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Scientology Accused of Spending Millions to Influence Florida Judges

Last night, the St. Petersburg, Florida CBS affiliate, WTSP, broke news that Marty Rathbun has made blockbuster allegations in sworn testimony that the Church of Scientology spent millions in an attempt to influence Florida judges as it was fighting the criminal investigation and then civil litigation following the 1995 death of church member Lisa McPherson.

We’ve talked to Rathbun about his testimony, we have a copy of his deposition, and we’ve also asked our legal department — Manhattan attorney Scott Pilutik — to give us his thoughts about these stunning new allegations that Scientology spent freely to influence judges in Florida.

First, some background: on October 31, Florida attorney Ken Dandar, who represented McPherson’s family in the wrongful death civil litigation, filed a federal lawsuit against the Church of Scientology and two of its attorneys, alleging that his civil rights were being trampled by Scientology through its manipulation of the state court system. Dandar claims that in a closed hearing scheduled for November 26, a Florida state judge will saddle Dandar with $1 million in court fees the church is asking for. In his federal lawsuit, Dandar is asking for a court injunction to stop the November 26 closed hearing.

To support his lawsuit, Dandar deposed Rathbun, who was once the second-highest ranking official in the church, and who oversaw the church’s fight against the criminal investigation into the McPherson death and then the wrongful death litigation. In other words, it was Rathbun’s job to strategize against the state investigators and Dandar. But now, Rathbun has provided startling testimony that tends to bolster Dandar’s position.

McPherson was a troubled church member who had a mental breakdown in 1995 in Clearwater, Florida and then was taken by Scientology officials to its spiritual mecca, the Fort Harrison Hotel, where she died 17 days later. Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner Joan Wood initially found the cause of McPherson’s death to be “undetermined.” But later, under intense media scrutiny and pressure by the church, she changed the finding to “accidental,” and the state dropped its criminal investigation. (Wood died in July 2011.)

Rathbun now alleges that the church influenced Wood through her attorney, Jeffrey Goodis, who was plied with Super Bowl tickets and other gifts by Scientology operatives. WTSP reported that Goodis denied Rathbun’s allegations.

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Rathbun also testified that former state prosecutor Lee Fugate was hired by Scientology in order to hold “ex parte” meetings with judges — meetings, in other words, that were held outside the presence of Dandar and, Rathbun says, were intended to paint Dandar and his clients in the worst possible light for judges. (Fugate told WTSP that he cannot comment on a federal lawsuit.)

“Well, Fugate was, you know…he was convincing [Judge Robert] Beach this case had nothing to do with justice. It had nothing to do with recompense. It had to do with a bunch of money-hungry relatives who didn’t care about McPherson, with an ambulance-chasing attorney, and they’re going to tie up the courts, and this thing’s going to — you know, he got Beach on board to — to consider this case something that just ought to be settled because it’s all about the money,” Rathbun testified.

Rathbun also talked about stories we’ve covered before — that local Republican party operative Mary Repper was hired by the church to influence local pols by hosting parties that featured Scientology celebrities. And that Rathbun had said on camera that he destroyed evidence in the McPherson case while being supervised by church attorney Elliot Abelson. In all, Rathbun says, the church spent between $28 million and $30 million to fight the criminal and civil litigation.

WTSP reported that the church filed a “lawsuit” yesterday — we’re assuming they meant a motion — asking for Rathbun’s testimony to be stricken. An emergency hearing is scheduled in federal court for Monday.

We talked to Rathbun last night, asking him about making allegations about sitting and retired Florida judges and high-profile attorneys supposedly being in the pocket of Scientology. Was he concerned at all about the consequences?

“I’m trembling in my boots,” he said sarcastically. “I told Dandar they’re going to have to think long and hard what to do about me. I’m best when people are questioning me. If they cross-examine me, it’s going to get five times as bad.”

Twice previously this year, Rathbun has been involved in Scientology lawsuits — he was prepared to testify on former church executive Debbie Cook’s behalf in a suit brought against her by the church, and he was a party in a suit brought against the church by two of its former private investigators. In both cases, the prospect of Rathbun testifying against his former employer loomed as Scientology settled its case against Cook and is still negotiating an end to the suit brought by the private eyes.

