TAMPA — A federal lawsuit filed Wednesday accuses the Church of Scientology of using fraudulent, deceptive and high-pressure practices to coax millions of dollars from its members.
Attorneys for the California couple who filed the 35-page complaint in Tampa said they have talked to dozens of former church members and several similar lawsuits are coming.
Plaintiffs Luis and Rocio Garcia of Irvine, Calif., name five Scientology corporations as defendants, including the church's main entity in Clearwater. The former church members say they gave Scientology more than $420,000 for the massive "Super Power" building in Clearwater that has never opened, church services they never received and humanitarian projects that never materialized.
The deception went as far as producing phony videos of church earthquake relief efforts to induce parishioners to give, said the Garcias' attorney, Theodore Babbitt of West Palm Beach.
The lawsuit focuses on Scientology leader David Miscavige, saying he exerts control over an "interdependent network of entities" that extracts as much money as it can from parishioners and denies promised refunds. It alleges the church improperly uses donations to finance Miscavige's "lavish lifestyle" and to stifle critics with private investigators and lawyers.
"We believe that these lawsuits will put an end to these practices," Babbitt said.
Clearwater church spokeswoman Pat Harney said: "The church has not been served and has no comment. However, we understand from media inquiries this has something to do with fundraising, and we can unequivocally state all funds solicited are used for the charitable and religious purposes for which they were donated."
The Garcias' suit also singled out the Super Power building, which stands unfinished after more than 14 years of construction. The lawsuit alleges that the church entity responsible for raising funds for the project has purposely kept the building incomplete "to use it as a shill to induce further payments from members, just as they did the plaintiffs." It asks the court for a temporary injunction to stop the practice.
The Pinellas Property Appraiser's Office has valued the building at $80 million, but lists it as fully tax exempt.
At a news conference Wednesday in Tampa, Babbitt declared Miscavige would be the first person deposed. Miscavige is rarely seen in public and for decades has successfully avoided any personal entanglement in the many lawsuits involving the church.
Babbitt said he was determined to put him under oath.
Miscavige "has personal knowledge concerning this case," Babbitt said. "There is no reason why he shouldn't be deposed.''
Babbitt said he expected the lawsuit would force the church to disclose financial records.
For years, the church has defended itself from such claims by asserting that the First Amendment prevented courts from prying into operations deemed religious in nature. But Babbitt said those arguments would not stand up in this instance.
Garcia said he was tailed by church-hired private investigators after he left the church and posted an open letter on the Internet criticizing Miscavige. Babbitt said such tactics don't faze him.
"I've sued just about every large corporation in the United States in the past 40-some odd years and the Church of Scientology — I think it's power is overblown. The corporations I've sued are some of the wealthiest in the United States, and I'm not any more worried about taking on the church than I was taking on them.''
The Garcias were among dozens of Scientology parishioners featured in a 2011 Tampa Bay Times investigative series, "The Money Machine," which reported that church workers drove up contributions using tactics described as intrusive, heavy handed, coercive and relentless.
Los Angeles-based church spokeswoman Karin Pouw said Wednesday, "Shame on the Times. This frivolous suit is filed by the same group of apostates the Times has been supporting for four years with Mike Rinder as its consultant.''
Rinder, who lives in Palm Harbor, was a high-ranking church officer until he defected in 2007. He started speaking out to the Times and other media in 2009 about abuses he had witnessed while working for the church.
Pouw also said statements made in the Garcias' lawsuit about Miscavige are "blatantly false.'' She added that the Super Power building "is nearing completion and will be opened as planned later this year to the joy of Scientologists around the world.''
All told, the Garcias say they donated about $1.3 million to various Scientology causes during their 28 years in the church. They left in 2010, weary of the money demands and convinced Scientology's spiritual practices had been "corrupted.''
The Garcias made their fortune as owners of a commercial printing operation in Irvine that had annual revenues topping $14 million. They joined the church in 1982 after Luis acted on the advice of a stranger and read Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
The Garcias traveled several times to Scientology's worldwide spiritual center in Clearwater to take courses and receive counseling called auditing. Luis Garcia progressed to "Operating Thetan VIII," a spiritual level at the top of Scientology's "Bridge to Total Freedom." Those "beings" are revered in the Scientology community because they've acquired all the personal power and enlightenment available through Hubbard's teachings.
Rocio Garcia reached the level known as OT VI. The couple spent $300,000 on Scientology services, Garcia has said.
A portion of that is at issue in the lawsuit. The couple say they put nearly $69,000 on deposit with two church entities for counseling and for meals and accommodations aboard Scientology's cruise ship. Though the money was never used, the church has denied their request to get it back.
The lawsuit cites a passage from a church document given to the IRS when Scientology was trying to get its tax-exempt status restored in the early 1990s. At the time, the church told the IRS: "If someone isn't happy with Scientology — which is a very small minority of people — he simply has to make a proper request for his donations back, agree to forgo further services and his donations will be returned."
In addition to buying counseling, the Garcias contributed $340,000 to the Super Power building.
The couple's lawsuit also details more than $40,000 spent on projects by the International Association of Scientologists, which supports efforts to expand the religion. They say they were deceived by urgent IAS fundraising appeals for projects they later discovered didn't exist or that received far less money than was advertised.
"The IAS has accumulated in excess of $1 billion while misleading plaintiffs and others into believing that their funds would be spent on humanitarian projects," the lawsuit says.
Babbitt said his firm has interviewed people working for the church who shot video of an "alleged" earthquake.
"They would go out with three or four people and they would hire people to act as if they were disaster victims, pack up their equipment, come back on a plane," Babbitt said. "No money was ever spent for that disaster despite . . . attempts to collect money making it seem like people were starving or people were in dire need of help. That help was never delivered."
Seven stories tall and sitting on a full city block, the Super Power building has been under construction since November 1998. City permitting records indicate that work inside the building continues. Workers recently constructed a fountain on the seventh floor at a cost of $51,000. Part of a library had to be demolished ($4,000) and reconstructed ($100,000), and 33 new counseling rooms ($250,000) were being built on the fifth floor.
Inside are space-age machines said to deliver Scientology's "super power rundown,'' a lengthy series of drills and study sessions purporting to bestow super human capabilities.
Millions of dollars rolled in for the project. A Times analysis for "The Money Machine" series showed the church raised at least $145 million — well above the $100 million price tag the church had cited through the many years of construction and delays.
The Garcias' lawsuit contends the amount raised exceeds $200 million.