Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Judges in two cases reject Scientology efforts to disqualify opposing lawyers

TAMPA — Judges in two states have rejected the Church of Scientology's attempts to undercut lawsuits that allege activities ranging from fraud to spying.

In both cases, the church attempted a rarely used legal strategy: Try to get the other side's lawyers disqualified.

But in federal court in Tampa and state court in Texas this week, the answer was no.

U. S. District Judge James D. Whittemore heard four hours of testimony on Thursday before ruling that two south Florida lawyers can continue to represent a California couple who brought fraud claims against the church in January.

Rocio and Luis Garcia contend church fundraisers used deceptive, high-pressure tactics to induce them and other Scientologists to donate millions to church humanitarian efforts and building projects.

The Garcias singled out the church's massive Super Power building in downtown Clearwater. They donated more than $420,000 to that project and claim the church deceived members to contribute many millions more than what was needed for the project.

But their challenge stalled in May when the church filed a motion asking Whittemore to remove the Garcias' attorneys, Theodore Babbitt of West Palm Beach and Ronald P. Weil of Miami.

The church alleged the Garcia team committed an ethical breach by accepting help from former church lawyer Robert E. Johnson of Tampa, and former church legal affairs officer, Mike Rinder of Palm Harbor.

Church lawyer F. Wallace Pope Jr. of Clearwater questioned Johnson and Rinder on Thursday, attempting to show they were deeply involved church legal matters. They must keep confidential information secret. The Garcias' team should not have accepted their help, Pope argued.

Whittemore disagreed. The Garcia case is "wholly distinct'' from work Johnson did for Scientology between 1982 and 2000, Whittemore said.

"This is not a case of a lawyer changing sides,'' he added.

Church lawyers also failed to show Rinder acted improperly while serving as a paid consultant to Garcias' lawyers, Whittemore ruled.

After the hearing, Luis Garcia and his lead attorney, Babbitt, said the hard-fought legal wrangle over the disqualification request was a gambit by Scientology to prolong the case and distract the Garcias.

The church's chief legal officer in Clearwater, Peter Mansell, who sat through the hearing, declined to comment.

The judge now can take up the church's next motion — a demand the Garcias submit their claims for refunds to Scientology's internal arbitration unit.

Their suit clearly has the attention of Scientology's top brass. At least seven veteran church lawyers from various parts of the country sat behind Pope.

Many of them were in a Texas courthouse in September, signaling the church is taking high interest in that case, too.

Monique Rathbun, wife of former high-ranking church officer Marty Rathbun, sued the church in August, claiming she suffered emotional duress over the past three years as church operatives stalked, spied on and harassed her and her husband.

A judge issued a temporary restraining order directing Scientology leader David Miscavige and other church operatives to stop harassing Ms. Rathbun.

The Rathbuns live in a remote area north of San Antonio. Marty Rathbun was Miscavige's top assistant before leaving the church in 2004. He emerged in recent years as a high-profile critic of Miscavige.

After his wife sued, Rathbun provided her lawyers with an affidavit detailing some of his experiences in church legal efforts.

As in the Garcia case, church lawyers demanded Ms. Rathbun's legal team be disqualified, arguing her husband shared confidential church information.

Tuesday, the judge denied that request.

Judges in two cases reject Scientology efforts to disqualify opposing lawyers 10/03/13 [Last modified: Thursday, October 3, 2013 11:05pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Bowen: Humanitarian Roy Hardy raised hope, diminished hunger

    Obituaries

    The lines on Roy Hardy's resume are simple: retailer, rancher, amateur barbecue chef, recreational fisherman.

     Philanthropist Roy Hardy, shown here in 2007, stirs up the baked beans at a Kiwanis club charity fish fry. Mr. Hardy died Sept. 19 at the age of 93.



  2. Halloween Horror Nights: 'The Shining,' 'Saw' and more things to give you nightmares at Universal Orlando

    Blogs

    The 27th year of Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights will scare the pants off you -- in the best possible way.

    The scare zone inspired by horror flick Trick r' Treat is one of the most beautiful at this year's Halloween Horror Nights 27.
  3. 10th resident from sweltering Hollywood nursing home dies

    Public Safety

    A 10th person from the Hollywood nursing home that turned into a deadly hothouse after the facility lost power following Hurricane Irma has died, Hollywood police said.

    The Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills, 1200 N. 35th Ave. [EMILHY MICHOT | Miami Herald]
  4. Feeling mental fatigue after Hurricane Irma and other disasters? It's real.

    Consumer

    TAMPA — Blackness. Eyes closed or open, the same.

    A Tampa Bay Times reporter in a sensory deprivation tank used for floating therapy at Sacred Floats & Gems Co. located at 6719 N Nebraska Avenue, in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, September 19, 2017. Floating therapy relaxes people because they experience a sense of zero gravity when they are inside the tank, which contains 150 gallons of water and 1000 pounds of medical grade Epsom salt. ALESSANDRA DA PRA  |   Times
  5. Trump vows more sanctions on North Korea

    World

    President Donald Trump vowed Thursday to impose more sanctions on North Korea as he prepared to meet with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea to seek a common strategy in confronting the isolated nuclear-armed state.

    U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters on Sept. 19, 2017. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017 in New York described as "the sound of a dog barking" Trump's threat to destroy his country. [Associated Press]