Scientology’s 40 years of conflict with the City of Clearwater, recapped

The church arrived in secret in 1975. Here’s what happened next.

Tampa Bay Times/October 20, 2019

By Tracey McManus

The church begins

May 1950: Science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard publishes Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, which theorizes that a so-called reactive mind is the source of all ills, from anxiety to arthritis. It teaches a person can erase the reactive mind and achieve a superhuman state called “clear.” The book becomes a bestseller but is seen as a pseudoscience by health professionals.

1954: Hubbard turns his teachings into the Church of Scientology of California. The federal government recognizes the church as a tax-exempt religious organization three years later. It revokes the exemption in 1967, saying the group was a for-profit business enriching Hubbard.

Arrival in Clearwater

Late 1975: The Southern Land Development and Leasing Corp. buys downtown Clearwater’s Fort Harrison Hotel and leases it to a group called United Churches of Florida. It marks the end of its history as a hub for weddings, events and dining. Then-Mayor Gabe Cazares raises the alarm, asking why the group was posting guards with billy clubs and mace.

January 1976: Scientology is revealed as the true buyer of the Fort Harrison amid intense scrutiny by the press and the mayor. Hubbard flees the city. Residents grow wary of the religion, already embroiled in legal battles with the federal government and defectors.

February 1976: Scientology files a $1 million lawsuit against Cazares alleging he violated its constitutional rights with his public criticism. Cazares responds with an $8 million libel suit against the church.

1976: Scientologists follow Cazares to Washington D.C. and stage a hit-and-run crash with a car in which he was a passenger. During Cazares’ campaign for Congress, a woman named “Sharon T.” mails letters to Tampa Bay leaders detailing the crash and making false allegations of an extramarital affair.

July 1977: The FBI raids Scientology’s headquarters in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. Agents find stolen government documents and internal memos outlining Scientology’s plot to take over Clearwater by infiltrating government offices, planting spies in the Clearwater Sun newspaper and State Attorney’s Office, smearing critics and spreading misinformation. The documents detail the campaign to ruin Cazares, including a plot to falsely show he has a second wife in Mexico.

February 1979: The City Commission asks Congress to investigate Scientology and its impact on Clearwater following revelations from the FBI raid.

October 1979: Nine high-level Scientologists, including Hubbard’s wife Mary Sue, are found guilty of charges from conspiracy to theft for their involvement in a plot called Operation Snow White. The group had infiltrated dozens of government offices, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice, stolen documents, planted spies and attempted to cover it up. Ultimately, 11 church members are sentenced to prison.

Investigations and protests

November 1979: Scientologists in Nazi uniforms goose-step outside of the Clearwater Sun office to protest the newspaper’s editorials and the scrutiny led by City Commissioner Richard Tenney.

December 1979 to early 1980: Thousands of people protest Scientology in three major rallies. The first, led by Tenney, draws 3,000 people to City Hall with signs reading “No Cults in Clearwater.” Scientologists dress in clown costumes to counter-protest “Tenney’s one-man circus.” Later, 2,000 people show up at Jack Russell Memorial Stadium where speakers discuss the church’s alleged fraud and abuses. Tenney, Cazares and other community leaders renew calls for political action against Scientology.

January 1980: Two commission candidates propose using eminent domain to force Scientology out of the city. Tenney calls for purchasing the Fort Harrison to use as a City Hall. A challenger for his seat proposes razing the Fort Harrison and building a parking garage.

1981: Newly hired Clearwater Police Chief Sid Klein launches an investigation into Scientology that lasts 13 years. A lieutenant in the early ’80s was unsuccessful in his attempt to get federal law enforcement to pursue a racketeering and corruption case against Scientology.

May 1982: The City Commission holds a week of hearings to investigate Scientology. The city’s hired consultant, Boston attorney Michael J. Flynn, interviews witnesses about alleged fraud and espionage in Clearwater. Flynn later concludes in a report that Scientology is a criminal enterprise masquerading as a religion.

October 1983: The commission passes an ordinance directed at Scientology requiring churches and charities to account for the money they solicit. Scientology challenges it in court. A decade later, an appeals court strikes down the ordinance, calling it unconstitutional.

