In the 1980s, the Church of Scientology trusted devout parishioner James J. Jackson with a heavy responsibility: Do church leader L. Ron Hubbard's taxes.
A certified public accountant, Jackson also was entrusted to prepare returns for several of Scientology's top officers, including Hubbard's protege, David Miscavige.
As years passed, the church tightened its institutional embrace. Jackson helped pressure the IRS during Scientology's long battle for tax exempt status. He also worked briefly as a church lawyer.
He showed his deep personal devotion by ascending to Scientology's highest spiritual level, "Operating Thetan VIII" or "OT-8." Those Scientologists are, in the words of the church, "more stable, powerful and responsible."
Today, Jackson says he remains a devoted Scientologist. His religion, he says, can save mankind from self-destruction.
Yet church officials say Jackson is an untrustworthy menace and they are going after him hard. They are seeking to get him disbarred. They are attacking his reputation, warning he may have Alzheimer's and threatening legal repercussions against those who spread his message.
Why? Jackson took on the man who has controlled Scientology the past 29 years: Miscavige.
Like many critics, Jackson sees the church's leader as a dictator steering Scientology toward ruin. Allegations over the years that Miscavige mentally and physically abused church staffers continue to yield public scorn, even though repeatedly denied by the church. While other detractors have tried to pressure Miscavige in civil court and on the Internet, Jackson is pursuing a novel, perhaps quixotic strategy: He believes Miscavige can be toppled by insiders.
After studying corporate bylaws the church presented to the IRS to gain tax exempt status and hiring three non-Scientology lawyers who specialize in matters regarding religious organizations, he argues Scientology's nearly three dozen trustees, directors and officers have the power — whether they know it or not — to exercise oversight over the lucrative corporate enterprise.
They have a legal right and responsibility to investigate, or even remove, Miscavige, Jackson says.
But can they do their job? Or is Miscavige running everything, as defectors have alleged?
"Fights over control of the board, failing to follow bylaws, all this is proper subject matter for a California court," said Mark Cohen of Fremont, Calif., one of Jackson's lawyers.
The church insists its house is in order.
"The IRS was satisfied (in 1993) that all church organizations adhere to their corporate integrity in accordance with their bylaws, and nothing has changed since then, either in the way Scientology churches operate or the articles and bylaws under which they operate," said spokeswoman Karin Pouw.
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Miscavige, who did not respond to a Times interview request, enjoys wall-to-wall support among the membership, Pouw added. "Scientologists hold him in the highest esteem," she said.
Pouw and church lawyers portray Jackson as woefully uninformed about church corporate matters. Pouw also called him "delusional." Nonetheless, Scientology leaders are deeply concerned about Jackson's campaign going public.
In a church renowned for rules and controls, a prominent parishioner has opened another front of rebellion.
Growing up in Chicago, Jim Jackson was afraid of people. He seldom spoke.
At the University of Illinois, he said almost nothing in class or in his dorm. He wanted to date, but didn't. He got a degree in accounting because he thought he could earn a living dealing with numbers rather than people.
"I know my life is going to suck," he would say to junior-year roommate Bruce Grossman.
At 22, he went to graduate school. He had a draft deferment (arthritis) and $4,000 saved from summer jobs. It was 1968, and Jackson was on a cutting edge campus, the University of California at Berkeley.
What more could a guy ask for?
This: "Wanted — Human Interaction." Jackson thumbtacked that note in the student center. He listed his phone number. He was miserable. Again.
When no one responded, he joined an eight-member discussion group sponsored by the YMCA. A guy in the group told Jackson that Scientology could help him.
Jackson took a course called "Personal Efficiency" at the small Scientology mission in Berkeley. He liked it. He then paid $800 for initial "auditing" sessions. Auditing is Scientology's core spiritual practice. It helps Scientologists "rid themselves of any spiritual disabilities" and become better able "to confront and handle the factors in life," the church says.
Jackson's first auditor, a woman he guessed was about 30, began by asking, "What are you willing to talk to me about?"
"Bringing a woman to orgasm," Jackson said, purposely being provocative. He wanted to test Scientology right away.
Tell me about that, she said calmly.
In later sessions, Jackson talked about being a loner, skinny, afraid of people. During a lunch break one day at a Shakey's Pizza, two girls sat near him. Jackson always had felt threatened by girls. This time he didn't.
Huh, he thought. Something's happening to me.
"I wasn't Mr. Charisma," he said. "But I was way closer to it than ever before. And that was a miracle."
Jackson quit grad school. He found a job as an accountant and went to the mission every week night.
