Scientology sponsored suit against opponent
By Lucy Morgan and Thomas C. Tobin
December 23, 1997
LOS ANGELES -- The Church of Scientology is complaining loudly about a Boston banker's effort to finance anti-Scientology activities, including a wrongful death lawsuit against the church in Tampa.
Scientology has blasted Robert S. Minton Jr. for donating more than $1.25-million to its critics, calling his actions "nefarious" and underhanded. The church contends he is illegally interfering with lawsuits involving Scientology.
But earlier this decade, Scientology officials themselves backed several lawsuits against one of the church's own adversaries, the Cult Awareness Network.
Attorneys and top officials for Scientology say there is no comparison because Minton's motives are "sordid" and their efforts in the lawsuits against CAN were in defense of religious freedom.
"The only thing that's the same is that there are lawsuits involved," said Kendrick Moxon, a long-time Scientology attorney based in California. "If you say that's a contradiction, that's just a lie," he said. "That's just Southern prejudice" against Scientology.
Minton's donations include $100,000 to Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar, who represents the estate of Lisa McPherson in a wrongful death lawsuit against the church.
McPherson was the 36-year-old Scientologist who died in 1995 after a 17-day stay at the church's Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater. Police investigators have recommended criminal charges in the case.
In an effort to get more information about Minton, the church is using a bankruptcy case involving a church critic to subpoena records of Minton's donations. At a hearing scheduled today in Tampa, Dandar is expected to argue against the church's effort.
Dandar said he never heard of Minton until church lawyers asked about him this summer. He said he inquired about Minton over the Internet and Minton responded, offering financial aid in the McPherson case.
Minton also has given money to a number of other church critics, including three people whom the church brands as criminals for infringing on Scientology's copyrights.
But Minton's contributions are a fraction of the money and effort Scientology poured into lawsuits that bankrupted CAN, according to a lawyer who has defended the group. Attorney Daniel Leipold puts CAN's legal expenses at roughly $2-million, and "for every nickel we spent, they spent at least a dollar."
CAN was formed in 1973 by California families who had children in cults, but these days a call to the Cult Awareness hot line is likely to be answered by a Scientologist. A Scientology lawyer bought the network's name and hot line after CAN declared bankruptcy in 1996.
For years Scientology had publicly denounced CAN, issuing news releases that accused the group of bigotry, kidnapping and other crimes. CAN countered with public denunciations of Scientology as a harmful cult that breaks up families, fleeces people out of money and endangers the lives of its members.
In 1991, CAN chapters around the country began getting letters from Scientologists who wanted to join the organization. There were strong similarities of language between the letters, which expressed sympathy with CAN's efforts to help people "make responsible and informed decisions when it comes to religious choice."
CAN admitted some of the Scientologists as members but rejected others. Within months, more than 35 discrimination lawsuits had been filed against CAN by individuals in California, Illinois, Washington, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, Oregon and the District of Columbia. Most were filed in various California courthouses.
Then Scientologists wrote to insurance companies that carried policies for CAN, asking that they stop paying the group's legal bills.
CAN had five mostly part-time employees, a network of volunteers, an annual budget of about $300,000 and an 800-telephone number. Many of the callers were parents worried that their sons or daughters were in cults.
CAN turned to Leipold, an Orange, Calif., lawyer who handled defense cases for medical malpractice insurance companies. Lloyd's of London paid the first $1-million in legal fees and costs, but costs are now double that figure and still counting.
As he defended CAN in the California suits, Leipold found himself in court against long-time Scientology attorneys and other lawyers who were being paid by Scientology.
And, as he took statements from individual Scientology plaintiffs, Leipold found a remarkable lack of knowledge. Several of the plaintiffs said they had not seen or signed the lawsuits, even though the court papers bore their signatures.
Brian Hart, one of the first Scientologists to file a suit against CAN in December 1992, said he did not see the lawsuit until 10 months later -- three days before he testified in a deposition.
Hart told lawyers he could not remember how he got the name and addresses of CAN officials. Nor could he remember many other circumstances that led to the lawsuit, including who asked him to write to CAN.
Another plaintiff, Jonathan L. Nordquist of Chicago, fired his attorney and asked a judge to dismiss his lawsuit. He said Eugene Ingram, a private investigator for the Church of Scientology, paid him $300 to have lunch, and he agreed to be a plaintiff. Nordquist said he signed a blank page for Scientology attorneys.
"Scientology planned, instigated, coordinated and sponsored a plan to subject CAN to multiple lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions in order to overwhelm and eliminate it or take it over and control it," said Leipold.
Moxon, the church attorney, said there was no grand plan. "My office handled quite a few of (the cases)," he said. "We understood that type of discrimination."
He said his firm represented the plaintiffs mostly at no charge and that individual churches within Scientology "helped a little bit, but very little."
Most of the CAN lawsuits were dismissed before trial after the organization agreed to allow Scientologists as members, but not before running up the legal tab.
It was a 1994 suit filed in Seattle that was the final straw for CAN. Jason Scott was kidnapped after his mother called a CAN volunteer and was referred to a cult deprogramer to retrieve her 18-year-old son from a Pentecostal group.
Moxon filed suit for Scott and won a $1.8-million verdict against CAN. The judgment has been appealed, but CAN already has declared bankruptcy.
After a Scientology lawyer purchased the CAN name in bankruptcy court, Scott fired Moxon and hired Graham Berry, a Los Angeles lawyer who often has represented clients against Scientology. Now Scott says he believes he was a pawn in Scientology's plan to eliminate CAN. In an interview, Berry called Scientology "a bunch of hypocrites" for complaining about Minton.
But church officials say there is a clear distinction between Minton's activities and Scientology's role in the CAN lawsuits.
Scientologists were working successfully to preserve First Amendment rights for themselves and all religions, while Minton "is funding people who have been proven to be copyright infringers," said Michael J. Rinder, a top Scientology official in Los Angeles. "These people are a pack of criminals," he said.
Rinder also said that Minton, by his involvement in the Lisa McPherson lawsuit, is supporting an effort by Dandar to extort $80-million from the church.
Dandar said the Florida Bar told him the arrangement with Minton was ethical, provided Minton did not control the case or have access to confidential information. He said Minton agreed to those terms and gave the money "with no strings attached."