TAMPA — Scientology's most vocal local critic, Ken Dandar, faced disaster. A circuit judge had found him in contempt of court this week and assessed a judgment of $130,000 — to be paid to the Church of Scientology. Dandar might lose his car. He might even lose his law license.
All of that, he told a federal judge Friday, because Dandar isn't bowing out of a federal case against the church.
But the judge may have given Dandar a reprieve. And U.S. District Court Judge Steven Merryday warned Scientology's attorney that he wouldn't allow what he called "shenanigans" to interfere any further with the progress of the case against the church now pending in his court.
"I don't like being put in this position," Merryday told the church's attorney, Robert Potter. "When people start to squeeze, other people can squeeze back."
Merryday got Potter and Dandar to agree to stop all proceedings in state court — including the church collecting the $130,000 judgment — until both sides can present Merryday with full briefings and oral arguments.
However, Senior Circuit Judge Robert Beach, who found Dandar in contempt and levied the $130,000 judgment, said he isn't sure such an agreement can really halt what he's done. In fact, Beach said, he believes only a state appeals court could overturn his decision, not a federal judge.
"If I'm wrong, then the Second District Court of Appeal will tell me," the 80-year-old Beach said in a phone interview.
Dandar's dilemma began six years ago, when 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.
Last year, Dandar took on another wrongful-death case against the church's Flag Service Organization, as well as the twin sister of the church's worldwide leader, David Miscavige. The church's attorneys contended that violated the terms of the McPherson settlement.
Dandar strongly disagreed, but Beach ruled that Dandar, as part of the settlement, agreed never to take another case against the church. So Beach ordered him to withdraw from the new suit.
Four months ago, Dandar filed a motion to withdraw. But he attached an affidavit from his client contending he should stay on her case because no other lawyer would take on Scientology.
So, on April 12, Merryday told him he can't get out of the new case without another attorney lined up. Two days later, Beach found Dandar in contempt.
"Mr. Dandar is being punished because of my order," Merryday said Friday.
Dandar should have filed a motion saying he had a conflict of interest and had to withdraw, Potter said. As a result, Beach ruled that Dandar hadn't made a good-faith effort.
"He is not at liberty to deceive me," Merryday told Potter. "Judge Beach better not tell him to deceive me."
Potter said the state judge was not trying to intrude on the federal court's jurisdiction, but Merryday told him, "It certainly feels like I'm being interfered with." Potter later admitted, "Believe me, he's not happy with you, either."
Potter said he had expected Merryday to grant Dandar's motion and then terminate the lawsuit unless Dandar's client found a new lawyer. But Merryday said he couldn't do that.
Merryday questioned whether the settlement really blocked Dandar from pursuing the wrongful-death case, which involves a 20-year-old who killed himself after his father, a Scientologist, locked away his antidepressants.
"I've read it, Mr. Potter, and I think not," Merryday said, then glared at the church's attorney and snapped, "Don't look at me with that look of unbelief, Mr. Potter." Potter mumbled an apology.
Merryday questioned why Beach conducted his contempt hearing on Dandar behind closed doors. At the church's request, Beach has sealed every document in the case. Documents sent to the Second District Court of Appeal and the Florida Supreme Court aren't public either.
Potter said he felt squeamish about even talking about Dandar's case in open court. But Merryday refused to close his courtroom doors to the public.
"I'm not going to be entering any seals unless I see a lawful reason, and I can't even see the beginning of a reason," the judge said. He said he wouldn't be swayed by "some circuit judge somewhere who appears for all I can tell to have sealed something for some unknown reason."