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Company wants drug program's Scientologist ties kept out of lawsuit against Hernando County

Published Dec. 8, 2012

BROOKSVILLE — There are a couple of points that officials at Clearwater-based Toucan Partners LLC don't want coming up at next month's federal trial against Hernando County.

They don't want any mention of the Church of Scientology. Nor do they want anyone to talk about recent deaths at a Scientology-related drug rehabilitation program.

Toucan Partners is the company that owns the land off Cessna Drive that currently houses the Suncoast Rehabilitation Center.

In recent depositions of those connected with both entities, the county's attorney has asked about the program's connections to Scientology and the problems at similar rehab centers.

The questions specifically focused on how knowledge of those things might affect the decisions of potential patients to choose the Spring Hill facility.

In 2009, the Hernando County Commission turned down the company's proposal to expand from 21 to 54 beds on the 3-acre site. Commissioners cited incompatibility with the adjacent residential neighborhood among their reasons.

Toucan Partners sued, first in Circuit Court and then, in June 2011, in federal court, claiming the county had discriminated against disabled people, specifically recovering drug and alcohol abusers.

The company is seeking more than $6 million in damages for lost income from an expanded center, in addition to attorney's fees and other costs.

Last week, attorneys for Toucan filed two separate motions. One asks the judge to stop the county from mentioning the connection between Narconon, the company that operates the rehab center, and the controversial Church of Scientology.

The other seeks to keep the county from mentioning incidents that have happened at other Narconon facilities, including the recent deaths of four patients at Narconon's signature treatment facility in Oklahoma.

The Narconon program uses life skills courses modeled on the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. Many Scientologists also support the program philosophically and financially, and it is featured prominently on the Scientology website.

"These items are just not relevant in a claim of failure to afford proper treatment to disabled people,'' Joe Mason, a Brooksville attorney representing Toucan Partners, said Friday.

The Oklahoma deaths, Mason said, "have nothing to do with granting a proper land use'' for the rehab center. And any mention of Scientology "could only be used to inflame a jury,'' Mason said. "The sole issue is whether Hernando County discriminated against recovering addicts.''

Doug Noah, the attorney the county chose to defend it in federal court, did not return a phone call from the Times on Friday.

During the original hearing on the expansion, the County Commission heard from representatives of the rehab center and from neighbors who were concerned about the impact an expanded center could have on their community. Originally, the site was used as an adult congregate care center, but that use ended when Toucan Partners bought the property in 2008.

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The federal suit was brought by the landowners based on alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act and discrimination against the handicapped, allegations the county denies.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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