Scientology leader wanted a deal

St. Petersburg Times, June 14, 2000
By Thomas C. Tobin

CLEARWATER -- Alarmed at the "massive impact" of two criminal charges, the Church of Scientology's worldwide leader quickly offered Pinellas County's top prosecutor a deal.

Drop the charges, David Miscavige told State Attorney Bernie McCabe in November 1998, and the church would make a $500,000 donation to the county's EMS system.

It also would pay the nearly $200,000 in expenses incurred in what then was a three-year investigation into Lisa McPherson's 1995 death while in the care of her fellow Scientologists.

In addition, Miscavige offered to pay the $15,000 the church would have been fined if convicted of the charges.

He also promised steps to ensure a death like McPherson's never occurred again. The church would submit to temporary monitoring under a "pretrial intervention program." It would have a doctor on call 24 hours a day at Scientology's Clearwater operation. And it would establish a protocol with local hospitals that detailed how Scientologists with mental problems should be cared for in light of Scientology's vigorous opposition to psychiatry.

Miscavige disclosed the deal in a wide-ranging interview Tuesday, a day after McCabe dropped felony charges that accused the church of abusing a disabled adult and practicing medicine on McPherson without a license. The prosecutor cited serious credibility problems with the testimony of Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood.

Shortly after Miscavige made the offer in 1998, McCabe turned it down and made no counter proposal.

"That conversation didn't last very long," the prosecutor said Tuesday. "I didn't think (the offer) spoke appropriately to the conduct we had charged."

Also Tuesday, Scientology's 40-year-old leader told the Times he wants his church to move beyond the case, in part by opening its doors and reaching out to explain itself better to the public. Had the church done a better job of that before, he said, McPherson's death might not have been investigated so aggressively.

That the church was charged with two crimes had been Scientology's No. 1 problem worldwide, in a league with its 40-year battle with the IRS.

"It was something I knew immediately was going to have a massive impact on the religion," Miscavige said.

The deal, he said, was part of a delicate effort to keep the prosecution a low-key affair conducted while he worked on another long-time goal -- improving the church's traditionally rocky relations with community leaders in Clearwater.

"If you want to be friends with somebody and you don't want to be their enemy, litigation is not the approach to accomplish that," Miscavige said.

The offer to McCabe was meant to address the prosecutor's chief concerns about McPherson's treatment while in the care of staffers at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel, Miscavige said.

For example, the donation to EMS attempted to ease concerns that none of the staffers thought to call 911 during McPherson's 17-day stay, instead driving her in a van to a hospital 45 minutes away.

The donation was neither a "buyout" nor a symbolic gesture but a tangible expression of Scientology's support for EMS service, Miscavige said.

The proposed deal came after Miscavige resolved the church would never plead guilty or no contest to the two charges.

"My concern was the stigmatizing of an entire religion and all its members," he said. "I said, "Well, there's absolutely no way, no way would it be acceptable for me to have a church with a criminal record. None. None.' "

On Monday, when McCabe dropped the charges, the church walked away bruised but legally exonerated. The prosecutor said he had "no regrets" about turning down Miscavige early on.

"It would have saved a lot of heartache," McCabe said of the proposed deal, "but I still think (turning it down) was the right thing to do."

Despite the prosecutor's reaction, the church implemented two elements of the deal anyway -- the on-call doctor and the hospital protocols, Miscavige said.

The offer came on the second of what would be as many as 10 meetings with prosecutors as Miscavige seized the initiative and threw himself into matters that normally might be left to subordinates.

Miscavige has taken similar steps before, most notably in 1991, when he showed up in person and uninvited at IRS headquarters in Washington, D.C., asking for a meeting with the agency's commissioner. He eventually got several meetings and a two-year review that led to Scientology's tax-exempt status in 1993, a feat that squadrons of church lawyers had been unable to accomplish before.

Miscavige had assumed the reins of Scientology in 1986 at age 26, operating out of the church's administrative headquarters in Los Angeles. Twelve years later, at Scientology's spiritual hub in Clearwater, the church was charged with a crime for the first time since its founding in 1954.

After the deal fell through with McCabe, Miscavige said the church's lawyers wanted to forge ahead with an aggressive defense. But he disagreed with them and began looking for other ways to settle the case without a trial or a plea, and without any "explosions."

He said he sought experts to tell him whether McPherson was as dehydrated as prosecutors and Wood had said she was. He also wanted to know whether she had lost more than 40 pounds, another charge made by prosecutors.

Miscavige said many consultants hired by the church told him the state's allegations were false. Last fall, as church lawyers tried to get the case dismissed on constitutional grounds, Miscavige said he prepared for another attempt at a quiet resolution.

The church asked Wood to reconsider her conclusion that McPherson death was "undetermined" and that she died of a blood clot caused by "bed rest and severe dehydration." Miscavige oversaw the assembly of thousands of pages of medical studies, consultant reports and other documents that were given to Wood.

In February, after reviewing those documents, Wood changed her conclusions, calling McPherson's death an accident and deleting the references to "bed rest and severe dehydration" on the death certificate.

Miscavige said Tuesday the church exerted no pressure on the veteran medical examiner. That claim is supported in a June 1 sworn statement in which Wood said she felt as much pressure from prosecutors as she did from the church. She also said the church's opinions on the case "had absolutely nothing to do with my decision to change (the death certificate). I changed it based on my scientific and medical and ethical opinions."

The change led to a review of the case by McCabe's office and eventually to dropping the case.

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