CLEARWATER — The chairman of the group backing Clearwater's Nov. 6 strong mayor referendum began a job this month with a company owned by a prominent Church of Scientology donor that focuses on local and state government education.
Zach Thorn, 29, had been working as project manager for downtown investor Daniels Ikajevs when earlier this year he became one of a handful of business advocates pushing the strong mayor initiative. He previously spent two years as vice president of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, working as liaison between the businesses community and government officials.
On Oct. 1 Thorn started work with California-based government media company e.Republic, run by Dennis McKenna, a Church of Scientology spokesman in the 1970s and, as of 2017, a $1.5 million church donor.
Thorn, who will stay based in Clearwater, said his new company "has absolutely nothing to do with Scientology," and notes he also is not a member of Scientology. He said his position with e.Republic is also categorically unrelated to his work on the strong mayor campaign, which has had no contributions or public support from the Church of Scientology.
Thorn's new job is the first hint of any tie between the secretive church, which is downtown Clearwater's largest landowner, and a referendum that aims to transform the city's government by putting power in the hands of an elected mayor rather than a city manager. While any link is indirect, the church's history and unique tenets are undeniable: It has a long and documented track record of exerting control over the private and work lives of its members and attempting to gain influence over the city that hosts its international spiritual headquarters.
"There's a certain mystery, there's a certain interest ... and there's some apprehension about the church," said lawyer Louis Kwall, who first began working as a prosecutor in Clearwater in 1978, three years after Scientology's arrival. "What are their motives, what are their goals?"
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McKenna founded e.Republic in 1984 with fellow $1 million Scientology donor Bob Graves, and it has since grown into one of the country's leading publishing companies on state and local civic education with its now 200 employees. Its flagship magazine, Government Technology, hosts dozens of conferences each year across 40 states that bring leaders in private and public sectors together for seminars on everything from analytics to data privacy.
It also runs leading industry periodical Governing magazine, which e.Republic bought in 2009 from Times Publishing Co., which publishes the Tampa Bay Times.
In its beginnings, e.Republic used management techniques written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard for all employees regardless of their religion but ended the practice 15 years ago, e.Republic CFO Paul Harney said.
Hubbard management uses principles that mirror tenets of Scientology to organize a business, drive productivity of the workforce through statistics and deploy techniques to influence employee behavior.
"In other words, a Scientology business owner can essentially force his or her employees to think and act like a Scientologist within a business setting," said Jeffrey Augustine, Scientology researcher and husband of former Scientologist Karen de la Carriere, who served aboard the church's ship Apollo with Hubbard. "The upside for the owner is that their private church life and their business life become identical. The covert, or secret goal ... is to recruit people in Scientology."
Harney said while many of the top executives have been Scientologists, it is a secular business with "no connection" to the church.
"It's ancient history to most people in our company," Harney said. "I'm not denying we had Hubbard management in the past, but it was a long time ago."
Don Pearson, a former executive vice president, worked as a management consultant before joining e.Republic and used Hubbard principles to train more than 3,500 Allstate Insurance employees between 1988 and 1992, The Wall Street Journal reported. More than two dozen alleged fraud and harassment through lawsuits and discrimination complaints.
McKenna, who declined an interview request, was honored last year aboard Scientology's Freewinds cruise ship along with other top donors, reported Tony Ortega, who runs a blog critical of Scientology. McKenna has helped lead the Sacramento Ideal Org, a term for buildings where services are offered, and has been a leader in advancing other church buildings "from Austin and Atlanta to Milano and Budapest," Scientology's Impact magazine states.
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Thorn said he was introduced to the national conference director job at e.Republic's Government Technology magazine by Jack Mortimer, president of the Clearwater Downtown Neighborhood Association. Mortimer, a Scientology parishioner, works as e.Republic's vice president of events.
"This job has absolutely nothing to do with the campaign or Scientology," Thorn said. "It was and is a great opportunity for me at a very well-respected publication."
Matt Becker, chair of the Clearwater Downtown Partnership who helped form the strong mayor initiative this year, said Thorn's connection to a Scientologist-run company has no relevance to the ballot initiative.
In response to questions from the Times about Thorn's position, the Accountable Government political action committee backing the referendum issued a statement on Tuesday that it will not accept contributions from any private nonprofit that does not disclose donors, including "from any Scientologist or Scientology related businesses, including e.Republic or any of its associated subsidiaries."
"There is nothing there," Becker said. "This is, in my opinion, fear mongering. This is the very definition of what fake news is."
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Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to requests for comment regarding Clearwater's strong mayor referendum. But Scientology's aim to influence government goes back to 1975 when the organization arrived in Clearwater under a false name and bought the Fort Harrison Hotel for its headquarters with $2.3 million cash.
It began an elaborate plot to smear then-Mayor Gabe Cazares, plant a spy in the Clearwater Sun newsroom, and infiltrate offices from City Hall to the police department. An FBI raid of Scientology's Los Angeles and Washington offices in 1977 uncovered an internal document titled "Project Normandy," which detailed an intelligence gathering mission "to establish area control" of Clearwater.
Strategies for bringing businesses and governments into compliance with Scientology are outlined in various Hubbard policies, including "The Special Zone Plan." It dictates how Scientologists should obtain jobs within organizations with access to department heads to gradually influence the environment.
"Hubbard spoke about not necessarily getting in power but rather having the ear of someone in power," said Stephen Kent, professor of sociology at the University of Alberta who has studied Scientology for 30 years.
In a 1996 article, the church's Source magazine discussed goals for moving Scientology to the forefront of society and advanced the notion of making "Clearwater known as the first Scientology city in the world."
Last year Scientology leader David Miscavige bought nearly $30 million of prime downtown properties through limited liability corporations as part of a retail plan to renovate Cleveland Street facades, recruit high-end retail and build an entertainment complex with actor and Scientologist Tom Cruise, a plan first made public by the Times.
Miscavige hinged the offer on the City Council stepping aside and allowing the church to buy a vacant parcel near City Hall that Scientology needed for its campus. City Manager Bill Horne said that in a call before the council voted unanimously to buy the property, Miscavige told him he would give up trying to work with city government until most council members were termed out and a new era of officials were elected.
"I'll focus on 2020," Horne recalls Miscavige saying. That's the year the first strong mayor would be elected if the referendum were to pass Nov. 6.
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A small group of business people, including Becker and Thorn, pushed the idea of a strong mayor referendum earlier this year, saying the change of government could awaken Clearwater's potential and give it the regional clout of Tampa and St. Petersburg.
At a recent forum, moderator J. Edwin Benton, professor of political science at University of South Florida, read an audience question asking if this movement was "a backdoor power play by the Church of Scientology to gain control of Clearwater."
Because the proposed ordinance calls for a strong mayor to be elected with more than 50 percent of votes cast, rather than just the most votes in a field of candidates, Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel said "that actually makes it even harder for any special interest group to win an election."
Mike Rinder, who spent 25 years as a senior Scientology executive before defecting in 2007, said he's not sure it matters whether there is a city manager carrying out council policy or a strong mayor with daily management power.
Rinder estimates the population of Scientologists in Clearwater is a fraction of the 12,000 often cited by the church. Many of those are also non-residents visiting for courses and training. But the ultimate objective is influence, which comes directly from the administration of the organization, Rinder said.
"You could influence a city manager or you could influence a mayor," Rinder said. "From the Scientolgists' perspective, it doesn't make a difference."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.