Church files an Anti-SLAPP motion in the lawsuit, arguing that its 199-day intimidation of the Rathbuns was protected free speech
Scientology’s chief private investigator now claims he is a Scientologist and was personally offended by Marty Rathbun’s apostasy
Mike Bennitt, an ex-Scientologist who has been filming proceedings, reports that he’s now being tailed by private investigators, and two local reporters are also being surveilled
By Tony Ortega
The Church of Scientology International (CSI) filed an Anti-SLAPP motion Friday in Monique Rathbun’s harassment lawsuit against the church and its leader, David Miscavige. And that motion includes stunning admissions by the church as it attempts a major gamble to stop the lawsuit in its tracks.
It was supposed to be a routine hearing on Friday at the Comal County, Texas courthouse, where the parameters of a protective order were being hashed out by the two sides. Scientology had wanted the protective order to prevent Monique from sharing church evidence with her husband, Mark “Marty” Rathbun, who was once Miscavige’s top lieutenant. The church lost that battle: Marty will not only be able to view any evidence the church turns over, he’ll also be allowed to consult on the lawsuit freely.
But that news was overshadowed by Scientology’s Anti-SLAPP motion, which was dramatically delivered to Judge Dib Waldrip by Ricardo Cedillo, one of the lead local attorneys for the church who was making his first appearance after his involvement in another case had kept him away.
Texas is one of 28 US states that have enacted anti-SLAPP laws, which arose as protection for people who were being sued as a form of bullying. In a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or SLAPP, a plaintiff files a lawsuit not necessarily to win, but rather to silence a defendant and burden them with court costs. But with an anti-SLAPP motion, a defendant can not only have such a lawsuit dismissed, but be awarded attorney’s costs and even punitive damages.
In one recent example, the website BoingBoing successfully filed an anti-SLAPP motion in 2009 after it was sued by MagicJack. The phone device maker was angered by BoingBoing’s reporting about its deceptive business practices, but the website proved that the lawsuit was really just an attempt to silence it, and successfully had MagicJack’s lawsuit dismissed and won most of its costs.
Essentially, the purpose of Anti-SLAPP statutes is to prevent bullies from suing small protesters out of existence.
“Here you have the opposite. Here the big bully is arguing that this lawsuit will prevent them from bullying further,” says attorney Scott Pilutik after reviewing the motion filed by Scientology.
In its motion, Scientology is making stunning admissions: That, for example, the Church of Scientology International now admits being involved in sending the “Squirrel Busters” crew to South Texas and paying some of their expenses so they could protest outside of the Rathbun home from April to September 2011 (earlier, CSI attorney Les Strieber had denied in court that CSI had sent the Squirrel Busters). Scientology private investigator David Lubow is admitting that he helped run the operation. Two other defendants in the lawsuit, Monty Drake and Steven Gregory Sloat, are similarly admitting to being part of Scientology schemes to surveil the Rathbuns.
In the decades-long history of Scientology litigation, there is little precedent for the church admitting so freely to such retaliatory behavior. But these admissions are part of a larger strategy. First, CSI once again falls on its sword, saying that it was responsible for all of the activities aimed at the Rathbuns but insisting that Scientology leader David Miscavige and the Religious Technology Center he nominally runs were blameless (both are asking to be let out of the lawsuit). Second, in the anti-SLAPP motion, CSI is arguing that all of the activity admitted to by Lubow and others was all protected free speech as CSI was forced to defend itself against Marty Rathbun and his “squirreling.”
Marty Rathbun spent 27 years in Scientology, many of them as the second-highest ranking official in the church, before he defected in 2004 and then began a blog critical of his former boss, David Miscavige, in 2009. Rathbun was among numerous “independent Scientologists” who blamed Miscavige for taking Scientology away from the practices and goals of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986. A growing number of “indies,” including Rathbun, continued Scientology’s “auditing” — counseling — outside of the official church, a practice the church labels as “squirreling.” Calling someone a “squirrel” is the church’s way of branding someone a heretic, and there’s almost no worse thing you can call a Scientologist.
