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TAMPA SHOWDOWN: Scientology’s religious exception faces mini-trial today

ShowdownThis is certainly a day we’ve been waiting for here at the Underground Bunker. Luis and Rocio Garcia filed their federal fraud lawsuit against the Church of Scientology back in January 2013, alleging that they had been lied to in order to get them to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to Scientology’s building projects and other campaigns.

The lawsuit has been delayed and complicated by numerous preliminary matters, but today a major issue in the case will finally get heard and possibly decided: Can the church force the Garcias into Scientology’s internal arbitration scheme?

As a church, Scientology says any grievance it has with former members like the Garcias is a religious matter, governed by the complex agreements that the Garcias signed with the highly bureaucratic and litigious institution.

But like many other people who have left the church, the Garcias have concluded that Scientology is more a money-raising business than a religious institution. They argue that they have been defrauded, which is a civil court matter, and they shouldn’t be forced into the church’s internal scheme, which requires being heard by a panel made up of three members in good standing.

The Garcias have also marshaled former church executives who say Scientology’s arbitration scheme is a sham, and was never meant to give anyone a refund. The church has objected that federal Judge James D. Whittemore might be in a position to decide whether the church’s internal rules are proper or not — that’s a matter of religion and a court’s meddling would be a violation of the First Amendment, the church argues.

Just yesterday — yesterday — Scientology filed yet another last-minute document, this time whining that some of what the Garcia team put in its ‘bench memorandum’ on Monday should be stricken from the record. In other words, with only a day to go before a huge and expensive hearing, the church’s attorneys can’t wait to get their objections heard. It’s a sign that things should be quite contentious today.

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It’s going to be fascinating to see Judge Whittemore negotiate this mess, and the stakes are huge. If he finds for the Garcias and their lawsuit proceeds, he will potentially have taken away one of Scientology’s most effective litigating weapons, and could open the floodgates to other lawsuits demanding refunds.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is probably going to be a long day of court testimony and argument, and we have a couple of correspondents in place who will get us accounts from the courtroom as soon as possible. (We’ve been in the Tampa federal courtroom, so we know that there are no electronic devices allowed, and we’ll have to wait for our correspondents to leave during breaks.)

Both sides will present witnesses for testimony, and here’s how things might go.

According to the defense, which will present first (because it’s their motion to compel), here are Scientology’s witnesses, in alphabetical order:

Allan Cartwright (legal director, Church of Scientology International)
Mike Ellis (Scientology’s “International Justice Chief,” whose testimony will be presented on video)
Luis Garcia (the plaintiff)
Sherman Lenske (also testifying by video from his deposition)

The Garcia team’s witness list:

Mike Rinder (Scientology’s former international spokesman)
Luis Garcia
Haydn James (former member of the Church of Scientology)
Christie Collbran (another former member, and married to Mike Rinder)
Mike Ellis

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Both sides also submitted lengthy lists of documents which might be referred to in testimony. One that caught our eye was a document that you first saw here at the Underground Bunker. It’s a letter from Mike Ellis, the International Justice Chief, telling former church member Robert Berrington that he could only get a refund if he filled out a particular form, but since he’s been “declared” and excommunicated, he can’t actually go into a Scientology church to get that form. It’s one of the most blatant and cynical examples of a “Catch-22” that we’ve ever seen…

 
BerringtonLetter

 
As soon as we get some reports from the courtroom, we’ll add them to the post. We’re going to assume that Judge Whittemore will take everything under advisement and will write out a lengthy, thorough decision on the church’s motion in the coming weeks.

 
UPDATE: We just talked to Mark Bunker, who sat through the morning session for us. Here’s what he told us.

“It’s mostly been Wally Pope running out the clock, and testimony about how much Luis Garcia loved Scientology, until he didn’t,” Bunker told us.

He said that there had been a lot of preliminary matters and that Pope, Scientology’s attorney, didn’t seem to be in a hurry. He then began testimony by swearing in Luis Garcia and questioning him for about 45 minutes.

