Joe Childs and Tom Tobin have done another fine job amassing new details about the FBI’s probe of human trafficking allegations at Scientology’s facilities, where workers, some of them children, toil long hours for little pay. As in our own story about the FBI giving up, the Times reporters found that at one point the federal investigators were taking seriously the idea of raiding Scientology’s international base east of Los Angeles.
Childs and Tobin advance the story in a major way by consulting experts who explain how the FBI — and the prosecutors it would turn over its evidence to — were confronted with a difficult proposition. Even with evidence that some workers were treated appallingly, Scientology had strong protection in the First Amendment, which keeps courts from meddling in church affairs.
There’s little doubt that the government had a tough road, but was its investigation ultimately sunk because of the difficulty Marc and Claire Headley ran into when they unsuccessfully sued Scientology in civil court over similar human trafficking allegations?
That’s the impression we came away with after reading the Times story.
“Seems to me that after a ruling such as this there is not much left to a criminal case that is essentially charging the same thing,” said former Justice Department attorney Greg W. Kehoe, referring to the dismissal of the Headley lawsuit.
We called Marc Headley to ask him how he felt about being the scapegoat for a federal investigation falling apart.
He laughed, saying that the Times reporters had been asking him that question for nearly two years. But he added that it wasn’t the whole story.
“It was a two-way street,” Headley says. “I got the impression that because of the FBI investigation, our attorneys thought they really had something in the human trafficking, and they dropped the other things that the judge ultimately said we had a better shot at.”
Headley is referring to the appellate decision of federal judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, which detailed the harrowing conditions the Headleys experienced as Sea Org workers at Int Base, and suggested that his decision to uphold the dismissal might have gone differently if the Headleys had not pursued their case under the federal trafficking statute.
Headley says it was also curious to think that because he and his wife Claire were unable to beat the well-heeled church in a court fight that they financed on their own, carefully watching expenses and doing much of the work to save money, the mighty US government was subsequently undone when the Headleys did not prevail.
“If ultimately the FBI’s investigation was hinging on what we did? Well, get real,” he says.
Mike Rinder, the former church spokesman who grew frustrated with the FBI’s investigation, also scoffed at the notion that the government needed the Headleys to succeed. He compared it to similar federal investigations of the mafia.
“When you’re up against organized crime, you don’t expect civil litigants to bring it off. That’s what the government is for,” Rinder says.
Besides, there may have been another reason that the FBI probe fell apart that has nothing to do with the Headleys losing their case.
Marc Headley and Marty Rathbun are now willing to go on the record and explain what doesn’t appear in the Tampa Bay Times story — that the FBI may have torpedoed its own case when it helped out the Headleys behind the scenes.
In April 2010, John Brousseau made his break for freedom from the International Base after working in the Sea Org for more than 30 years. He then went to Corpus Christi to see Marty Rathbun, who was worried that Brousseau might be running an elaborate church operation.
But Rathbun became convinced that Brousseau’s escape was genuine. And then, as we explained in our story about Brousseau in July, Tommy Davis and three other church officials turned up at Brousseau’s motel, hoping to talk him into returning.
In August 2010, at his blog, Rathbun revealed that at the same time Davis had been sent to Texas, Scientology executive Warren McShane had reported to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office that Brousseau had stolen church property when he absconded from the base. (Brousseau told us he was very careful only to take his own property when he left. He was not charged by the sheriff’s department despite McShane’s complaint.)
McShane told the sheriff’s deputies that he had sent the contingent of Scientologists who showed up at Brousseau’s motel:
Mr. McShane summoned (4) church members/employees who know JB the best and sent them to Texas to attempt to contact him and perhaps persuade him to return to the facility in Hemet, CA. According to Mr. McShane the four dispatched employees were able to contact JB in the lobby of the Best Western motel on April 26 or 27th 2010. The group tried to persuade JB to return with them. JB retreated to his room and refused to come out or speak with the group.
But when Tommy Davis was deposed in the Headley lawsuit, he denied that he’d been sent by the church to retrieve Brousseau.
Q: Did your supervisor tell you to go see him?
A: No, she did not.
Q: So, why did you go to Texas to see John?
A: Because he is a very good friend of mine.
Q: So no one sent you to see Mr. Brousseau?
Q: And you were visiting him as part of your job duties for the Church of Scientology?
A: No, I was not.
The McShane police report appeared to impeach Davis’s testimony, but the church had a reasonable expectation that the Headleys and their attorneys would never find out about the McShane report — it was investigative material in an open criminal case, and not something the public should be able to get its hands on.
So imagine the surprise that Scientology must have felt when the McShane report was filed by attorneys for the Headleys in their lawsuit.
In fact, the church registered its utter shock in a briefing dated August 2, 2010, saying that it was highly suspicious that the McShane police report had surfaced when “The source, acquisition and possession of the report by Plaintiff’s counsel are unstated, suspicious and potentially unlawful.”
According to Rathbun, the attorneys for the Headleys had obtained the McShane report from the FBI.
“The FBI’s got evidence that the guy is perjuring himself, and so they turned over that evidence to an officer of the court,” Rathbun says. He characterized it as a conscientious act by a law enforcement official who didn’t want to see wrongdoing go unpunished.
But after the McShane report surfaced, the FBI removed its lead investigator, Tricia Whitehill, from the Scientology investigation.
“She was a highly decorated veteran, and the church wanted her off the case,” Rathbun says. “Once she was pulled off of it, then the case was sayonara. If the FBI had a chance in this thing, it was because of Whitehill. And then she was gone, and that was the end of it.
“The Department of Justice was watching them like vultures, looking for any misstep to call it off. I had predicted that would happen, and it did,” he added.
Early in October, 2010, ex-Scientologist Tiziano Lugli talked with FBI special agent Valerie Venegas, who took over the case when Whitehill was removed. He told us in our March story that when he questioned her, Venegas admitted that the investigation had been cancelled by higher-ups in Washington. “I don’t care, I’m going to run my own investigation,” Venegas told him, Lugli says.
It was only a week after that conversation, Lugli adds, that she then complained about phone calls from New Yorker reporter Lawrence Wright, who would go on to reveal the existence of the FBI probe four months later, in his February 2011 profile of director Paul Haggis.
The Times story doesn’t mention Lugli or the October phone conversation he had with Venegas, and it makes it appear that Venegas complained about Wright only after his story came out in February.
As Tiziano pointed out to us earlier, Venegas had already told him the probe was finished before she complained that Wright was making calls, casting doubt on the idea that the reporter “destroyed” the investigation, as the Times story implies.
We’re sticking by what we said in March: the FBI probe was dead before the world heard about it in Wright’s New Yorker story (which is probably why Wright felt comfortable saying anything about it anyway).
But as Headley told us tonight, the church was bound to slip through somehow.
“You know how it is with Scientology. If you don’t have the gun, the video of someone shooting the gun, the bullets, and a taped confession, you can’t get them. You just can’t,” he says.
Posted by Tony Ortega on January 13, 2013 at 23:50