CLEARWATER — It’s not every meeting of the Downtown Development Board that includes talk of pedophilia, bestiality or Nazism.
But last week’s meeting included discussion of all three as City Council candidate Mark Bunker deepened his feud with the Church of Scientology.
Bunker, a longtime critic of actions taken by the church that in his view amount to fraud and abuse, opened the public comment portion of the meeting with a typically scathing speech about Scientology ― and the board’s chair, Paris Morfopoulos, a Scientologist and the owner of One Stoppe Shoppe downtown.
“If you’d like to apologize for those comments you made to me ... saying that I like to have sex with barnyard animals, or maybe little boys, I’ll give you a chance to do that at the end of the meeting,” the candidate said to Morfopoulos in an apparent reference to videotaped comments Morfopoulos made nearly two decades prior.
Morfopoulos did not address those comments specifically at the meeting, and he did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
However, Morfopoulos did respond to Bunker’s anti-Scientology posture. And how.
“If you would, for a moment, take any of his written or public comments and substitute the word ‘Jew’ for ‘Scientologist,’ it would become very clear to you what we’re talking about,” Morfopoulos said in a lengthy speech at the end of the meeting. “Almost 100 years ago in Germany, an ideologue named Adolf ran for public office warning about the threat posed by the Jews to their communities and urging that something be done about them. We all know how that turned out.”
With months to go until ballots are cast in the March elections, the rhetoric surrounding Bunker, who’s running for the open Seat 2 on the Council, could hardly be more heated.
Recently, the epicenter of the conflict has been the Downtown Development Board. Although it’s a relatively toothless organization, the board made history earlier this month when downtown property owners made it likely the first elected city board to be comprised of a majority of Scientologists.
In addition to Morfopoulos, Scientologists Shahab Emrani, Keanan Kintzel and Ray Cassano will also serve on the seven-person board.
RELATED STORY: Scientologists win majority on downtown Clearwater board
Bunker is concerned about this arrangement.
In September, he blamed Clearwater’s struggle to revitalize its downtown on the church’s presence.
“People are largely afraid to come downtown. They don’t want their money going into Scientologists’ pockets,” Bunker said then.
Morfopoulos said at the meeting that anyone troubled by Scientologists’ presence on the board should "look at what the board has been doing for the last 25 years that Scientologists have been on the board.”
Later in the meeting, Morfopoulos thoroughly disparaged Bunker, calling him a “professional bigot.” He recounted Bunker’s time at the Lisa McPherson Trust, a now-defunct nonprofit funded by the retired investment banker Bob Minton. McPherson, after whom the trust was named, died after being held at Scientology’s Fort Harrison Hotel for 17 days in 1995. Trust members routinely picketed outside Scientology-owned properties downtown in the early 2000s.
In 2000, a Pinellas County judge that ruled neither Scientologists nor Bunker could be within 10 feet of one another.
At last week’s meeting, Morfopoulos accused Bunker of videotaping the children of Scientologists, including Morfopoulos’ daughter, through the streets of Clearwater in those days.
Bunker, in an interview, denied this.
Public exchanges like these between a City Council candidate and the chair of a city board are hardly the norm for Clearwater. None of the other candidates for the five-person City Council have clashed with the church or its practitioners at this early stage of the campaign. (So far, Bunker is set to face small business owner Michael Mannino; former School Board candidate Eliseo Santana; lawyer Bruce Rector and president of the Downtown Merchants Association Lina Teixeira in the race for the open Seat 2.)
But Bunker is not a normal candidate, he’s a sworn enemy of the city’s largest downtown property owner.
As such, Bunker says, he’s been the target of a smear campaign by the church. A website called “Defaulters.com” is filled with anonymously written, critical articles about Bunker that appear to date back to 2017. The site raises questions about Bunker’s 2018 personal bankruptcy and his efforts to raise money for a yet-to-be released film about Scientology. Bunker said his bankruptcy came after a costly heart surgery, and that the film is still in the works.
The Defaulters site’s most recent article was apparently published in August, 2018 — some 10 months before Bunker announced his run for the council.
Bunker suspects the church is behind the website anyway. The church has a long history of attacking and trying to discredit perceived enemies under the “Fair Game” doctrine established by founder L. Ron Hubbard.
“That type of site, where it’s anonymous and does not say ‘Scientology’ anywhere on the website, that’s the usual tactic,” Bunker said.
A Scientology spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.