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Church of Scientology takes aim at Clearwater Marine Aquarium after being denied land

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is asking the Pinellas County Commissionfor for $26 million in tourist tax dollars, but the Church of Scientology says the facility doesn't deserve it. The church sent a complaint to local and state officials, alleging the aquarium has a number of financial problems and should be denied the money. Aquarium director David Yates says the church's allegations are unfounded. The aquarium last week sold a prime piece of downtown land to the city, against the church's wishes. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Apr. 27, 2017

CLEARWATER — The Church of Scientology has launched a statewide campaign blasting the ethics and financial practices of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a move that follows the aquarium's recent decision not to sell the church a prized downtown property.

On Monday, one day before the Pinellas County Commission gave initial approval to the aquarium's request for $26 million of bed tax dollars, the church delivered to the board a scathing, seven-page letter and more than 250 pages of supporting documentation questioning the nonprofit's economic impact and financial responsibility.

The "formal complaint" — also sent to Attorney General Pam Bondi, the state auditor general and legislative leaders — is not going unchallenged by aquarium CEO David Yates.

"We want to be good neighbors to everybody, but we don't intend to be bullied at the same time," Yates said Wednesday. "Everything they wrote is either false, completely out of context or inflammatory."

The church's move came two business days after the Clearwater City Council voted unanimously to buy a 1.4-acre vacant property from the aquarium. The $4.25 million sale closed the next day.

The aquarium, which is in the midst of a fundraising campaign for a $50 million renovation of its facility on Island Estates, rejected the church's $15 million offer for the property three weeks earlier in favor of selling to the city.

The church wanted to buy the land, which borders its 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat, to build a swimming pool and playground for parishioners. But the city intends to pair the parcel with the City Hall site across the street and redevelop it into a hotel, residential project or other uses as part of its 10-year, $55 million waterfront revitalization plan.

In her letter to the county, Monique Yingling, a top church attorney who assisted Scientology in securing its tax-exempt status from the IRS in 1993, said the aquarium is "essentially asking to recoup" from taxpayers the millions it turned down from the church's offer.

Yingling said the aquarium has repeatedly depended on public funding despite bringing in $88 million in revenue over the past five years. She cited $8.8 million in "in-kind property, grants and other funding from the city of Clearwater." But Yates said that number is unfounded.

Other than a $750,000 contribution in 2008, "we do not get any routine grants from the city," Yates said.

Yingling also said Yates' salary calls "into serious question the propriety of its request for additional taxpayer funding." She said Yates' $1.8 million in compensation over the past five years, and $529,468 in 2015 alone, shows "a substantial portion of the public funding received by the CMA already has gone into the pockets of its CEO and other executives."

Yates said that analysis is misconstrued. Although he received $529,468 in 2015, about a fourth of that was "a one-time makeup retirement pay" from benefits withheld during leaner years.

Paul Auslander, vice chair of the aquarium's board of directors, said Yates' salary is calculated through both his performance and comparing pay scales of similar organizations nationwide.

"He's well compensated for this area, but he's at the high or middle end of the averages for organizations that have similar revenue flows that we do," Auslander said.

Church spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to an email from the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday inquiring about the pay of Scientology leader David Miscavige.

The thrust of the church's complaint is that the aquarium submitted "frivolous, speculative and unsubstantiated financial projections" as a basis for its bed tax funding request. Yingling wrote that the church has "a compelling interest in the disbursement" of the funds because it has paid $7.5 million in tourist tax payments since 2010.

The church hired University of South Florida professor of economics Philip Porter to analyze the aquarium's prior economic impact studies, and he reported 93 percent of the direct financial impact claimed by the aquarium cannot be verified.

Porter said he conducted "independent blind surveys" of aquarium patrons and debunked the nonprofit's claim that 72.7 percent of all its visitors come to Clearwater "solely because they are attracted by the aquarium."

Yates said this is another mistaken interpretation. A 2012 study by University of South Florida St. Petersburg's College of Business found 72.7 percent of aquarium patrons said the Dolphin Tale movie was the primary driver of their visit — the aquarium has never claimed to be the sole driver of guests' visits to the area.

"The question (Porter) asks implies, 'Were we the sole reason that guests came to (Clearwater)?' and we never claimed that," Yates said. "Our questions were very clear: 'Were we the main or primary motivating factor for you coming to our area?' That's also what we put in our report to the county. We never claimed we were the sole reason."

And while the church alleges the aquarium should have paid unrelated business income tax on $23 million of souvenir shop sales over the past five years, the nonprofit's tax returns were audited and issued the highest level of assurance, CPA Matt Schaeffer confirmed to the Times.

No Scientology official spoke against the aquarium's funding request during the public comment section of Tuesday's County Commission meeting.

Commission Chair Janet Long said the effort was "too little too late" and a clear retaliation by the church for the city buying land it coveted.

"That's how the Scientologists operate," Long said. "It's very clear, coming on the heels of the City Council (vote), that their noses are out of joint and they are upset about it and they are trying to intimidate county government."

Commissioner Ken Welch said he still hasn't had time to review the hundreds of pages of documents that were hand delivered 24 hours before Tuesday's vote.

Yates said the sale of the aquarium's land to the city was a show of commitment to a long-standing partnership rather than an affront to the church. The church's reaction, he said, was unwarranted.

"We didn't get into this to have an argument with anybody," Yates said. "When we had property to sell, we sold the property to our partner. That's it. … We're very disappointed in the approach the church has taken in this regard. It didn't need to be done, and it's unfortunate, but our desire is we do our work and we do our mission and we move on."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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