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Pervasive pitch: Scientology book and lecture series, 'The Basics,' unleashes a sales frenzy

Tom Cruise applauded vigorously as Scientology leader David Miscavige strode to center stage at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall. John Travolta and Kelly Preston beamed from the front row.

The date was June 30, 2007. Behind the cluster of stars, a capacity crowd of Scientologists looked on in anticipation. This was to be a grand night.

Over the next three hours, Miscavige explained why.

The church had found low-quality audiotapes of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's early lectures. A special team of technicians had digitized 2,000 recordings and restored them to perfect clarity.

The team also corrected Hubbard's published texts, which were incomplete, with chapters out of order and errors in transcribing his dictation.

Standing before a 20-foot-high display of book and CD covers, Miscavige announced the release of the improved scriptures — 18 volumes of books and 280 digitally enhanced lectures called "The Basics."

"If the reality hasn't sunk in yet, it soon will. This is the event you have been waiting for … in terms of your past, present and future as a Scientologist.''

For the 53-year-old Church of Scientology, this was a "golden age of knowledge,'' Miscavige said.

With the Basics going for $3,000 a set, it was also a golden age of revenue. Selling the scriptures would become an obsession within the church.

Longtime Scientologist Luis Garcia of Irvine, Calif., didn't get a seat at Eckerd Hall but watched Miscavige on closed-circuit TV with an overflow crowd of 600 in the auditorium of the church's Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater.

As he headed out, he noticed something unusual: Church staffers were in the concourse, holding clipboards and standing firm, like colonial soldiers.

They stopped Garcia and other church members as soon as they filed out.

Cash or credit? staffers asked. How many sets are you getting?

Garcia, tipped off about the big announcement that afternoon, had already bought two, one in English, one in Spanish, paying with an American Express card.

But as he milled around the snack tables, church staffers kept hitting him up.

Garcia told them: I bought two.

In his 25 years in the church, he had grown accustomed to Scientology sales pitches. But he wasn't prepared for what staffers said next.

You bought two? Buy more.

• • •

After Miscavige's announcement, the church issued an "all hands'' directive: Staffers everywhere must help disseminate the important new scriptures.

Driven by their bosses' demands and the threat of punishment, Scientology staffers became hard-sell pitchmen, relentlessly pushing the pricey Basics sets on other believers.

Former church insiders, including those who sold and those who bought, said the Basics campaign consumed the whole organization, derailing spiritual pursuits and alienating Scientologists who grew weary of the church going for their wallets.

The Basics campaign pushed Scientology fundraising to new dimensions:

• The church set up elaborate telemarketing operations at its major hubs, Clearwater and Los Angeles. Satellite call centers popped up in smaller Scientology churches such as Chicago and Tampa. Day and night, church staffers called active and inactive Scientologists. Parishioners got as many as 15 calls a day.

• Even Scientology ministers joined the sales effort. Some ended highly personal counseling sessions with sales pitches, insisting church members buy thousands of dollars of Basics.

• Church-assigned quotas drove sales. Scrambling to meet their individual, daily targets, harried staffers hounded parishioners, imploring them to pay for 10, 16, even 20 sets. Many gave in. Crates of Basics sat on wooden pallets in driveways, garages and basements.

The campaign "turned the staff into telemarketers dialing for dollars — just not a spiritual place to be,'' said former Chicago-based staffer Synthia Fagen.

Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw denied that. She said the Basics campaign has been wildly successful, invigorating church staffers and parishioners alike.

Pouw confirmed that parishioners bought multiple sets of the Basics, saying they wanted to share them with others. For Scientologists, the completed scriptures are "the most exciting development of the new millennium.''

The church confirmed it established call centers and that its counselors, known as auditors, doubled as sales agents.

"All church staff were involved at some level in helping disseminate the Basics,'' Pouw said. Ministers of every religion disseminate scripture and raise money, she said.

The availability of the Basics resulted "in a true renaissance for our religion.''

Miscavige himself directed the recovery and restoration project. His crew searched every place Hubbard wrote or lectured to locate previously unavailable teachings.

"It's no understatement to say that Mr. Miscavige worked virtually 24/7 to make this possible,'' the church said. "Scientologists are eternally grateful for it.''

The St. Petersburg Times asked for interviews with Miscavige and the church staffers named in this story, but the church declined to make them available.

Luis Garcia, 52, had been to the Clearwater church many times in his 25 years as a Scientologist. But after Miscavige's speech, he noticed a change there. Waiters at restaurants in church hotels pitched Basics sets. After a study session in a course room, a supervisor urged Garcia to buy a set.

No, thanks, he said.

The staffers had a followup: Give it to your friends or your neighbors.

Garcia was polite but moved on.

