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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]
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