According to the declarations filed in the motion, John Allender, Richard Hirst, and other members of the “Squirrel Busters” team say they traveled to Texas to confront the Rathbuns because they were defending their church against Marty Rathbun’s heresy as the biggest squirrel of them all.
Monique Rathbun filed her lawsuit on August 16 after what she said were several years of surveillance and harassment at their home in Ingleside on the Bay, Texas, near Corpus Christi, where the Squirrel Busters showed up to protest over a span of 199 days while claiming to be making a documentary. After the Squirrel Busters left in September 2011, the Rathbuns discovered several months later that a house down the block had been set up with Internet-connected cameras which were aimed at their home.
Fed up with the constant surveillance, the Rathbuns moved last year to a more secluded house outside of San Antonio and the surveillance appeared to lessen. But then they noticed that a man was clearing brush in a property to the east of them that they had been told was uninhabited. The man, Steven Gregory Sloat, claimed to be a writer whose publisher had leased the land so he could finish his latest book. When the Rathbuns then found that a high-tech remote camera had been posted on a tree from that property and was aimed at their driveway, they decided that the man must actually be an agent of the church.
Now, the church admits not only that Sloat was hired to gather information about the Rathbuns, but that he had placed three cameras so they could record who was coming and going at the Rathbun house.
That revelation and many others are presented in Scientology’s lengthy motion and its exhibits. The church’s admissions are simply stunning. But some of them, we’ve found, are problematic. We’ll get to that a little later.
Before we get into the church’s admissions in more depth, we wanted to relate the surprising revelation that Scientology is apparently surveilling the court proceedings as it is being sued for surveillance.
Mike Bennitt is a former Scientologist who has been filming proceedings in the lawsuit at his own expense, making those videos available at his website.
Yesterday, Bennitt was in the courtroom, and he captured the moment when Ricardo Cedillo introduced himself by bringing Judge Waldrip the volumninous Anti-SLAPP motion and its exhibits. You’ll hear Cedillo say that although such a motion usually stops a lawsuit in its tracks and freezes all discovery, the church is not taking that position, and does not want to interfere with the scheduling of upcoming depositions (a minor concession, considering that this new motion asks for the case itself to be dismissed, and within the next 60 days).
Besides sharing that video with us, Bennitt tells us that it’s become very obvious he’s being trailed by three or more private investigators who have done little to hide the fact that he is now under their surveillance. During yesterday’s hearing, for example, one of the private eyes, who had been taking photos of him earlier, came into the courtroom to keep an eye on him.
“I confronted the guy at the lunch break. I walked up to him and said, ‘You know what I’m doing here?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘Well, I know what you’re doing here, too’,” Bennitt told us.
When he returned to his hotel, which is in downtown New Braunfels, he was told by the management that a man had been calling, asking for information about him. But the management refused to give out any information about Bennitt. He says a woman who works at the hotel told him, “It’s the same guy who was asking for information about Mr. Childs.”
That’s a reference to Tampa Bay Times reporter Joe Childs, who stayed at the same hotel for a hearing in the lawsuit last month.
Bennitt tells us that two local reporters who are following the lawsuit both told him that they too have picked up tails. One writer told Bennitt that he and his wife were being followed, and that he’d found private eyes watching his driveway at five in the morning. Another writer, meanwhile, told Bennitt that after he came out with a story about the lawsuit, two men went to the Comal County building and ordered copies of his marriage certificate.
And last night, Bennitt called us from a Starbucks in the nearby town of San Marcos, where he’d gone hoping to get away from the harassment and get some work done. While he was there, he watched as a man drove up, parked his car, and then walked over to Bennitt’s rental car. Bennitt watched as the man tried to open the doors on his rental, but the doors were locked.
This was the third person that he’s seen keeping watch on him, Bennitt says.
[Next page: The spiritual angst of David Lubow]