The Church of Scientology has begun collecting a $1.07 million court judgment from one of its chief challengers, Tampa lawyer Ken Dandar, who has waged high-profile legal fights against Scientology off and on for 17 years.
Armed with a court order, the church garnished the bank account of the law firm of Dandar and Dandar on Sept. 26. Ken Dandar and his brother, Thomas, have practiced together for years.
The move caps a lengthy and acrimonious court battle. It stems from Dandar's decision in 2009 to represent a Virginia woman in a wrongful-death suit filed against the church in Clearwater after her son died while visiting his Scientologist father.
Church lawyers immediately objected, arguing that Dandar had formally agreed in 2004 to never sue Scientology again. That year, he and the Clearwater church had settled another wrongful-death suit — this one filed seven years earlier on behalf of Scientologist Lisa McPherson, who had died in 1995 after being cared for 17 days by church staffers in the Clearwater church, Scientology's worldwide spiritual headquarters. (The later suit was eventually dismissed.)
In March, senior Pinellas Circuit Judge Crockett Farnell agreed with church lawyers — that Dandar had breached the McPherson settlement, terms of which never were made public. Hearings before Farnell were even closed to the public.
Farnell ruled Dandar must repay Scientology for its legal fees and other costs — a bill totaling $1,068,156.50.
"It's a tremendous amount of money,'' Dandar told the Tampa Bay Times on Friday.
The garnishment froze his firm's account, he said. He declined to say how much his firm had in the bank. But he said of the church's strategy: "They didn't get much.''
The impact is significant, however. The account is the firm's operating capital. It pays employees, rent, taxes and other bills. The firm laid off a support staffer this week, Dandar said. Three others remain on staff.
In papers filed in federal court in Tampa this week, Dandar said the garnishment is "effectively shutting down the law firm.''
He backed off that Friday. "I am never giving up practicing law and being an attorney who has a wealth of information concerning Scientology,'' said Dandar, who is 59 and has been practicing in Tampa since 1979.
Asked if the church finally had prevailed, he stated: "Why are they afraid of me? That's the question.''
What happens next is unclear. Dandar had forestalled the church's efforts to collect by filing a flurry of appeals and other actions in state and federal court.
"Everyone turned me down,'' he said of the judges.
If he opens a new account at another bank, the church can garnish it, he said. Also, according to Farnell's order, he can be jailed if he doesn't comply.
Dandar still has a suit in federal court in Tampa accusing the church of violating his civil rights. He also said the church had erred in garnishing his firm's account because it impacts his brother's ability to practice law. Dandar said his brother was not a party in the second wrongful-death suit.
He also insisted he never agreed in 2004 to not sue Scientology again.
The church did not respond to a request for comment.