Scientology seeks to remove opposing lawyers in case alleging fundraising excesses

Tampa Bay Times/October 3, 2013

By Joe Childs

Tampa -- A lawsuit alleging the Church of Scientology used fraudulent fundraising practices to induce its members to donate millions of dollars is scheduled to get its first public airing in a Tampa court Thursday.

Former Scientologists Rocio and Luis Garcia, of Irvine, Calif., sued the church in January in Tampa federal court. But their suit advanced little in the following months as church lawyers filed multiple motions attempting to disarm it.

The church also sought to delay Thursday's hearing, saying the other side had not produced certain documents, as directed. U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore rejected that request Wednesday.

So, the two sides are set to square off over what's become a common strategy for Scientology lawyers: Try to get the opposing legal team disqualified.

The church tried the maneuver just last month in state court in Texas. In that case, Monique Rathbun, wife of former high-ranking church officer Marty Rathbun, is suing the church, claiming she suffered emotional duress over the past three years as church operatives stalked, spied on and harassed her and her husband.

Marty Rathbun, who left the church in 2004, emerged in recent years as a high-profile critic of church leader David Miscavige.

After his wife sued Scientology in August, Rathbun provided her lawyers with an affidavit detailing some of his experiences in church legal efforts. Church lawyers said he improperly divulged confidential matters.

Church lawyers demanded Ms. Rathbun's lawyers be kicked off the case.

Tuesday, a Texas judge denied that request.

A different set of church lawyers will be before Whittemore today. But their argument, advanced in court papers, is much the same.

Clearwater attorney F. Wallace Pope Jr., said the Garcias' lawyers, Theodore Babbitt, of West Palm Beach, and Ronald P. Weil, of Miami, improperly got help from two sources — a former church lawyer and a former church executive.

The lawyer is Robert E. Johnson of Tampa. He represented the church from 1983 to 1998 and was privy to church legal strategies, Scientology lawyers argued.

Johnson said he didn't provide the Garcias' lawyers with any church information not generally known.

The former church officer is Mike Rinder of Palm Harbor. Like Rathbun, Rinder was one of the church's primary legal officers for more than 20 years. He defected in 2007. The church's legal team said he organized the Garcias' legal assault on the church, helping them find their attorneys.

Rinder also tried to recruit other former Scientologists to sue the church, Scientology's legal team claims. One is Brian Culkin, a yoga instructor from Boston.

Culkin spent just one year in Scientology — parts of 2009 and 2010. Several of those months, he lived in church facilities in Clearwater while taking services. Church fund raisers pestered him to donate, he said. He gave the church $330,000.

The Times detailed his experience as part of its investigative report on church fundraising practices, "The Money Machine,'' in November 2011. Culkin called Scientology "a money-hungry cult.''

He talked with Rinder in 2012, he said in papers filed prior to Thursday's hearing. He had been thinking of suing the church, he said. Rinder told him he would have a strong case.

But in March — two months after the Garcias sued — Scientology's director of legal affairs in Clearwater, church staffer Sara Heller, contacted Culkin, saying she was hoping to resolve a refund request he had filed with the church more than two years earlier.

Culkin switched sides. He gave a declaration supporting the church's claim that both Johnson and Rinder worked behind the scenes to help the Garcias' lawyers.

The Garcias were Scientologists for 28 years. Owners of a successful printing business, they spent more than $1 million on church services and charities.

They donated more than $420,000 to the Super Power building in Clearwater. Construction on that project began in 1998 but stalled for six years after the building's shell was completed.

The Garcias' claim the church raised millions more than was needed to complete the project. They allege the church prolonged the Super Power fund drive "as a shill'' to raise money that was used on other purposes.

A church spokesman said the day the Garcias sued: "All funds solicited are used for the charitable and religious purposes for which they were donated.''

The Super Power building — called the "Flag Building'' by the church — is still not open. The church has made no public announcement as to why.

The massive structure will be the only place Scientologists will take the so-far secret program called "Super Power,'' which was developed decades ago by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

The church told city leaders this summer that thousands of Scientologists would gather on Oct. 6 to cut the ribbon. But, as city staffers pressed for details, the church backed off that date.

It was simply a "placeholder,'' church officer Peter Mansell later told city staff in an email.

"A final event date will be announced once our ministers have completed their training,'' he added.

Times Staff Writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report.

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