1986: Hubbard dies after years in seclusion. David Miscavige, one of Hubbard’s former aides, takes over.

October 1993: The Internal Revenue Service grants a Scientology tax exemption, overriding previous court rulings that the church was a commercial enterprise. Scientology agrees to drop thousands of lawsuits it filed against the IRS.

Dying in the church’s care

Dec. 5, 1995: Scientologist Lisa McPherson dies in Clearwater after being held for 17 days in church care following a minor traffic accident. Police investigate, but the case is not made public until 1996.

December 1997: Several thousand Scientologists protest downtown. They accuse the Clearwater Police Department of enabling the church’s critics and the St. Petersburg Times of printing lies about McPherson’s death. (The St. Petersburg Times was later renamed the Tampa Bay Times.)

November 1998: Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe charges Scientology with two felonies related to McPherson’s death: practicing medicine without a license and criminal neglect of a disabled adult.

January 2000: Retired banker and millionaire Robert Minton opens an office downtown for his Lisa McPherson Trust, which formed to “expose the deceptive and abusive practices of Scientology and help those victimized by it.” The trust disbands after two years of intense legal battles with the church.

February 2000: Amid intense pressure from the church, medical examiner Joan Wood changes the manner of McPherson’s death from “undetermined” to “accident.” McCabe drops the charges against the church four months later.

Downtown expansion

August 2008: Scientology makes one of its biggest purchases in years by buying 5 vacant acres directly north of its Sandcastle religious retreat for $10 million. The land was owned by a group of parishioners who had proposed upscale condos and retail but defaulted on financing.

May 2011: The Pinellas County Commission votes 6-0 to sell five buildings totaling 2 acres surrounding the Fort Harrison Hotel to Scientology. The church was the only bidder.

September 2013: The church buys two downtown parcels that the city considered key to revitalization. Before the recession, real estate tycoon Lee Arnold Jr. had planned a boutique hotel, luxury condos, retail and restaurant. Today, there are private church parking lots and two Scientology office buildings on this pristine stretch near the waterfront.

November 2013: After 15 years of on-and-off construction, Scientology opens its seven-story, 300,000-square-foot Flag Building on N Fort Harrison Avenue. The church pays the city $413,500 in code violations related to the delay. Two parishioners file a fraud lawsuit against the church alleging the delay was a fundraising tactic. The building connects to the Fort Harrison Hotel by an elevated walkway. It offers high-level courses and counseling to parishioners who visit from all over the world.

April 2016: The city hires New York consultants to develop a master plan to revitalize the city-owned waterfront and create a strategy for a new public park to help revive downtown business.

July 2016: Miscavige meets one-on-one with each City Council member to discuss his desire for a key piece of waterfront land: a grassy lot owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The city had been preparing to buy the property for its waterfront revitalization.

February 2017: The City Council adopts the consultants’ concept called Imagine Clearwater — a $55 million plan to overhaul the waterfront with a new concert green, lush gardens, a winding trail with views of the Intracoastal and mixed-use projects.

March 2017: After the Tampa Bay Times details the church’s retail redevelopment strategy, Miscavige meets with Council members about the plan. Miscavige offers to spend millions renovating Cleveland Street facades, recruiting high-end retail to empty storefronts and building an entertainment complex involving actor Tom Cruise. The offer hinges on the city stepping aside and allowing the church to buy the aquarium’s lot.

April 2017: The City Council votes unanimously to buy the lot from the aquarium for $4.25 million. Scientology had offered $15 million. Miscavige cuts communication.

February 2018: The council hires Tampa consultants to design Imagine Clearwater. It remains in the design stage today, but construction estimates have reached $64 million. So far the city has demolished the Harborview Center and vacated the City Hall building to prepare those sites for redevelopment.

January 2017 to present: Scientology and companies managed by parishioners have spent $103 million buying 92 mostly commercial properties in the downtown core. Now as majority landlord, church members have enormous control over what businesses and developments fill their downtown buildings and vacant lots.

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