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In Clearwater, no clear path for addressing Scientology-related land buys

City officials express concern but say there’s little they can do.
The former site of HJ Demolition, at 607 Nicholson St. in Clearwater's North Marina Area remained vacant at the time of this photo in early November. The property is one of dozens purchased over the last two years by companies managed or operated by Church of Scientology members.
The former site of HJ Demolition, at 607 Nicholson St. in Clearwater's North Marina Area remained vacant at the time of this photo in early November. The property is one of dozens purchased over the last two years by companies managed or operated by Church of Scientology members. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 29, 2021

As companies tied to the Church of Scientology continue to buy more properties around downtown and keep them vacant, City Council member Mark Bunker on Monday proposed that city officials try to “understand what the hell is going on.”

The Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this month that limited liability companies managed or operated by members of Scientology have bought 45 parcels in the North Marina Area bordering downtown since July 2019. The companies paid $11.8 million in cash but have done little with the mostly undeveloped lots and vacant buildings.

The pattern mirrors what occurred downtown between 2017 and 2019, when companies managed by parishioners purchased 100 properties and have since kept about half of them empty.

Both sets of purchases come as the city is spending millions on Imagine Clearwater, a major redevelopment of the downtown waterfront aimed at attracting investment and bringing life to the area.

The church itself was not involved in the acquisitions, according to Scientology spokesperson Ben Shaw.

During the council’s work session on Monday, Bunker suggested the purchases fit “a pattern of how Scientology behaves” and that the city should ask the state attorney or the federal government to convene a grand jury with subpoena power to investigate potential coordination by Scientology leader David Miscavige.

“I think we should consider this not as ‘Oh, it’s a church in the area,’” Bunker said. “Many people consider (it) organized crime and I don’t think that’s a stretch.”

Allegations of criminal activity, from human rights abuses to financial fraud, have swirled around Scientology since the church arrived in Clearwater under a false name in 1975. But no evidence has led to criminal convictions in the U.S. since around 1980, when 11 members of Scientology went to federal prison on charges related to government espionage.

Bunker’s colleagues said on Monday that the same dynamic appears to be playing out with the property acquisitions, leaving little evidence for the city to act on.

Council member David Allbritton acknowledged his concern around the purchases connected to Scientology but at the same time said “buying property is not illegal” and that “there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“I realize a lot of people have overpaid for properties and they bought them and they are sitting on them doing nothing because that’s what they’ve been told to do, I know that,” Allbritton said. “Because nobody buys a property, overpays for it and doesn’t get a return on it somehow right away.”

Allbritton also said it would be “so ludicrous” to ask the FBI to investigate the property acquisitions because “you can’t investigate something unless you have cause.”

“I mean you might not like the Catholic Church, let’s go after them, they own a lot of property,” Allbritton continued.

Bunker drew comparisons between the pattern of property acquisitions downtown and events in Scientology history.

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He noted how the IRS granted Scientology tax exempt status in 1993 after Miscavige met with the agency’s then-commissioner. The church and parishioners then dropped more than 50 lawsuits they had filed against the IRS and its agents.

Bunker also noted that after the Cult Awareness Network went into bankruptcy in 1996, some of its assets were purchased by groups represented by Steven Hayes, an attorney and member of Scientology. The hotline created to counsel families with loved ones in mind control groups was then acquired and rebranded by members of Scientology.

Hayes is one of two parishioners who manage or operate the companies that bought the 45 properties in North Marina since 2019.

“There’s a pattern here,” Bunker said.

In response to a request for comment about Monday’s discussion, Shaw, the Scientology spokesperson, said in a statement that Bunker “is unfit for public office due to his continued harassment.” He also referenced a permanent injunction that prevents Bunker from coming within 10 feet of any member of Scientology.

The injunction also applies to members of the church coming into contact with Bunker. It was issued by a Pinellas County judge in 2001 following months of chaotic protests downtown between members of Scientology and the Lisa McPherson Trust, a nonprofit established in memory of a woman who died in Scientology’s care. Bunker worked as the group’s filmmaker.

“The Church has been and is and will always be willing to work with the City in the spirit of the Urban Land Institute recommendation of a City and Church partnership,” Shaw said, referencing a consultant’s report from 2004 urging a partnership for downtown revitalization.

City Attorney David Margolis said whether or not illegal activity is taking place, the city could take one of three approaches: partner with church officials, effectively ignore them or take “some kind of path of conflict, whether that is a path with law enforcement or through other means.”

“Which of those three philosophies to pursue is really a decision for council,” Margolis said, adding discussions about that can occur in the one-on-one meetings council members have weekly with him and City Manager Jon Jennings.

Mayor Frank Hibbard said he finds the property acquisitions concerning and that he has tried to think strategically about how to make downtown better.

“I don’t find the behavior to be rational,” Hibbard said of the purchases. “So at some point if rational behavior does not break out, that’s going to be an issue.”

One strategy Hibbard raised is the potential for land swaps with the church. The city owns several downtown parcels that Scientology has coveted, which “are not as strategic” for Clearwater as properties owned by the church or companies managed by parishioners.

“I think there’s different things we can look at, both carrots and sticks,” he said.