Just before Miscavige's announcement, he had been on the church's cruise ship, the Freewinds, working to reach Scientology's highest spiritual state, Operating Thetan VIII — a person unbound by the limitations of the body, with "cause," or control, over everything around him — but the church had interrupted his studies and flown him to Clearwater for the big event.

After a week in Clearwater, he and 17 other OT VIII candidates reboarded the Freewinds in Aruba. Scientology touts the ship as a distraction-free environment, perfect for concentration, study and reflection.

But there were distractions aplenty, Garcia said. Crew members roamed the decks, aggressively selling Basics packages.

"You'd be assaulted by three, sometimes four staff members,'' Garcia said. "They would go in groups, like wolves.''

The staffers wanted a $450 donation so the 18 Basics books could be sent to a public library. Garcia gave in three times, putting $1,350 on his American Express card.

The Basics push was so extensive, Garcia said, the only "safe'' places were the ship's auditing and study rooms.

Even the ship's commanding officer, Sharron Weber, stopped him in a corridor. Her job was to make sure Scientology services were performed perfectly and parishioners were satisfied. If they weren't, she had the power to make things right.

Garcia recalled what she told him:

Luis, how lucky I found you. Listen, we need to do this thing with the libraries. We need to start with the islands we visit. How many can you donate? Sixteen? Or 32?

Garcia explained he had donated three sets already.

Let's make it 12 then.

No, sorry.

Ten?

No, said Garcia, trying to smile.

The commander stalked off.

Her pitch "made me feel very, very queasy,'' Garcia said.

"You go talk to her once in a blue moon about issues of grave concern. And now she is acting like a saleswoman.''

The windows were opaque, dusky gray blinds preventing passers-by from peering in. No signs indicated what was inside.

During the Basics campaign, a two-story former office building on N Fort Harrison Avenue in downtown Clearwater hummed with activity.

A telemarketing operation.

To accelerate sales of the Basics, the church outfitted rows of tables with telephone equipment and computer screens, creating more than 100 calling stations, all closely watched by supervisors.

The church staffed it mostly with members of the Sea Organization, or Sea Org. The religious order has a crew of about 1,200 working in Clearwater, which has been Scientology's worldwide spiritual headquarters since 1976.

Rotating into the call center for two- and three-hour shifts, the religious workers slipped on headsets and waited for auto dialers to place calls. Thousands of names had been pulled from church files, some decades old. A Sea Org research team had mined the Internet for fresh contact information.

As calls connected and ringtones could be heard, computer feeds flashed brief profiles of the targets: how long a Scientologist, spiritual level, items purchased, last time contacted — and how they reacted.

From 6 a.m. until past midnight, church workers sold sets of the Basics, calling Scientologists at home, at work and on their cellphones.

Selling Basics books and CDs was only part of the job. Callers were also expected to pitch church DVDs, study materials, even Scientology necklaces, said Shelby LaFreniere, a former Minnesota parishioner who pulled shifts in 2008 while training to be a church staffer.

"Basically sell anything you can, and sell as much as you can," LaFreniere said.

Scripts were provided to staffers lacking sales experience. Supervisors patrolled the aisles looking for slackers.

Large, centrally located screens reported dollar amounts. Church departments, such as the Hubbard Guidance Center, where parishioners check in for auditing, had to meet sales quotas of 15 or 20 Basics sets a day. If quotas weren't met, staffers were not allowed to go to bed.

That same punishment also loomed over church workers at the 100-station call center at Scientology's other major U.S. hub, the bustling Pacific Base in Hollywood.

"You just sat there and phones would automatically ring in your head," said Lisa Hamilton, formerly one of the base's highest-ranking officers. Then the pitch:

Had they bought a set?

No? Why not?

Yes? Buy more.

Church workers told parishioners with ethics problems that purchasing several sets of Basics would be a way to make amends for their transgressions, Hamilton said. That allowed them to resume their advance in Scientology. She said one parishioner declared "suppressive" by the church bought 20 sets from a senior Sea Org officer, hoping it would return him to good standing.

Similar offers were made to former Sea Org members who wanted to stay active in the church but couldn't. They had left the staff without paying their "freeloader debt" — the bill for services they'd received for free while on staff.

"That to me was pure and simple blackmail," said Hamilton, who oversaw base personnel, security, ethics and other areas. "I felt it was wrong, but if I was to speak out, I would have been considered CI (counterintentioned) to the Basics, getting them out across the planet.''

The church acknowledged that ethics officers sold Basics, but said it could not verify Hamilton's claim that parishioners earned absolution for buying them. That would violate church policy and "was neither condoned nor supported,'' the church said.

Hamilton was responsible for keeping the Pacific Base phone room staffed. She sent her security officers to round up those who failed to report.

Supervisors banged a gong in the front of the room when a sale was made. They analyzed sales numbers hourly. Sales teams failing to meet quotas were sent to wash dishes in the base kitchen or fed beans and rice at meals.

