Scientology suit seeks access to records

By GEORGE CORYELL of The Tampa Tribune 1/29/97

CLEARWATER - The Church of Scientology filed suit against the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Tuesday in an attempt to get access to records of a Scientologist whose death is being investigated.

The suit states that because Medical Examiner Joan Wood made comments to the press last week about the death of 36-year-old Lisa McPherson, all the records from the death investigation should be available to the church.

``We want access to the entire medical examiner's file so our own experts can examine it,'' said church attorney Sandy Weinberg.

The suit said that Wood's comments were a selective release of information that amounted to a smear campaign against the church. The church filed suit after requests for the records were denied because the investigation is ongoing.

The church is asking for records of the autopsy, all documents relating to media communication about the death and all reports from the investigating agencies, including the Clearwater police, the state Department of Law Enforcement and the State Attorney's Office.

Wood's attorney said Tuesday that his client's comments do not overrule the exemptions in the public records law, which keep records from an open investigation private until the investigation is finished.

``Basically no government official has the ability to amend the law through their actions,'' said attorney George Rahdert, who is representing Wood.

In addition to the documents kept closed until the investigation is over, the church has requested McPherson's medical records, which are protected by state law and can only be released by her relatives.

David Bralow, an attorney who is a public records specialist for Holland and Knight and represents The Tampa Tribune, said what a public official discloses to the press does not override the public records law and its exemptions.

``A public official is entitled to speak or not speak as much as she wants,'' Bralow said. ``Just because she talks doesn't waive the confidentiality of the public records act.''

Last week Wood told the news media McPherson had been deprived of water for five to 10 days, if not longer, before she died. Church members have said she was under the care of the church then.

Wood said it was possible McPherson, who died in December 1995, had nothing to drink throughout her 17-day stay at the Fort Harrison Hotel, the world spiritual headquarters for the church. Wood also said McPherson was comatose for the last 24 to 48 hours of her life.

McPherson had been a Scientologist for 18 years. On Nov. 18, 1995, she had a minor car accident. Paramedics found her walking down the street without her clothes and took her to Morton Plant Hospital for an evaluation.

She signed herself out of the hospital against medical advice and went with other Scientologists to the Fort Harrison Hotel. Church members brought McPherson to a New Port Richey hospital on Dec. 5, 1995, where she was dead on arrival.

An autopsy by Wood's office showed McPherson died of a blood clot brought on by ``severe dehydration and bed rest.''