“I think they’re ultimately going to have to back out of this thing too,” Rathbun says. “They’ll at least drop the damages against Dandar.”

That’s still to be seen. But Rathbun’s testimony certainly has raised the profile of a lawsuit that was not garnering much attention until last night.

We asked attorney Scott Pilutik to read Rathbun’s testimony and give us his thoughts…

To start with, let me disclaim that Ken Dandar is a friend and that I worked for Ken in a relatively minor capacity on the Lisa McPherson case. Not that I’m commenting on this to advocate for him, but for credibility reasons I need to put my bias on the table.

You probably don’t need a legal expert to tell you that these are serious allegations, ranging from the outright criminal to serious ethical violations, by lawyers, judges, and whatever manner of political creature Mary Repper can be said to be.

Some of this we’ve heard before, such as Elliot Abelson ordering the destruction of evidence.

But this is the first time we’ve heard of Joan Wood’s lawyer Jeffrey Goodis accepting what would appear to be outright bribes in exchange for what I’m guessing was his agreement to exert pressure on his client Wood to change her cause of death determination. Too bad Wood isn’t around to answer whether Goodis disclosed to her the thousands of dollars in perks he was receiving.

He alleges Wally Pope, Ed Armstrong, and especially Lee Fugate having countless ex parte communications with judges presiding over cases involving Dandar and Scientology. An ex parte communication is when one party to a lawsuit speaks with the judge out of earshot of the opposing party, about the case. The trickiness here is that Marty doesn’t quite allege that an ex parte communication took place about the case because everyone involved was sophisticated enough to recognize that that just isn’t done.

What Marty’s alleging, rather, is a conspiracy to engage in ex parte communications not actually concerning particular cases but nevertheless purposed on influencing those cases’ outcomes. Actually, he alleges that Fugate deliberately communicated with Beach about the case Beach was about to preside over. The response will be, I’m guessing, that these allegations are smoke, that lawyers and judges talk about lots of things, including other lawyers, and that Marty’s allegations need to be far more specific. Oh, and they’ll obviously go into full-metal Marty character assassination mode as well.

Marty implies that Judge Beach actively sought, on Scientology’s behalf, to get assigned to the McPherson case so that Scientology might have better luck than they were having with Judge Schaeffer (which, allegations aside, is precisely what happened). This may be the most serious allegation here.

Marty’s testimony is somewhat scattered and difficult to pin down since he’s mostly on the fringes of the allegations, not often a direct witness to it. He’d be more helpful to Dandar if he discusses particular ways in which he himself conspired and carried out actions to scuttle Dandar’s cases. But the testimony does ring true, at least to anyone who watched it go down at the time or who cares to look now.

The good news for Dandar is that Marty’s testimony supports his civil rights violation complaint, whereas before this Dandar’s complaint was mostly a recitation of the litigation history from the McPherson to Brennan cases. But for the purposes of a motion to dismiss, surely forthcoming, Marty’s testimony must be taken as true, and to the extent that testimony suggests all manner of impropriety and illegality willfully committed by both lawyers and judges in pursuit shutting down cases brought by Dandar-represented plaintiffs, Dandar could, and should survive that motion to dismiss.

Whether Marty’s testimony stands up is another question, but one we’ll hopefully hear answered. Perhaps too Dandar will serve up Rinder’s testimony next? This could certainly use bolstering.

 
We asked Rathbun about that: Would Dandar be deposing Mike Rinder, Scientology’s former executive who ran its legal affairs wing?

“I think he already has,” Rathbun responded, and he pointed to the confident way that Dandar spoke in the WTSP report.

“I think he just set them up,” Rathbun added, referring to Scientology asking to strike his testimony. “Dandar has Rinder’s deposition, corroborating me, in his back pocket.”

We’ll be checking on that as soon as we get a chance. In the meantime, take a look at Rathbun’s testimony and give us your thoughts…

Marty Rathbun Deposition (Dandar lawsuit)

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