“Pope had Luis read a success story he had written after taking an ethics course. Luis wrote about how much he had gained from the course, and that he came to realize that there was no true justice in the civil court system, but only in the church’s justice system. Even a jury would be a problem. The ‘reactive banks’ of the jury members would make sure there was no fair trial,” Bunker said. “But I have to believe that a judge isn’t really too thrilled to hear that Scientology thinks the court system is completely useless.”

At one point, Bunker said, Pope had been questioning Garcia for about 45 minutes, and Judge Whittemore cut in and said that none of the testimony had addressed the matter at hand. “Pope said, ‘we’re getting there’.”

Wow. That sounds very familiar. In past hearings, Pope has seemed to waste a lot of time on material that the judge isn’t interested in, and we’ve always assumed it’s because Pope is really playing to his employer, Scientology leader David Miscavige, who closely directs any Scientology legal team.

After that testimony from Garcia, Pope then started playing a video of Mike Ellis, the Scientology “International Justice Chief,” being questioned in his deposition.

Pope indicated that the video was about 45 minutes long. There was about fifteen minutes more to play when they broke for lunch. Testimony will resume at 1:15.

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Bunker said that Ted Babbitt, the Garcia attorney, said he had his own 2-hour tape of Ellis’s cross-examination to play.

“The judge said everything has to be wrapped up by 3:30. I don’t see how Babbitt is going to get in everything he wants to put on,” Bunker said.

“The majority of Garcia’s testimony was how much he loved L Ron Hubbard and Scientology, then how he changed his mind, and in 2009 sent a letter to David Miscavige and about a hundred of his friends about how upset he was with church management but still admired Hubbard and considered himself an independent Scientologist. He interjected that today he no longer believes that and is not an indie,” he added.

“It all seems like a big waste of time so far.”

 
ADDITIONAL NOTE: The court record indicates that Judge Whittemore denied the last-minute “motion to strike” that Scientology filed yesterday. Our legal expert says: “It shows he’s not putting up with any nonsense from the church.”

 
AFTERNOON UPDATE: Mark Bunker tells us that the afternoon session was much more interesting than the morning one. But it was clear that there was more testimony to put on, and the hearing will resume tomorrow morning at 9 am!

After coming back from lunch, Scientology attorney Wally Pope finished up showing video from the Mike Ellis deposition. Bunker said the strange part about it was the most of the questions being asked of Ellis were by Ted Babbitt, the attorney for Luis Garcia.

The point of that, it appeared, was that Pope wanted to get on the record Ellis replying to a Babbitt question that not all of the policies for Scientology internal justice system are contained in the book, An Introduction to Scientology Ethics.

Pope showed about ten minutes of video, and then the church’s case was done. (CORRECTION: This was time for the Garcia team to cross-examine Ellis. The church’s case hasn’t ended.)

It was then Ted Babbitt’s turn, and he managed to get Judge Whittemore snapping at him.

Babbitt had said he had more than two hours of Ellis deposition to show, but he also had live witnesses — Mike Rinder and Haydn James — who he wanted to put on. The only way he could see getting it done by 3:30 would be to read some excerpts from the Ellis deposition to get through it quickly.

But Bunker tells us that Whittemore apparently didn’t like the idea of excerpts, and made it clear that he’d rather watch the video to get the testimony into his mind.

Babbitt continued to suggest using excerpts so he could bring on other witnesses, so then Whittemore leveled an icy stare at him and said, “Do what you think is best for your client.”

Babbitt got the point, and put on the Ellis video.

At some point, Mark tells us, Pope objected to something on the tape, and Babbitt then began arguing over it, and Whittemore really snapped at him.

“Whittemore was angry, and he said Babbitt was slowing things down. He said that both sides had asked for only an hour and a half to present testimony, and here they were going over a full day. He wasn’t happy,” Bunker says.

Bunker adds that the Ellis cross-examination video was much more interesting than the morning session.