His first full year in Scientology — 1969 — he spent $1,620 on auditing and training. Outraged that the IRS had revoked the church's tax exempt status two years earlier, Jackson took a charitable deduction anyway. He wrote off the maximum percentage allowed – $708.55. The IRS didn't catch it.
In three years, Jackson completed all the programs available at Berkeley's mission and at a Scientology facility in San Francisco. So he moved to Los Angeles, got an accounting job and became a regular at the more advanced church in Hollywood.
The following year, he used his first vacation to fly to Portugal and spend two weeks helping six other Scientologists reconcile church bank records while aboard Scientology's yacht, the Apollo. One night, while on break, the group met Hubbard on deck. Hubbard had lived aboard the Apollo for years, distancing himself from government investigators snooping into church practices.
Jackson stood "transfixed," he said, as Hubbard made a light comment about balancing books. Moments later, Jackson's co-workers excused themselves and went to the galley. He didn't budge until Hubbard said, in a soft voice, "Goodbye."
In 1974, Jackson went to work for longtime Scientologist and CPA Lyman Spurlock, who had a tax practice in L.A. The two schemed, Jackson said, to find ways to deduct their clients' Scientology payments. A favorite ruse was used for business owners. Jackson would list amounts spent on church services as business deductions, even though that wasn't allowed.
In 1977, Jackson partnered with Scientologist Martin Greenberg to form the accounting firm Greenberg & Jackson in L.A. He continued urging clients to take deductions for money spent on Scientology. When the IRS rejected the deductions, Jackson helped his clients sue the agency. The former loner had become a successful business executive — and a player for the church.
In 1980, he married a medical student he had recruited into Scientology. They had a son, but Jackson had an affair with a secretary, he said, and the marriage fell apart.
At the time, church officials were considering him a candidate to take over as Hubbard's tax preparer. After a thorough vetting, they gave him the job. He also started preparing tax returns for several top church officers, among them Miscavige, a hard-charging young member of Scientology's Sea Org, who had become one of Hubbard's favorites.
Citing client confidentiality, Jackson refuses to discuss specifics of Hubbard's or Miscavige's finances.
The IRS's problem with Scientology was this: It considered the movement a commercial enterprise that was making Hubbard rich. By the early 1980s, the church and the agency had wrangled for 15 years, but Scientology was no closer to regaining a tax exemption.
It also was reeling from a major criminal case. In 1977, the FBI had raided church headquarters and seized mounds of records stolen from government offices. Eleven Scientologists, including Hubbard's wife, Mary Sue Hubbard, were convicted of conspiring to steal government records and cover it up.
Scientology needed a reset. In 1982, it rolled out a massive reorganization.
Miscavige, just 22, was entrusted by Hubbard to design and implement the new corporate structure, church attorney Monique Yingling of Washington recently told the Times. The goal was two-fold, she said: prevent rogue activity from recurring and provide a framework to govern operations after Hubbard was gone. Scientology became a collective of corporations, topped by three managing entities.
This is the structure Jackson is focused on as he searches for a way to oust Miscavige.
Hubbard, who died in 1986, left no explicit succession plan. Nonethless, he "designated" Miscavige to be the church's "senior leader," Yingling said.
But Jackson and other critics contend Miscavige muscled his way to the top. Ex-insiders have said he established himself as chairman of the board of one of the newly created corporations, the Religious Technology Center. It assures Scientology practices are presented properly at various churches.
The church refers to Miscavige, 55, as its ecclesiastical leader. Jackson questions whether there is such a thing. He said there is no reference to "ecclesiastical leader" in Hubbard's writings. He cites a central Scientology tenet: "If it isn't written, it isn't true."
"The notion of a self-appointed leader in control of every aspect of Scientology operations, unrestrained by any checks and balances, couldn't be more foreign to Hubbard's writings," Jackson said.
Supporting that is former longtime church spokesman Mike Rinder, a member of Miscavige's inner circle until he defected in 2007.
"The whole structure was carefully worked out so that no one could take over Scientology and do with it as they saw fit," Rinder said.
Under Miscavige, Scientology's culture grew "frigid," Jackson said. Interrogations called "security checks" became commonplace. Members were directed to snitch on one another in written "Knowledge Reports," turning in anyone — even spouses — not abiding the church's many mandates.
Jackson wasn't sure what to make of it. But he didn't back off his quest to complete the church's lengthy spiritual progression. In 1990, he reached his goal. He became the 960th Scientologist to attain the church's highest spiritual rank, "Operating Thetan VIII."
He also delivered on another front. Greenberg & Jackson had generated nearly 1,200 client lawsuits against the IRS. Coupled with 1,000 legal challenges filed by other Scientologists, the mountain of litigation strained agency resources. That factored into the IRS's landmark decision in 1993 to restore Scientology's tax exemption.
