Monday, October 22, 2018
News Roundup

Former Scientologist disputes church claims about granting refunds

TAMPA — A closely watched lawsuit over the Church of Scientology's fundraising tactics is expected to reach a pivotal point today in U.S. District Court.

Attorneys for the church and two plaintiffs who say Scientology staffers pressured and deceived them into making large donations are expected to question more witnesses and complete their arguments, ending two days of hearings.

At issue: whether Scientology's internal justice system takes precedence over the U.S. legal system when it comes to former church members who want their money back.

The matter of refunds has received more attention in recent years as many Scientologists have left the church after allegations of aggressive fundraising and other abuses by church management. Scientologists routinely pay five- and six-figure sums for church counseling and donations to church causes.

The plaintiffs in the Tampa case are Luis and Rocio Garcia, who left the church after 28 years, saying they grew weary of the money demands and were convinced Scientology's spiritual practices had been "corrupted." They say they spent $1.3 million on church services and causes, including more than $420,000 for Scientology's new "Super Power" building in Clearwater.

Church leaders say the couple must go through Scientology's justice system to be considered for a refund, but the couple argues there are no procedures in place for arbitration.

As part of Wednesday's hearing, U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore heard video testimony from Mike Ellis, Scientology's International Justice chief. Ellis said the church has a system in which Scientologists in good standing meet as a "Committee of Evidence" to hear cases and issue recommendations.

Ellis said the committee is used for all matters of justice in Scientology, but he also said he has never known it to be used for arbitration.

The Garcias' attorney, Theodore Babbitt of West Palm Beach, questioned Ellis at length about the differences between a Committee of Evidence and an arbitration procedure, the number of people involved, how they are selected and whether their ruling is binding.

Ellis maintained that a Committee of Evidence would be the route a "suppressive person" — someone expelled from the church — would take in order to seek a refund.

He also confirmed that someone expelled from Scientology has no rights under church policy. He said such a person could ask for a Committee of Evidence to challenge their expulsion, but not to seek a refund.

"It wouldn't be the right vehicle for that," he said.

His statements on that point appeared to agree with some earlier testimony by Luis Garcia, who said the committee is in place for matters of "justice," which he said refers to violations of Scientology's moral code. There is no way a committee could be convened for considering a refund, Garcia said.

The Garcias' lawyers also argued in a memorandum filed this week that a person who has been expelled from the church, as the Garcias have, would be unable to receive a fair judgment from a panel made up of Scientologists in good standing.

Ellis disagreed, saying church arbitrators would be impartial, even toward a suppressive person.

The church argued that the procedure for arbitration is listed in enrollment agreements, which parishioners sign whenever they want to take a course or use a service. Garcia said he likely signed more than 40 such agreements during his time in the church.

It was unclear when Whittemore would issue a ruling.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.

Comments
World Series: Red Sox will give Dodgers early dose of lefties

World Series: Red Sox will give Dodgers early dose of lefties

BOSTON — The Red Sox feel going with two lefties to start the World Series against the Dodgers is the right move.With LHP Chris Sale over the stomach issues he still, smirkingly, says were caused by a belly button ring and set to start Tuesday ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Romano: Cops should get body cameras before cell phones get them

Romano: Cops should get body cameras before cell phones get them

Itís happened again. Another snippet of video. Another Florida cop being questioned.This time, itís in Coral Springs, and the cop is punching the midsection of a 14-year-old girl who is pinned on the ground with two cops above her, and her hands unde...
Updated: 1 hour ago
World Series: Dodgers manager Dave Roberts remains a Red Sox hero

World Series: Dodgers manager Dave Roberts remains a Red Sox hero

BOSTON — The Dodgers already had plenty to yell about, and to toast, when they gathered in the bar of Milwaukee's Pfister Hotel late Saturday to continue the celebration of their National League championship.But as a quick clip from the ALCS 14...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Buccaneers AfterMath: Dirk Koetter chooses his inconsistent kicker over his inconsistent quarterback

Buccaneers AfterMath: Dirk Koetter chooses his inconsistent kicker over his inconsistent quarterback

TAMPA — By beating the Browns 26-23 Sunday, the Buccaneers snapped a three-game losing streak and Tampa Bay breathed a collective sigh of relief.It wasn’t pretty, a misadventure full of interceptions, fumbles, penalties and missed kicks. ...
Updated: 3 hours ago
For killing his mother and niece, a half-century in prison for Pasco man

For killing his mother and niece, a half-century in prison for Pasco man

NEW PORT RICHEY ó Jason Rios will spend up to half a century in prison for the 2015 murders of his mother and niece and the attempted murder of another niece.Rios, 28, could be eligible to be released in 39 years. By then, he will be 67 ó and still s...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Bloomingdale video voyeur teacher: 353 new charges, $2 million bail

Bloomingdale video voyeur teacher: 353 new charges, $2 million bail

Investigators say they have uncovered an extensive amount of videos and images of under-age students secretly filmed while undressing by a Bloomingdale High School teacher who was arrested last month on a video voyeurism charge.Mark Ackett, 50, who r...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Tampa man charged with manslaughter for failing to call 911 after Plant High studentís fatal overdose

Tampa man charged with manslaughter for failing to call 911 after Plant High studentís fatal overdose

TAMPAFailures to call 911 leads to chargesA 19-year-old Tampa man is under arrest for his role in the death of a Plant High School senior who overdosed on heroin last year just weeks before graduation. Titan Goodson, of Harbour Island, was still in t...
Updated: 4 hours ago
East Lake, Steinbrenner girls move on to state golf tourney

East Lake, Steinbrenner girls move on to state golf tourney

VALRICO — East Lake and Steinbrenner advanced to the girls Class 3A state tournament on Nov. 6-7 at the Mission Inn and Resort in Howey-in-the-Hills.The Eagles shot a team total 340 on Monday afternoon at Buckhorn Springs Golf and Country Club....
Updated: 4 hours ago
Scenes from the Democratic rally in Tampa, featuring Joe Biden (w/video)

Scenes from the Democratic rally in Tampa, featuring Joe Biden (w/video)

"I think there's something different about this election," Biden told the crowd. "I really mean this. Let me get to the point. This election is bigger than politics. For real. This goes well beyond. You will never have voted in an election that's mor...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Trump threatens to cut aid to nations over migrant caravan

Trump threatens to cut aid to nations over migrant caravan

WASHINGTON ó President Donald Trump vowed Monday to cut off or "substantially" reduce aid to three Latin American nations, voicing fresh frustration as a growing caravan of migrants that originated in Honduras continued to make its way toward the U.S...
Updated: 5 hours ago