, he embezzled about $70,000 from a tourism account at St. Michael’s for his and his family’s use.

TX: He is scheduled to be sentenced in February. The plea agreement with federal prosecutors recommends that he serve eight to 14 months in prison and that he pay restitution.

According to court documents, the scheme began this way in January 1994:

Bourdukofsky, now 53, became priest of the cathedral in 1974. It was the first Russian Orthodox church built in Alaska, originally erected in 1848, and is a frequent stop for cruise ship tourists.

The church had an arrangement with a Sitka tour company. Sitka Tours, then Prewitt Enterprises, sold entry tickets to cruise ship tourists to visit the church. That money was deposited in a tourism account, kept separate from an account that held congregation contributions.

As priest, Bourdukofsky managed the account, which collected money from cruise ship entry tickets, gift shop sales and donations from other visitors. That account began in the late 1970s or early 1980s but probably didn’t make much money until the cruise ship business exploded, said Mary Beth Kepner, FBI senior resident agent in Juneau.

The account made $162,000 in 1994, $194,000 the next year and $105,000 in 1997.

In return for managing the account, Bourdukofsky was paid either 10 or 20 percent of the money from the tourism account.

But between January 1994 and September 1997, the indictment alleges, Bourdukofsky manipulated the account in several ways. He wrote checks to himself directly out of the tourism account, paid personal credit card bills from the account, wrote checks to his children directly from the account and wrote checks to other people for personal items or for the benefit of his family.

”It wasn’t like he was taking a few thousand extra each year,” said Kepner. ”He was taking substantially more than he would have been allowed.”

The church apparently discovered the embezzlement and removed Bourdukofsky from St. Michael’s in October 1997. But Bishop Nikolai, bishop of Alaska, said he wasn’t aware there was an investigation internally.

The embezzlement wasn’t reported to the FBI until 2001. Federal authorities said it was reported by the church. Bishop Nikolai, who arrived in Alaska in June 2001, said it was reported by someone associated with the church, describing it as ”a vindictive sort of thing to do.”

But the bishop said the church was neglectful in not reporting it right away.

”If it’s criminal activity, it needs to be brought to the proper authorities,” he said. If he had been bishop at the time, he would have told authorities, he said.

”I take very seriously what’s mine to care for,” he said. ”People in the parishes have that responsibility also.”

But he said it was a tragic event for the Bourdukofsky family, which is very pious and involved in the church.

Bourdukofsky, who now lives in Anchorage, continues to attend church here, Bishop Nikolai said.

When approached at his modest home in East Anchorage on Thursday, Bourdukofsky said he had no comment.

His attorney, federal public defender Rich Curtner, would say only, ”It’s a really unfortunate situation.”

And it has been traumatic for the congregation of 150 families.

Longtime parishioners say he was removed without much explanation, and most didn’t know what happened to him.

It was hard without him at first, said Emily Bezezekoff, the former president of the Sister Madonna Sisterhood of St. Michael’s Cathedral.

He was an outgoing person who was always positive, she said.

”He never had anything angry or ornery to say to anybody,” she said. ”He was always there for them and for us all.”

Bezezekoff learned about the embezzlement only after the FBI came last year and questioned the church treasurer.

”We were very shocked” to learn about it, she said. Nobody knew that he was taking money.

Bezezekoff said it was particularly hard knowing that money could have gone to a church that needed it.

”I really pushed our ladies to put money together for our fund-raisers, thinking we need the money,” she said. ”We think we’re working for the best of everybody and have this pulled out from under us.”

Some parishioners interviewed this week said they didn’t want to know more about the situation. And others have returned only on occasion to St. Michael’s since Bourdukofsky left.

Eva Marie Howard said she was stunned to hear about the charges against Bourdukofsky.

”I couldn’t believe anybody would say anything about that towards Father Eugene,” she said. He was always good to her children and motivated her son with rewards when he was an altar boy.

Howard tried to go back to church but hasn’t adjusted to the priest who came after Bourdukofsky.

”I love him so much,” she said, choking up. ”Our whole family is behind him.”

Bezezekoff has kept in touch with Bourdukofsky since he left, calling him and his wife on their birthdays.

”Our feelings were kind of hurt, but what can we do?” she said. ”He’s the person we have loved for a long time, and you can’t change that feeling about someone.”

Reporter Nicole Tsong can be reached at ntsong@adn.com or 907-257-4450.