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Lawyer in Scientology case is stuck between state and federal judges

LARGO — One of the Church of Scientology's most vocal critics, Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar, is in a pickle.

Six years ago, he settled a wrongful death case against the church on behalf of the family of Lisa McPherson, who died in 1995 after 17 days in the care of church members in Clearwater.

Part of the settlement agreement, approved by a judge in state court, required Dandar to never again represent anyone suing Scientology.

But last year, Dandar took on another wrongful death case against the church's Flag Service Organization — in federal court.

The church's attorneys objected that Dandar violated his agreement. Senior Circuit Judge Robert Beach agreed and in June 2009 ordered Dandar to withdraw from the new case.

Dandar resisted for some time, even asking the Florida Supreme Court to review the case. Finally, though, four months ago Dandar filed a motion to withdraw from the federal lawsuit.

But on April 12, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday told him he cannot get out of it. The reason: No other attorney wants to take on Scientology. Two days later, records show, Beach found Dandar in willful contempt of court.

So Dandar is stuck between a state judge telling him to leave Scientology alone and a federal judge telling him he can't. And, according to federal court records, he has been fined $50,000 plus $1,000 a day by the state court until he withdraws from the federal case.

Dandar's predicament may be unprecedented in Florida law. "I've never heard of anything like it," said Clifford Higby, chairman of the trial lawyers' section of the Florida Bar.

A hearing on Dandar's fate occurred Tuesday in the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center. But at the request of church attorney F. Wallace Pope, Beach ordered a Times reporter out of the courtroom prior to the start of the proceeding.

Dandar objected, saying he was facing a criminal charge — contempt of court. But Beach, 80, said it wasn't a criminal case.

He also said he was closing the courtroom because all the previous proceedings regarding Dandar had been closed-door sessions.

Since the McPherson case settled under a confidential agreement signed in 2004, all the motions and testimony in the case files — which now number 351 volumes, making it the largest current Pinellas case — have been sealed from public view as well.

The hearing concluded after nearly six hours. Dandar and his attorney, Luke Lirot, both said they could not comment on what happened or their next step. Pope, when asked about the case, said, "Our lips are sealed."

Dandar became known for challenging the church during the seven-year lawsuit over the death of McPherson, a Scientologist who after a minor traffic accident, took off her clothes and told a paramedic, "I need help. I need to talk to someone."

Although paramedics took her to Morton Plant Hospital for psychiatric evaluation, fellow church members showed up and escorted her out, promising to care for her. The church opposes psychiatric treatment.

They took McPherson to the Fort Harrison Hotel, where she was cared for by several church staffers, including a medical doctor who was not licensed in Florida but worked for the church. She died 17 days later while being driven to a hospital 45 minutes away. Although criminal charges were filed against the church, they were dropped after then-medical Examiner Joan Wood changed her finding of the cause of death to accidental.

However, the burden of proof in a civil suit is different. The suit, filed in 1997 on behalf of McPherson's estate, contended church staff members let McPherson become severely dehydrated and die. As the case neared trial it promised unflattering international headlines for the church.

The two sides worked out a settlement agreement. The terms weren't disclosed. Lirot, who was Dandar's co-counsel, said at the time, "Everyone involved gets to move on with their lives."

Five years later, though, Dandar was back battling Scientology in the federal lawsuit.

The new suit stems from the death of Kyle T. Brennan, 20, who shot himself in the head on Feb. 16, 2007, in Clearwater, while visiting his father, who is a Scientologist. According to the suit, filed on behalf of Brennan's mother, Brennan killed himself after the father locked up his antidepressant medication on the advice of Denise Gentile and her husband, Gerald. Denise Gentile is the twin sister of the church's current worldwide leader, David Miscavige.

The suit says they served as the father's "chaplains" in the church, an allegation the church's attorneys say is not true. The Gentiles told Clearwater police that Brennan's father was just their handyman.

The church's attorneys contend Dandar is a "rogue attorney" with "a long history of misconduct with regard to facts, law and ethics."

District Judge Merryday, in ruling that Dandar had to stay on the Brennan case, cited a sworn statement from Dandar's client, Brennan's mother, Victoria Britton. She said that nobody but Dandar dared to take on Scientology.

"I talked to many lawyers in different states and each turned me down as soon as they heard it involved the Church of Scientology," she said. "Some turned me down due to conflict, since some had represented Scientology in the past or are currently representing the organization, but many turned me down because it is an entity they do not want to litigate against. … I have no one else to turn to."

Robert Potter, law partner of church attorney Pope, argued that the statement just showed how weak her case against the church was.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Lawyer in Scientology case is stuck between state and federal judges 09/01/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 1, 2010 12:22am]

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