The church did not respond to specific questions about punishments imposed on staffers.

Hamilton said the base's top three officers sent Miscavige a written sales report each day. The church said Miscavige never got reports from any call center.

The church said it established call centers because parishioners were clamoring for the Basics. Sea Org members enthusiastically worked the centers, the church said. They found lapsed parishioners and advised them how to resume their Scientology studies. And they "raised funds for the religion.''

"Contrary to your characterization, the work of the call centers is a very praiseworthy activity," Pouw said.

Former Minneapolis parishioner Suzanne Working got up to 15 calls a day.

Church staffers pitched Basics. Others asked for contributions to a multimillion-dollar campaign to refashion every Scientology church into an "Ideal Org." Still others wanted a donation to the International Association of Scientologists.

None of the fundraisers seemed to know or care that their counterparts were phoning her, too.

"I would tell them I do not have the money,'' said Working, 40, an auditor for a CPA firm. "And then another staffer would call me 10 minutes later and ask me the same question. And then the first staff member would call me up later in the day and ask me to donate for something else.''

Working recalled the desperation in the voices of the callers:

You must be able to borrow from someone.

Can you take an advance on your paycheck?

Is there a family member you can borrow the money from?

Can you call your dad?

What's your dad's farm worth?

The church said there is "nothing sinister" about setting fundraising targets to motivate church staffers.

It said the goals generated "strong team spirit."

Phoning wasn't the only way to meet a quota. Some fundraisers drove to parishioners' houses, uninvited. Often late at night.

"There was so much gossip and so many people pissed off about it," said Karla Zamudio, an L.A. actor. "I would have friends call me the next day: 'You're not going to believe who showed up at my house at 12:30 at night.' "

Two staffers selling Basics stopped by her boyfriend's house at 3 a.m. He sent them away with a message: "Don't do that again."

One sure way to make quota was to find a buyer willing to take several sets of the Basics.

Actor Jamie Sorrentini, who has had small roles in The Sopranos, Desperate Housewives and CSI: Miami, said two church workers called her into a room at Scientology's Los Angeles church in 2008. They said she needed to buy Basics sets if she wanted to advance to the Operating Thetan spiritual levels.

Sorrentini was stunned. She felt she had earned the right to be an OT.

She had racked up $70,000 in debt for counseling services and donations, putting the charges on five credit cards a church staffer had helped her get. She had spent $10,000 of that on Basics, which were sitting unopened in her garage. She had volunteered for a church human rights campaign and spent thousands hosting a fundraiser at her home. Her family had given $50,000 to the International Association of Scientologists.

It wasn't enough, the staffers told her. She needed to buy more Basics.

"No way," Sorrentini said.

Scientology had tapped her out. She tended bar to supplement her acting income and needed family help to make her monthly debt payments. Her cards were maxed out.

The staffers' solution: They would call the credit card companies and get her limits raised.

"I told them: 'I feel like you're telling me that I have to buy my spiritual freedom.' "

Oh, no, she remembers them saying. We're not suggesting that.

"Well, you are because you're not going to let me out of the room until I buy (more Basics) and say yes."

They went back and forth for hours, two church staffers and Sorrentini in a room with the door closed. She didn't walk out because she wanted the advanced services.

"By the end I was so exhausted I just said, 'Okay, fine. I'll buy them. I'll buy two sets.' Because I couldn't take it anymore. It was like, get me out of this room, get me out of this situation. If that's what I have to do to get on to the OT levels, then fine. I guess I'll just do it."

Filled with regret, she canceled the purchase the next day, angering church staffers who said they had already counted it as income. "It was like the world was going to end," she said.

Then she got in trouble for telling her Scientologist father about the matter. The church frowns on spreading "entheta," or bad news.

Ethics officers told her she needed additional training to get back in good graces. The cost? Fifteen thousand dollars.

The church denied that it ever pressured members to take on debt. Fed up and still owing money, Sorrentini left the church last year.

Luis Garcia and his wife didn't have to go into debt to contribute to their church. They could afford to write a check. That made them marks for Scientology staffers.

Two months after Miscavige launched the Basics campaign, Garcia's wife, Rocio, was in Clearwater resuming her auditing program.

After a session in mid September, her auditor, Cesar Villasenor, asked her to remain in the auditing room — a hallowed place in Scientology. Door closed, he asked her to buy the Basics.

Speaking in Spanish as she did during auditing sessions, Garcia told Villasenor no. She had thought of buying a few titles as a Christmas gift for her sister, but didn't want a full set. She and her husband had two.

Villasenor said the sister would be happiest with a full set. The books and lectures match now. It's great information.