Wanting to help even more, Jackson took five years of night classes and became a lawyer in 1991. He joined the church's L.A.-based in-house firm, Bowles and Moxon. After 14 months, the firm fired him. A nondisclosure agreement prohibits Jackson from discussing what happened.
As years passed, the church directed Jackson and many of his friends to submit to frequent security checks. Jackson considered his interrogations excessive. In guarded conversations, he and other longtime Scientologists wondered: What's happening to our church? Why is management so different?
"The cat's out of the bag," a friend said to Jackson in a Saturday afternoon phone call in late June 2009. "Look at the St. Pete Times' website."
Rinder and former No. 2 church officer Marty Rathbun and two other former church executives were alleging Miscavige had physically assaulted staffers for years.
Despite the seriousness of the accusations, Jackson said the news was "a huge relief." He saw an answer to what had been puzzling him and his friends.
"As the old adage goes, stuff rolls down hill,'' he said. "If a guy running an organization is wacko enough to beat people on a continuous basis, that explains what happens to the entire culture.'' (The church has said repeatedly over the past six years Miscavige never assaulted anyone.)
Jackson began "a frenzy of talks," he said, with other senior Scientologists. The consensus, Jackson said: Miscavige needed to be investigated.
Jackson and two longtime parishioners — one an experienced lawyer whom he won't identify, the other his longtime friend Merrell Vannier — collaborated on a six-page letter. They boldly urged the church to bring in a credentialed investigator to conduct an independent assessment of the abuse allegations.
They called for Miscavige to step aside during the inquiry, as executives at other corporations do when facing allegations of wrongdoing. They also criticized the church for "attacking the whistleblowers" by calling them "liars and apostates."
The letter, dated Feb. 3, 2010, was sent to Yingling, a non-Scientologist and the church's chief counsel. Jackson was the only one to sign it. "I knew I was crossing the line," he said.
The same day, he hand-delivered a $1,000 donation to the church. He also bought an ink pen with a hidden camera in case anyone from his church came after him.
No one responded to his letter. Jackson sent a second one on March 10, 2010. It was addressed to three L.A. lawyers who are not Scientologists — Lawrence E. Heller, Sherman D. Lenske and Stephen A. Lenske.
Jackson and his collaborators discovered in public records that the three had been named "special directors" of a Scientology corporation called the Church of Spiritual Technology, to which Hubbard bequeathed the bulk of his wealth. It preserves Hubbard's Scientology teachings in underground vaults, such as the one near Trementine, N.M., where crews burrowed into the side of a mountain. Hubbard's extensive Scientology writings, along with his fiction, were valued at $25 million after his death and likely are worth far more now.
CST's bylaws, drafted in the early '80s by Sherman Lenske, directed the special directors to assure the corporation attain tax exempt status and maintain it. Jackson said his team thought that fiduciary duty might prompt the three lawyers to see that the allegations against Miscavige warranted investigation. Like his first letter, this one included strong language:
• "In my 41 years as a Scientologist I have seen nothing like the level of animosity in the general public toward the church."
• "Is it true the Watch Dog Committee (an oversight body) and upper echelon of RTC have been reduced to rubble, leaving only one person, Mr. Miscavige, in complete control with no checks and balances, no independent corporate boards, no oversight whatsoever? This needs to be investigated and fixed, if true."
Jackson sent a copy to Miscavige.
A month later, he wrote the church again. Jackson wanted to contact corporate officers directly. In addition to RTC and CST, he asked for names of board members of the third key corporation — the Church of Scientology International, the "mother church" which oversees ecclesiastical affairs at individual Scientology churches.
Jackson got no names — just more mystery. Heller and Stephen Lenske replied, saying they no longer represented the church.
In May 2010, Jackson hired Texas lawyer Frank Sommerville, a nationally recognized expert in nonprofit and church law. Jackson asked: How do we force these boards to carry out their duties to govern and exercise oversight?
Unlike many church critics, Jackson has no interest in asking the IRS to go after the church's tax exemption. "I spent half my life suing the IRS on behalf of Scientologists," he said. "The last thing I want to see is the exempt status of my church revoked. That's tantamount to a death penalty."
Sommerville told the Times it's more realistic to envision board members of a religious organization, rather than outsiders, pressing for a change in leadership. But Jackson needed names and the church was not cooperating. One of its attorneys, Elliott Abelson, wrote him saying: "Your demands for documents, records and other information are declined."
Jackson kept renewing his call for an investigation. He sent eight letters in 2010.
