In what appears to be the most serious legal challenge to Scientology in several years, former high-level Scientologists Luis Garcia and his wife Rocio of Irvine, Calif., today filed a federal lawsuit against the Church of Scientology, alleging fraud over the way their contributions to the church were used. The suit was filed in Florida's Middle District with the help of veteran attorneys Ted Babbitt and Ronald Weil, who plan to file additional lawsuits by other former church members.
The suit seems to come at a particularly inopportune time for Scientology as it struggles to counter a massive dose of bad publicity over the publication of Lawrence Wright's damning history of the church, "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief." Among other things, Wright's book raises questions about the way Scientology leader David Miscavige has amassed wealth in the organization.
In 1993, when the Internal Revenue Service granted Scientology tax exempt status, the church was able to escape a $1 billion tax bill. But it was still held to a Supreme Court decision which required Scientology to give refunds to members who asked for them.
Now that Scientology is in the grips of crisis and more and more longtime members like the Garcias are walking away from the church, an increasing number of them have asked for refunds -- and the church isn't giving them.
We've written about this state of affairs numerous times. Now, the Garcias have filed a lawsuit that accuses church leader David Miscavige of turning Scientology into little more than a fraudulent money-making scam.
"The Church, under the leadership of David Miscavige, has strayed from its founding principles and morphed into a secular enterprise whose primary purpose is taking people's money," the complaint says. (We've requested a statement on the lawsuit from church spokeswoman Karin Pouw.)
A year ago, when former Scientology executive Debbie Cook sent out an explosive email to fellow church members, she accused Scientology leader David Miscavige of turning Scientology away from its original goals and instead put all the recent emphasis on his pet projects, including the "Super Power" Building in Clearwater, Fla., and the church's defense fund, the International Association of Scientologists. But even though church members are under intense pressure to donate to these projects, they are never told how the money is used. Cook accused Miscavige of using the donations to amass a billion-dollar slush fund for his personal use. (Cook was sued by the church for sending out the email, but after dramatic testimony from her about abuses she endured while working for Scientology, the church quickly settled the suit.)
The Garcias make a similar complaint in the lawsuit they filed today, saying that they gave about $420,000 in donations for the Super Power Building project, the IAS and for services at the "Flag Land Base" in Clearwater. They were repeatedly assured that the money would be used for specific reasons that they now say were all lies.
(The Super Power Building first broke ground in 1998, and its exterior appears finished. But its wild interiors are apparently still being remodeled, and the facility has never been opened. When it does open, it's supposed to deliver "super power" processes to wealthy high-level church members. The cost to build the structure have ranged as high $100 million, but the church has raised about $145 million, reports the Tampa Bay Times.)
The Garcias and their attorneys held a press conference Wednesday morning, during which Babbitt said, "I've sued the biggest companies in the United States ... I'm not afraid of taking on the Church of Scientology."
For more from the press conference, as well as the 35-page legal complaint and analysis, read the rest of this story at tonyortega.org.