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Church of Scientology sues longtime Clearwater leader over New Year's Eve email

The Church of Scientology, which has its worldwide spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, says news of a former Clearwater church leader’s emails reached over 24 million people.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

The Church of Scientology, which has its worldwide spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, says news of a former Clearwater church leader’s emails reached over 24 million people.

The Church of Scientology has sued its longtime Clearwater leader Debbie Cook after she publicly questioned the church's aggressive fundraising tactics and other practices.

The lawsuit — filed Friday in San Antonio, Texas, where Cook lives — reveals that the church paid Cook and her husband, Wayne Baumgarten, $50,000 each to remain silent about their time on church staff.

Cook, 50, worked 17 years as the church's top official in Clearwater, Scientology's worldwide spiritual headquarters. Serving in the post of "captain," she presided over an operation that brought in more than $1.7 billion for the church during that time.

Cook and Baumgarten each signed nondisclosure agreements as they left the staff in October 2007. All told, Cook had worked in the church's religious order, the Sea Org, for 29 years.

The church alleges that the couple violated the agreements when Cook circulated a New Year's Eve letter urging Scientologists to work internally to reform the church. The letter reached thousands of church members via email.

Arguing that it faced "substantial risk of imminent harm and irreparable injury," the church asked for and received an order temporarily restraining Cook and Baumgarten from saying anything more until a court hearing Feb. 9.

In a statement Monday to the Tampa Bay Times, church spokesman Karin Pouw described the payments to the couple as "help," saying each willingly accepted the money as part of a legally binding agreement. "Only with recent violations of that agreement was it necessary for the church to pursue and protect its rights," Pouw said.

The lawsuit seeks at least $300,000 in damages. Cook, reached at her email address Monday, declined to comment.

The agreements they signed, which were filed with the lawsuit, provide a rare look at the church's extraordinary efforts to keep secret its inner workings. Among the restrictions on Cook and Baumgarten:

• They waived their First Amendment rights to free speech.

• They can never, "in perpetuity," disclose any information about the church, its staff or former staff.

• They can never publish, attempt to publish or help anyone publish any information about the church in any media, including newspapers, television, radio or the Internet.

• They can never utter a disparaging word about the church, either directly or indirectly.

The couple agreed to stiff penalties for violating the agreements, including a minimum of $100,000 for each disparaging Internet posting, each television broadcast or each newspaper story.

The church alleges in the lawsuit that news of Cook's "disparaging emails" reached more than 24 million people via television and radio shows and newspaper stories, including reports in the Times.

Her letter criticized "extreme" money raising tactics used by church staff and said the church had amassed well over $1 billion in reserves. It questioned the church's strategy of building new churches called "Ideal Orgs" around the world, calling the buildings unnecessarily "posh."

Cook released her letter six weeks after the Times published "The Money Machine," a four-part series describing how Scientology pressures and intimidates parishioners to make donations and purchase church services.

Cook's letter alleged that the "complex and balanced command structure" put in place by the late Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard no longer existed, and it said Scientology was being run by a single leader, David Miscavige.

The letter also said many church members are reaching the upper levels of spiritual awareness offered in Scientology only to be told they must redo lower-level services at great expense.

These practices are against Hubbard's policies, and all members are obligated under those policies to report and correct internal problems, the letter stated.

Pouw did not answer several questions about the agreements signed by Cook and Baumgarten and said the Times' inquiry "fits your controversy-laden agenda." She said the newspaper should be reporting on the 15 "Ideal Orgs" set to open this year, including two recent ribbon cuttings in Hamburg, Germany, and Sacramento, Calif.

Before filing the lawsuit, the church wrote Cook and Baumgarten to demand they stop violating the agreement. The lawsuit said Cook responded last Thursday, stating in an email that she would not give up her right to free speech and declaring: "If you sue me, it really doesn't matter . . . I have no money to spend on an attorney."

The couple runs a fledgling marketing, public relations and advertising business — Cook Profitability Services — in a San Antonio suburb. Cook's personal Web site is asking for donations to her legal defense.

Marty Rathbun, another former Scientology executive who has been critical of the church, last week mounted a fundraising drive for the same purpose. He declined to say Monday how much had been raised, but said it was enough to ably represent Cook and Baumgarten at the Feb. 9 hearing.

Former church spokesman Mike Rinder, who also left the staff in 2007, said the agreements they signed are similar to a document the church used to settle litigation and disputes during the last several years he oversaw the church's legal operations. The nondisclosure language evolved as the church negotiated settlements, he said. It also became "boilerplate'' for staff termination contracts, he said.

But Rinder said he never saw a church contract include the financial penalties that Cook's does.

"Now it's being used to shut up people who were in the Sea Org and were directly involved with David Miscavige and were aware of actions he was engaged in and the actions of the church,'' Rinder alleged.

The church routinely paid $500 severance to resigning Sea Org members, many of whom also signed nondisclosure agreements, Rinder said. The church paid him $5,000, he said.

Cook wrote to the Times after her letter was made public, saying the letter was not intended for eyes unfamiliar with the church's ways. "It was clearly intended as a communication amongst Scientologists."

Joe Childs can be reached at childs@tampabay.com. Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at ttobin@tampabay.com.

Church of Scientology sues longtime Clearwater leader over New Year's Eve email 01/30/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 31, 2012 10:26am]

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