Pulitzer-winning former St. Petersburg Times reporter Bette Orsini dies at 85

St. Petersburg Times/March 29, 2011

St. Pertersburg - Bette Orsini, a tenacious and spirited reporter whose investigative stories on the Church of Scientology won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980, died Saturday (March 26, 2011) after months of declining health. She was 85.

In her 41 years at the St. Petersburg Times, Mrs. Orsini won a raft of national and state awards for exposing problems and wrongdoing in schools and society.

But she may be best known for her three years investigating the church, which in the mid 1970s had made a mysterious entrance into downtown Clearwater, where leaders planned to erect a "world spiritual headquarters."

"She was one of the most tenacious - almost ferocious - reporters I have ever worked with during my career," said former Times executive editor Bob Haiman, who worked with Mrs. Orsini during the 14-part Scientology series. "Every cliche, including the one about the bulldog that gets a hold of an ankle and won't let go, was true of her."

The stories examined Scientology's purported belief system; its tendency to compile dossiers on the same public officials it was wooing since establishing its headquarters in Clearwater's Fort Harrison Hotel; and its strategy on how to handle perceived enemies.

The stories by Mrs. Orsini and colleague Charles Stafford landed the Times atop the church's list of "enemies" whose ranks needed to be infiltrated, according to a 1976 church memo marked secret. The church also instigated litigation against her and tried to smear her husband's reputation.

An FBI seizure of more than 48,000 documents in 1977 turned up other church documents on how to treat its "attackers," including a 1966 memo from Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to regard critics as "simply an anti-Scientology agency so far as we are concerned.

"Make it rough, rough on attackers all the way," the memo advises.

With Mrs. Orsini as the prime source of stories about Scientology's financial and social structure, the church tried repeatedly to get her fired. Around the same time, an anonymous letter accused her husband, Andrew, of tax malfeasance in his role as head of the Pinellas County Easter Seals Foundation. The late payment, the result of a wrong billing address, was soon paid.

A group calling itself the Guardians of Scientology called their plan to "restrain Orsini" Operation Bunny Bust.

"When she got on the story, she could not be shaken off of it by pressure or complaint or difficulty," said Eugene Patterson, former editor of the Times. "She stayed with it. Of course, Scientology tested her to the max."

Her family felt the strain.

"It was definitely a difficult set of circumstances," said Candi Orsini, her daughter. "The closeness of the family and the strength of the family got us through those times."

Born in St. Petersburg as Bette Swenson in 1925, she attended St. Petersburg High and St. Petersburg Junior College before joining the Times in 1946.

In her first year, her bosses entered her in a contest for the "best-looking newspaperwoman" in America. She placed second. The feature ran with Mrs. Orsini in a bathing suit under the headline, "Magnificent Doll."

She also served as a body double for actress Lizabeth Scott in a Humphrey Bogart movie, Dead Reckoning, and was part of a waterskiing group that skied from St. Petersburg to the 1964 New York World's Fair.

But it soon became clear that her real love was journalism.

"I thought of her as one of the guys," said Jerry Blizen, 83, a Times reporter from 1948 to 1965. "She was among equals in covering stories. The fact that she was a woman did not figure into the equation."

Always fiery, Mrs. Orsini was known to fiercely challenge editors who wanted to cut her stories down or change her words. She was known for kicking trash cans during editorial fights - even going back into her stories late to reverse her editor's revisions.

"She was a fantastically thorough reporter," said retired Times associate editor Martin Dyckman. "Her problem was, she didn't accept editing."

In 1974, she won a Scripps-Howard Foundation Award for a three-year expose of a kickback scandal involving Floyd Christian, the state education commissioner. Christian was indicted, served several months in prison and became the first Florida Cabinet member to lose his civil rights.

In a 1975 column, Patterson, a former managing editor of the Washington Post, compared Mrs. Orsini's work with some of the Post's best work, including Seymour Hersh's account of the My Lai massacre and the newspaper's stories about Watergate.

"Mrs. Orsini's work was remarkable because she went into the investigation without sources," Patterson said. "Nobody told Bette anything."

Mrs. Orsini also won a National Headliners Award for outstanding feature writing for her series on the agony of families of death row prisoners.

"You had to admire Bette for her tenacity," Dyckman said. "There was never a finer investigator."

This report contains information compiled by former Times obituaries editor Craig Basse, who died in 2008.

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