Rocio Garcia said no but felt uncomfortable. In 40-plus hours of counseling, she had told him about her life. "He was my auditor, the person who I displayed my soul to,'' she said. How could she refuse him?

Villasenor became more direct. "He told me: 'This needs to be done now,' " she said.

After half an hour, she bought a set, paying with her American Express card.

"I really don't want him to feel bad because I felt like I owed him my time of happiness,'' she said.

Villasenor quickly filled out a $3,000 invoice.

The Garcias are outraged this happened. Rocio Garcia said she felt pressured.

"You share every concern you have,'' explained Luis Garcia, "every anxiety, every dream, every goal, every transgression, everything.''

Effective auditing is key to a Scientologist's quest for eternity. A parishioner, pushed by an auditor to spend $3,000 on church materials, risks disappointing someone essential to his or her spiritual life.

The Garcias didn't try to block the $3,000 payment, but a few days later traded the set back to the church for 16 sets of Basics audiobooks and other printed materials.

The unopened packages still sit in their garage.

Villasenor tried again with Rocio Garcia when she went back to the Clearwater church four months later. Again after an auditing session, he asked her to buy more Basics.

"He told me please, please help me. I have a quota to meet. I cannot go to sleep if the quota is not done.''

She told him no. No more.

The church denied that any of its auditors breached their ministerial duty.

It said church policy dating back to the 1950s requires auditors, as well as course room supervisors, to help parishioners get materials to further their spiritual pursuits.

"Ministers of every religion participate in disseminating the scripture and in fundraising,'' the church said. "It is utterly offensive that the Times is questioning religious practice."

About the same time his wife bought Basics from her auditor, Luis Garcia was pressured by one of the church's top executives, he said.

Church of Scientology International vice president Bob Adams' staff phoned, saying Adams had urgent matters to discuss. Garcia said he met Adams at the church in Tustin, near Irvine.

Adams told Garcia that the church needed help in Germany, where public opinion did not favor Scientology.

"We were under attack … It was extremely important that I buy 16 sets of Basics,'' Garcia said. The books and lectures would go to Germany, become resource tools for explaining Scientology.

"Here was the vice president of the church. His staff had been trying to get me to this crucial briefing on the future of Scientology, and all he wanted to do was sell me Basics … Even the vice president was on a quota.''

Garcia said Adams, who brought along another L.A.-based Sea Org member, asked him to buy 16 full sets — $48,000. Garcia refused.

Adams dropped to 12. Then 10. And finally, one. Garcia still said no.

The meeting lasted 1 ½ hours, he said.

The church said they never met.

"Bob Adams … never pressured anyone to purchase the Basics, nor attempted to sell anyone 16 sets of anything,'' said the church.

Garcia said the contact list on his phone still shows the date of their meeting.

The pressure to sell wore down some church staffers as much as it did the parishioners. In Chicago, Synthia Fagen said workers strained under the ongoing push to peddle the Basics and also bring in money for new church buildings and the International Association of Scientologists.

"We would look at each other like, 'How the hell are we going to do this?' And everybody would pull together, and they would do everything that they possibly could to get as many donations in as they possibly could."

Locals coming in for church services got sales pitches, too, Fagen said.

"It turned completely. The pendulum swung toward pure donations and asking for parishioners to fund these huge projects to the point where they're second-mortgaging their homes, taking out huge loans, doing everything they possibly can to contribute to these programs, often at the expense of doing courses.''

All the while, Scientology produced magazine stories about parishioners who achieved amazing "wins" just from reading the Basics books.

Parishioners were thinking more clearly, doing better in their jobs. They understood Scientology better, progressed faster up the "Bridge to Total Freedom," the complex ladder of spiritual levels. Results were "life-changing."

The church didn't disclose how many sets of Basics have been sold, but it said more people have read Hubbard's reissued works in the last few years than had read the scriptures in the five decades before.

The books and CDs are made available to parishioners "as close to 'at cost' as possible," the church said. They are produced at Scientology plants in Los Angeles and Denmark.

"Establishing these facilities cost tens of millions of dollars,'' the church said. "Your implication there was some sort of profit motive … is both false and dishonest.''

ReligioN scholar James R. Lewis, who has studied Scientology extensively, said he witnessed the Basics sales fervor in 2008 while attending a Scientology workshop in Chicago as a guest.

Just before lunch, a Sea Org member announced that no one could eat until a certain number of Basics sets were sold — 15 or so, recalled Lewis, an associate professor at the University of Tromso in Norway.

He found the tactic "really disturbing" and was surprised that no one else seemed bothered.

The woman's stated purpose — to make Scientology available to everyone — struck him as "a facade."

Yet it worked. The 15 sets sold quickly.

Pervasive pitch: Scientology book and lecture series, 'The Basics,' unleashes a sales frenzy 11/13/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 14, 2011 7:05am]

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