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Lawsuit over drug rehab center awaits ruling on firm's Scientology roots

Published Jan. 5, 2013

BROOKSVILLE — A Spring Hill drug rehabilitation center is seeking more than $6 million in damages from Hernando County for turning down its plans to expand the facility four years ago.

But before that matter can be decided this week in the U.S. District Court in Tampa, the judge must settle another issue — whether the lawyer representing the county can talk about the center's connection to the Church of Scientology and about a spate of recent deaths at similar facilities.

Last month the attorney for Toucan Partners LLC, the firm that owns the Suncoast Rehabilitation Center on Cessna Drive, and Narconon Spring Hill Inc., which runs the center, sought a ruling seeking to prohibit the county from mentioning the connection or the deaths at other centers operating under the Narconon name.

As of late last week, a ruling from the judge had not been filed on this question. Some judges prefer to wait until the issue is raised during a trial, said Joe Mason, the Brooksville attorney for Toucan and Narconon Spring Hill.

The motion filed by Jon Tasso, another attorney for Toucan and Narconon, argued that mention of Scientology and its connection to Narconon — or recent deaths at Narconon's signature treatment center in Oklahoma — were not relevant to the issues central to the lawsuit.

In 2009, the Hernando County Commission turned down Toucan's proposal to expand from 21 to 54 beds on the 3-acre site, citing incompatibility with the adjacent residential neighborhood.

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

The county denies the allegations.

Besides the damages for income lost because of the denied expansion, Toucan Partners and Narconon Spring Hill are seeking attorney's fees and other costs.

But the county's attorney in the federal case, Doug Noah, argues in a response to the two motions that the connection between Narconon and Scientology is relevant because of its potential to reduce the number of patients the facility attracts. That, in turn, would mean less income and lower damages.

Noah's response to Mason's motions explains the Narconon connection to Scientology, including that it is based on the teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Narconon International's own website, he argued, "makes it clear that there is a large amount of support from the Church of Scientology and Scientologists … (and that) the majority of the centers are open and run by Scientologists,''

Noah also cited an official from the Suncoast Rehabilitation, Eric Mitchell, who said in his deposition that the Narconon method used at the center is "a major factor in decisionmaking for people in where they go to treatment.''

Toucan corporate representative Lloyd Morgenstern said, according to Noah's filing, that "there is a relationship between Narconon and Scientology and that this relationship would likely decrease demand to some people.''

And Noah noted that both Mitchell and Morgenstern had said under oath that the bad publicity about three 2011 deaths at a Narconon facility in Oklahoma could affect the Spring Hill center because it also uses the Narconon rehab process; Mitchell had also said there was a drop in enrollment when the Oklahoma deaths were publicized.

The trial is expected to last most of the week.

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

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