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LIVE REPORTS FROM TAMPA: Scientology tests its religious freedom defense in fraud lawsuit

TampaCourtWe have several correspondents on the scene today as the next dramatic showdown occurs in Luis and Rocio Garcia’s fraud lawsuit against the Church of Scientology.

The Garcias first filed their lawsuit in January 2013, alleging that over their long time in the church, they had been victimized by fraudulent schemes to convince them to donate large sums of money. (In one memorable example, they claimed that they were asked to donate tens of thousands of dollars to pay for a Scientology cross to go on the top of the Super Power Building in Clearwater, only to find out later that other church members had been asked to pay for the same cross.)

One of Scientology’s reactions to the lawsuit was to file a motion asking that federal Judge James D. Whittemore compel the Garcias to take their dispute to the church’s internal arbitration scheme and drop their lawsuit. Scientology insisted that this was a religious dispute, and not something for a civil court to hear. To deny Scientology’s request would be to infringe on its religious freedom.

“The Garcias learned and accepted the Scientology religious tenet that all disputes between and among fellow Scientologists and/or Scientology churches and affiliated religious organizations should be resolved by use of Scientology’s internal dispute resolution and justice system, including ultimately, if necessary, submission of all such disputes to arbitration before followers of the Scientology religion who are knowledgeable in the Scientology Scripture,” Scientology’s attorneys wrote in their motion to compel arbitration back in March 2013.

The Garcias deny that their allegations are religious in nature. It’s a fraud dispute, and Scientology’s religious freedoms have nothing to do with it, they say. Also, they point out that Scientology’s arbitration scheme is a sham, and they’ve filed affidavits from former church officials who say as much. “Anyone who requests a refund is by definition, ‘guilty’ in the eyes of Scientologists in good standing, no matter what the issue, especially when that person is in conflict with any Scientologist, and even more so the church itself,” wrote former top Scientology executive Marty Rathbun in a declaration supporting the Garcias answer to the motion.

Today at 2:30 pm Eastern time, Judge Whittemore will preside over a hearing as the two sides make oral arguments. Based on his track record, we would expect Whittemore to make his ruling at the end of the session.


We’ve been through a similar experience in this stormy lawsuit. Scientology previously went to its well-used playbook, trying to disqualify the attorneys for the Garcias. We were in the courtroom as Whittemore found against Scientology that time.

Since we’ve been there before, we know that our correspondents won’t be able to take electronic devices into the Tampa federal courthouse. So we’ll have to wait for them to emerge and send us their reports. As soon as we get them, we’ll post them here.

WHILE WE WAIT for word from Tampa later today, we have some other documents for you to look at in another lawsuit that has become a huge headache for the Church of Scientology. Filed by the National Association of Forensic Counselors, it’s taking aim at 82 defendants who, the NAFC claims, misused its logo and drug counseling certificates in a years long conspiracy to make Scientology’s drug rehab network, Narconon, appear more legitimate than it is.

The NAFC this week filed numerous responses to motions to dismiss that had been entered by some of the defendants. Here’s the one NAFC attorney David Keesling filed in response to the Church of Scientology International (CSI), just one of the 82 defendants.

“This case is about Defendant Church of Scientology International being the ultimate mastermind behind the brazen theft of Plaintiffs’ logos, trademarks, certifications, and established business reputation in order to bait vulnerable victims into the Scientology religion,” Keesling writes.

We’ll post some of the other responses here as we have time…

Response to motion to dismiss by PITA group, Gary Smith, et al.
Response to motion to dismiss by Narconon International
Response to motion to dismiss by Best Drug Rehabilitation
Response to motion to dismiss by the Association for Better Living and Education (ABLE)

As we get reports from Tampa, we’ll add to this post.

(Also, if you didn’t get to see yesterday’s bonus afternoon post about Nancy Cartwright’s creepy ‘Baby Buddha,’ you really need to see it.)

One more item: We’re scheduled to appear on the Stu Breyer show at WICH-AM in Connecticut to talk about Scientology at a little after 11 am. [Update: Hey, that was fun. We’ll get a link to the podcast version when we can.]

Noon update: We’ve heard from Mike Bennitt and Mark Bunker that they’ll be at the hearing today. So will Dee Findlay and a few others. Wish we could be there to join them.

