CLEARWATER — As a tax-exempt religious organization, the Church of Scientology is barred by the Internal Revenue Service from endorsing any political candidates.
But City Council Seat 5 candidate John Funk, who is challenging incumbent Hoyt Hamilton in the March 13 election, has earned a following among parishioners and those close to Scientology.
Scientology leader David Miscavige has made clear the organization's interest in who claims two open City Council seats in the upcoming election, as well as three more seats in 2020. When discussing in April how Scientology would react to the city's purchase of a 1.4-acre downtown lot the church also wanted to buy, City Manager Bill Horne said Miscavige responded that he'd cut communication and "work with the next council" on church issues.
Early last year, Scientology bought at least $27 million more in prime downtown real estate under anonymous limited liability companies, or LLCs, adding to properties valued at more than $207 million that it already holds around its international spiritual headquarters. After the city's April purchase of the 1.4 acre parcel, the church ended its open line of communication and has gone nearly radio silent with city officials.
But since launching his campaign in the fall, Funk has garnered a level of support from those associated with Scientology that the other candidates have not.
About 80 percent of the $4,977 Funk has raised so far is from his own pockets, according to his campaign treasurer report. But one of his few outside donations, $100, has come from Mary Repper, a former political consultant who has done extensive public relations work for Scientology.
On Jan. 25, Consumer Energy Solutions CEO and prominent Scientologist Pat Clouden sent out an email endorsing Funk on behalf of his Concerned Businessmen's Association of Tampa Bay, which supports Scientology's anti-drug front groups. While his business is located on Cleveland Street in downtown Clearwater, state records show Clouden is registered to vote in Belleair.
"We've met him and he is a like-minded fellow who would be awesome for Clearwater City Council Seat 5," Clouden wrote in the email. Clouden did not respond to requests for comment.
And when collecting the 250 signatures required to qualify for the election, Funk found support from a dozen voters living in Scientology's two apartment complexes for Sea Org staff members on Amble Lane and Saturn Avenue.
Funk did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But he's said previously he is not a member of Scientology.
In a previous interview, Funk said he's welcomed a friendly relationship with the church and has hosted annual fundraisers to benefit the Pinellas Sheriff's Police Athletic League at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel.
Advertising salesman Tom Keller, who is running against retired building contractor David Allbritton for Seat 4, had about 50 voters from Scientology's Sea Org housing sign his petition cards to qualify for the election.
But Keller said he obtained those by passing out cards at a Scientology event downtown in December when he was overwhelmed with the task of obtaining signatures in his first bid for public office. Keller said he has not had any communication with church staff, has not received an endorsement from Clouden or any other parishioner organization, and is still learning about the organization that dominates downtown.
"I've never heard of him," Keller said of Clouden. "I don't know enough about (Scientology)."
The two council seats, which are both city-wide, are the only races on the ballot for Clearwater voters next month. The Supervisor of Elections on Tuesday will send mail ballots to voters who have requested them.
In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw said the church "does not engage in electioneering and does not support or endorse political candidates, either directly or indirectly."
Shaw said church officials also have not instructed staff or parishioners about how they should vote.
"The Church of Scientology takes no position on any candidate in the upcoming Clearwater election," Shaw said. "No candidate has approached us for our support, and if they did, we would decline to do so."
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.