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Documents detail FBI investigation of Scientology that never resulted in charges

An aerial look at the Church of Scientology's international headquarters near Hemet, Calif. In 2009 and 2010, FBI agents conducting a human trafficking investigation focused on the treatment of church workers at the facility, according to witnesses who talked to the agents and newly released FBI documents. [MAURICE RIVENBARK | Times]
Published May 4, 2017

The FBI conducted a criminal investigation of the Church of Scientology in 2009 and 2010 that focused on allegations of human trafficking, according to documents released Wednesday.

The inquiry never resulted in charges against the church, but the documents — posted by the entertainment and gossip website Radaronline.com — say agents focused on the Sea Org, the church's low-paid, military-style workforce.

According to one document, former Sea Org members told agents that the church "tricks" people into the organization with promises of good living conditions, but later houses and holds them "at secure locations where they work 15 hour days in various positions for Scientology based companies … given no days off and are permitted only limited and monitored contact with anyone outside of the camps where they live and work."

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The documents buttress a 2013 report by the Tampa Bay Times detailing a sustained and methodical FBI investigation of the church, with agents traveling to several states, questioning dozens of former Scientologists, obtaining surveillance video of the church's remote headquarters in the mountains east of Los Angeles, and even contemplating a raid of that facility.

The Times based its report on interviews with 15 people who talked to FBI agents. But church officials dismissed the account, said they had no knowledge of such an investigation and questioned whether it ever occurred.

The documents released Wednesday are the first official affirmation that the investigation took place.

In a statement, church spokeswoman Karin Pouw said the investigation's "rapid termination" was proof that the allegations by former members were false. She questioned whether release of the documents constituted news, noting that the case "was closed seven years ago with no finding of wrong doing."

She added that the church has learned the investigation was conducted by "rogue agents," including one who was later disciplined.

Radaronline said it acquired 300 pages of documents from the FBI through a Freedom of Information request. The website posted only three of those pages Wednesday, but its managing editor, Melissa Cronin, alluded to other documents in her story.

The story said that in January 2010 FBI agents expected "the likely indictment of multiple subjects." Four months later, the story said, an assistant U.S. attorney filed a report indicating that a grand jury investigation was discussed.

In an interview Wednesday, Cronin provided a general description of the remaining pages, which Radaronline expects to publish in parts over the next three weeks. The documents describe a wide-ranging investigation that began in October 2009, she said, shortly after a series of Times reports detailing physical and mental abuse of staffers who labored at the highest levels of Scientology under extreme and controlling conditions.

Cronin, citing the documents, said the agents traveled to multiple locales, including Hawaii, Portland, Ore., Texas and Clearwater, the church's spiritual headquarters. Multiple officials were involved in the investigation, she said, including agents in the FBI's Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. offices and officials from the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney's Office.

She said the documents made clear that the agents immersed themselves in Scientology's culture, learning its practices and its unique lingo. "It was a serious and well-researched investigation," she said. "They became experts on the case, they took it seriously."

The documents, she added, included discussion of a possible raid of the church's facility east of Los Angeles and how former Sea Org members had told the agents it appeared the church knew it might be coming. Also included, she said, was discussion about church members being trained in destroying documents, creating "cover stories" and "playing dumb" to thwart any government agents who came calling.

Said Pouw, the church spokeswoman: "No raid occurred because the FBI knew that such an action would have uncovered nothing more than peaceful members of a religious order going about their religious mission."

In May 2010, according to Cronin's story, an assistant U.S. Attorney filed a report titled "Grand Jury Investigation of Operations Overboard," a reference to the code name for the inquiry. After that, she said, the trail goes cold. No more documents.

What happened to the investigation? And why didn't it result in charges?

For its 2013 report, the Times interviewed experts who said the likely reason was a ruling in August 2010 by a federal judge in a civil case brought by two former Sea Org members, Marc and Claire Headley. The couple had sued the church, saying its harsh punishments and controlling tactics kept them from leaving for years.

The judge ruled in part that the First Amendment's guarantee of the free exercise of religion prevented the court from delving into whether the church's discipline methods were reasonable. To do so, the judge said, would "entangle the court in the religious doctrine of Scientology and the doctrinally motivated practices of the Sea Org."

In any criminal case brought against the church on the same issues, the experts said, the burden of proof would have been even higher and not easily met.

News of the FBI investigation first surfaced in February 2011 when journalist Lawrence Wright mentioned it almost casually in a story he wrote for The New Yorker magazine about former Scientologist Paul Haggis, the film director.

The Times reported that one of the agents became angry with a former Scientologist who had cooperated with the FBI but also helped Wright confirm the investigation. The leak had destroyed years of work, the agent complained.

Cronin said her interest in Scientology dates back 10 years, since she began reporting about celebrities, some of them church members. Curious about the FBI investigation, she requested documents from the agency in 2014. The FBI, she said, would send back rote responses telling her it had many requests to process.

Years passed and she abandoned any real hope of seeing the records. Then two weeks ago, she said, she received a small cardboard envelope in the mail with a CD inside, no cover letter. The envelope indicated it was from the FBI, and the CD contained three PDFs totaling 300 pages.

Cronin said she was stunned "to finally see the proof of it and to see how intense an investigation it actually was."

Contact Thomas C. Tobin at tobin@tampabay.com. Follow @ThomasCTobin.

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