Babbitt caught him out about how refunds can be obtained if a routing form is filled out. Babbitt then presented Ellis with a copy of the Berrington letter (which we showed you, above), catching Ellis out that in fact, Scientology makes it impossible to fill out the forms necessary for a refund if you’ve been “declared” (excommunicated).

Babbitt also brought up a letter that Ellis wrote to a non-Scientologist attempting to get back the $17,000 his father had put on account before dying. Ellis suggested arbitration — but it was written six days after Whittemore had asked Scientology to prove that it actually had a record of providing payments with arbitration.

Bunker said the point was clear — Ellis and Scientology were trying to establish a record of arbitration after it had become an issue in the Garcia lawsuit.

If Babbitt scored points on the video, Bunker said the biggest takeaway of the afternoon was that Judge Whittemore seemed angry at both sides for how long the hearing was taking.

Bunker will be back in court tomorrow morning at 9 am as things continue with more of Babbitt’s the church’s case, including video of Lenske. then they’ll call Allan Cartrwight. Then Babbitt will begin to present the Garcia side, calling Haydn James, Christie Collbran, and then Mike Rinder.

 
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City of Pasadena disavows Scientology-sponsored event

One of our tipsters some time ago brought to us a flier for a benefit concert happening this weekend. The event claims to raise money for African literacy and “ebola recovery.” And it appears to have three sponsors, two of which are Scientology front groups — United for Human Rights and Youth for Human Rights International.

The other sponsor appears to be Pasadena’s Human Relations Commission.

 
AfricanLiteracy

 
Curious about the event, we contacted the Commission and asked how proceeds would be divided up and how Pasadena had been convinced that the event would actually benefit “African literacy” and “Ebola recovery.”

We received a phone call last night from a representative of the commission who told us he wanted to make it clear that the city of Pasadena and its Human Relations Commission is not a sponsor of the event.

One commissioner might be attending, he said, but the Commission itself has nothing to do with it.

We asked for further information about the city’s reaction to the flier and the event, and we’ll let you know what we hear.

 
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Another wild fundraiser in Hungary

last weekend there was another fundraiser in Budapest, centered around the 15th century’s King Matthias Corvinus. These folks really know how to party…

 

 
A translation of the captions, courtesy of Peter Bonyai…

00:08 We are leaving the past behind
00:12 and enter into our future
00:20 We are bringing suppression to its knees
00:34 Huge winds
00:38 Master Toldi (a legendary strong hero in Hungarian folklore)
00:40 with his legendary pole
00:41 The natural born minstrel
00:42 Funny as hell
00:47 Matthias returns

This planet will be cleared in no time!

 
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Saturday — what’s being revealed?

Ooh, the faithful are being told to come down for a big announcement on Saturday…

 
Feb21

 
Anyone have an idea what it might be?

 
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Bonus photos from our tipsters

Actual caption from this Mace-Kingsley center item: “After this session it’s going to be easier to see what I want to have and to choose which job I want. It will be easier to choose things to do and to know what I can do and use in life. If there is something I don’t like I can make it vanish and then make it come back really nice instead!” A.T. 7 yrs.

 
MaceKingsleyCards

 
The people of Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, have been handed The Way to Happiness booklets and also signed their names — we will now send them Scientology crap until the end of time!

 
SciRussia3

 
Hey, a new Dianetics group in Turkey! Can’t wait till they get to the part about your adult problems being sourced back to your pregnant mother having trouble taking a dump and yelling things. That Hubbard, what a card!

 
SciTurkey

 
Hey, another mission targeting kids! Why not?

 
SciLakeOswego3

 
Scientologists are using social media more than ever. Drop us a line if you spot them posting images to Instagram or Facebook!

 
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Posted by Tony Ortega on February 18, 2015 at 07:00

E-mail your tips and story ideas to tonyo94@gmail.com or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. Here at the Bunker we try to have a post up every morning at 7 AM Eastern (Noon GMT), and on some days we post an afternoon story at around 2 PM. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of LA attorney and former church member Vance Woodward

UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists

GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice

SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts

PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer
The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ

 

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