Couple's lawsuit accuses Church of Scientology of fraud, deception
Tampa Bay Times
By Joe Childs and Thomas C. Tobin, Times Staff Writers
Jan 23, 2013
TAMPA — A federal lawsuit filed Wednesday accuses the Church of Scientology of using fraudulent, deceptive and high-pressure practices to coax millions of dollars from its members.
Attorneys for the California couple who filed the 35-page complaint in Tampa said they have talked to dozens of former church members and several more similar lawsuits are coming.
Plaintiffs Luis and Rocio Garcia of Irvine, Calif., name five Scientology corporations as defendants, including the church's main entity in Clearwater. The former church members say they gave Scientology more than $420,000 for a Clearwater building project that was never opened and church services they never received.
The lawsuit focuses on Scientology leader David Miscavige, saying he exerts control over an "interdependent network of entities" that extracts as much money as it can from parishioners and denies promised refunds. It alleges Miscavige has been personally enriched by such practices.
Also singled out is the church's massive "Super Power" building in downtown Clearwater, which stands unfinished after more than 14 years of construction. The lawsuit alleges that the church entity responsible for raising funds for the project has kept the building incomplete "to use it as a shill to induce further payments from members, just as they did the plaintiffs."
The Times is seeking church response to the lawsuit.
At a news conference Wednesday in Tampa, the Garcias' attorney, Theodore Babbitt of West Palm Beach, declared Miscavige would be the first person deposed. Miscavige is rarely seen in public and has long avoided any personal entanglement in the many lawsuits involving the church. Babbitt also said he expected the lawsuit would force the church to disclose financial records.
For years, the church has defended itself from such claims by asserting that the First Amendment prevented courts from prying into operations deemed religious in nature. But Babbitt said those arguments would not stand up in this instance.
The Garcias were among dozens of Scientology parishioners featured in a 2011 Tampa Bay Times investigative series, "The Money Machine," which reported that church workers drove up contributions using tactics described as intrusive, heavy handed, coercive and relentless.
All told, the Garcias say they donated about $1.3 million to various Scientology causes during their 28 years in the church. They left in 2010, weary of the church's money demands and convinced its spiritual practices had been "corrupted.''
The Garcias, both immigrants, met in their early 20s while working as laborers in Los Angeles. Four years later, they invested all they had — $300 — in a business services start-up they initially ran out of their kitchen. Over the next 18 years, they built it into a commercial printing operation with more than 100 employees and annual revenues topping $14 million.
Throughout that period, they were devout Scientologists. They joined the church in 1982 after Luis Garcia acted on the advice of a stranger and read Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. He found it absorbing.
The Garcias traveled several times to Scientology's worldwide spiritual center in Clearwater to take courses and receive church counseling called auditing. Luis Garcia progressed to "Operating Thetan VIII," a spiritual level at the top of Scientology's "Bridge to Total Freedom." His wife reached the level known as OT VI. The couple spent $300,000 on Scientology services, Garcia has said.
They also contributed $340,000 to the "Super Power" building and gave $510,000 to build a new community church — an "Ideal Org'' — near their home in Orange County.
In addition, the couple spent $50,000 on memberships to the International Association of Scientologists, which supports efforts to expand the religion. Their lawsuit details more than $40,000 in donations to IAS projects that they contend the church misled them into giving.
"In fact, these projects did not actually exist or only a small fraction of the money has been spent to create the appearance of extensive humanitarian activities to support the false statements by he IAS," the lawsuit states.
Seven stories tall and sitting on a full city block in downtown Clearwater, the Super Power building has been under construction since November 1998. Five years into the project, the building was finished on the outside but the church halted work, offering no explanation.
Six years passed. Annoyed an abandoned construction site was attracting weeds and trash, the city imposed a $250-a-day fine for code violations. That bill swelled quickly but church officials expressed no concern.
After resuming work in 2009, the building was largely finished in 2011 and the church paid the city $413,500 in fines. Still, the building has not opened.
City permitting records indicate that work inside the building has continued in recent months.
Inside are space-age machines the church says are key to delivering what it calls Scientology's "super power rundown,'' a lengthy series of drills and study sessions purporting to bestow super human capabilities.
Church spokeswoman Karin Pouw told the Times in late 2011 that the building would open soon to Scientology parishioners. But that hasn't happened.
Millions of dollars rolled in for the project. A Times' analysis in late 2011 showed the church raised at least $145 million for the project — well above the $100 million price tag the church had cited through the many years of construction and delays.