2:30 pm update: Things should have started down in Tampa. We’re sitting by the phone here in New York, waiting for some word from our correspondents. They’ll have to leave the courtroom and get to their cars or wherever they’ve stashed their phones before they can call us with the news. We’ll be talking to several people and amassing a joint report.

Hey, while we wait, here’s the recording of this morning’s radio show. Your proprietor shows up about minute 65…



We’re assembling these reports after talking to numerous witnesses. Here’s what we have so far…

Judge Whittemore listened to both sides, but he says he’s going to take a couple of weeks before rendering his decision. “But it doesn’t look good for Wally Pope and Scientology,” we were told.

During the hearing, the judge asked really smart on-the-spot questions about the one-sided nature of Scientology’s arbitration clause.

He asked a hypothetical question, for example: If the Garcias had embezzled $100,000 from the church, would Scientology force them into arbitration, or would they sue them in a courtroom?

Scientology attorney Wally Pope answered that, well, it would be up to Scientology if they wanted to do use arbitration in such a case. (Yeah, sure they would. That answer fell pretty flat.)

A favorite moment was when Pope was saying that all of these are religious matters, all of these documents the Garcias signed were religious in nature. And he tried to make an analogy about if he were to convert to Catholicism, he’d have to follow their rules or he wouldn’t be a Catholic.

The judge didn’t appear very impressed by that analogy.

“It was certainly an interesting affair, and Ted Babbitt seemed to do a really good job, while Pope really seemed to be stretching.”

Garcia attorney Ted Babbitt said that this will be a huge decision that will affect many other lawsuits against Scientology.

More soon…

Based on what Judge Whittemore said, it may be least a month before we get a ruling.

In the courtroom today, on the Scientology side: Monique Yingling, Eric Lieberman, Wally Pope, Bob Potter, Sarah Heller.

“Wally Pope did his thing, then Ted Babbitt gave his response, then Wally got one more chance and that was it.”

At one point, apropos of nothing, Wally said, “I am informed that there are 6,000 people at the facilities in Clearwater participating in church activities on any given week.” It was not clear why Pope believed this was significant.

Because one of the contracts the Garcias signed was signed in Aruba, Pope made an argument about maritime law applying. And also, that Florida and California law had different approaches to arbitration.

But none of that seemed to sway Whittemore, except to make it difficult to follow what Pope was getting at.

“I am informed the church has given at least seven refunds in the last three or four years,” Pope said at one point, apparently to show that the arbitration process actually does work.

And Pope went into some really obscure references to religion being a “contract of adhesion,” and one a follower is bound to, whether they want to be or not.

Wally at one point was even citing the Nicene Creed, until Whittemore told him to get off the theology and back to contract law.

And besides, if religion is a “contract of adhesion” that followers are bound by, then why make them sign so many agreements, the way Scientology always does? Hey, that’s a good question, judge.

Maybe the most bizarre moment, we’re told, came when Wally went into a spiel about L. Ron Hubbard being a naval officer during World War II. Pope then asserted that Scientology’s internal justice procedures are similar to the uniform code of military justice. He then went on to cite a Supreme Court decision about the military code being applicable in some cases, or something. Again, it seemed to make little impression on Whittemore.

“The judge was pulling Wally to pieces,” we’re told.

Ted Babbitt then stood up and said that the thing about California and Florida was all a red herring. The real question was, had Scientology usurped this court’s Article 3 rights? How can three Scientologists in good standing possibly provide a fair hearing when they could be declared and disconnected themselves?

The truth is there is no arbitration. There are no rules. And the Garcias are not asking for a refund anyway. The lawsuit is about fraud, not refunds.

“The judge’s view seemed to be the same as Ted’s: Anyone who has any dispute with Scientology is bound by this arbitration clause, and it’s a one-way street? You have no rights? That’s what he’s looking at, that it’s so overreaching. And Scientology always pushes it to such a degree, they end up looking so silly.”

So we’ll see what Whittemore says in a month, but it doesn’t really look good for Scientology.

We just love that navy justice argument, though Wally. You keep pushing that one.

Thanks to our correspondents for their help.


Posted by Tony Ortega on September 4, 2014 at 07:00

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Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS (We read Scientology’s founding text) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25

UP THE BRIDGE (Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48

GETTING OUR ETHICS IN (Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING (Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49

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