On New Year's Day 2011, an Internet site, "savescientology.com," debuted. It published option agreements held by the Church of Spiritual Technology that allow it to buy back Scientology's trademarks from the Religious Technology Center, the corporation Miscavige heads. Exercising those options could put the corporation Miscavige heads "out of business," the site said.
Savescientology.com was the handiwork of one of Jackson's collaborators, Vannier. He is a former lawyer and a former Scientology spy. Vannier, 67, who lives in L.A., was disbarred in Florida in the 1980s after working covertly for the church in Clearwater in the 1970s. He declined to be interviewed for this story, but revealed in March in a memoir, Arrows in the Dark, he had collaborated with Jackson. He also detailed his years of work in Scientology's former intelligence unit, the notorious Guardian's Office.
Pouw said Vannier, who was expelled from Scientology in 2012, has a "vendetta against the church" and has used Jackson as a "sock puppet."
As negative publicity continued to surround Scientology in 2012 and 2013, Jackson sent the church two more letters. He warned it had developed an image of a corrupt organization and was experiencing an "exodus" of members.
He received no further response — not until he decided to speak out about his challenge.
Yingling told the Times she reviewed each letter and advised the church they were "entirely without merit." Scientology's corporate integrity was "one of a number of significant legal issues the IRS carefully investigated,'' she said. If the agency had concerns, it would not have granted tax exempt status, she said.
"I can personally affirm that corporate integrity has not weakened in any respect,'' she said.
She also disclosed she is a special director of CST, but didn't specify when she assumed that post.
Sherman Lenske confirmed he, too, still is a CST special director. In a recent letter, he contended, "There is nothing in CST's bylaws requiring, or indeed, even authorizing, the special directors to oversee or investigate anything."
But Jackson said CST's directors, like the board members and officers at all church corporations registered in California, must follow that state's Corporations Code. It states: "The director … must act in good faith and conduct reasonable inquiry when the situation indicates a need."
"How can he (Lenske) perform these duties without investigating?" Jackson asked.
In May 2014, Jackson's tax clients began firing him. They were "disconnecting." The church mandates members shun those the church declares "suppressive'' by cutting off all contact.
Jackson says more than 150 of the 200 clients he had at the beginning of 2014 have dropped him. His gross income has fallen from $246,877 in 2013 to $93,964 so far this year. At 69, he is trying to rebuild his tax practice, in L.A. and in Clearwater, where Jackson owns a home near Scientology's spiritual headquarters.
Pouw told the Times Jackson's expulsion had nothing to do with his challenging Miscavige. He was booted because he participated in "unauthorized, nonstandard, heterodox" Scientology practices. Jackson said he's not sure what she is referring to.
But he doesn't hide the fact he has received nonsanctioned Scientology auditing the past five years from auditors who were trained by the church but now work as freelancers. They charge a fraction of what the church does for sessions that, Jackson said, are what Hubbard intended rather than what Miscavige's church now offers.
The counseling sessions helped him decide to speak publicly, Jackson said, and to release his letters. They are published for the first time on the Times' website, tampabay.com. Click here to read his letters.
What to make of Jackson?
Deeply devoted, he is well-known among parishioners — "legendary," Rinder says — because of his tax accounting work. For four decades, he made the church the centerpiece of his life and then risked it all, and his business, to challenge a man who, by all accounts, is in complete control.
He did it, he said, to fulfill his duty as a Scientologist — to safeguard Hubbard's "tech." It saved him from despair as a young adult. Jackson wants it available to help others.
Now, he hopes his message reaches key people inside who, he asserts, have the power to put the church on a new course.
Those men and women — apart from the three special directors — are Sea Org loyalists, subordinate to Miscavige and likely hand-picked by him. Jackson, who never served in the Sea Org, "doesn't understand the pressures," said Rinder, who was a member for 34 years.
Sea Org workers toil in a closed environment. Physical and psychological coercions mold compliance.
"To get out of the mindset, the only way is to get out of the environment," Rinder said. "And once you're out of the environment, you no longer are in position to do anything."
Yet Jackson persists — and the church tries to stop him.
It and its lawyers have taken extensive steps to try to heap doubt on him and block his message. They threatened him with legal action. The church also filed a California Bar complaint, contending Jackson breached client confidences from when he was a church attorney.
Church operatives have followed and photographed Times reporters and editors. A church-hired freelance journalist followed a Times reporting team as it traveled from Tampa Bay to Denver to L.A., to interview Jackson. Private investigators tailed reporters to a rental car outlet, to a hotel and then on the streets of L.A. for three days as Jackson was interviewed.
Church officers and lawyers sent the Times several letters, many attempting to discredit Jackson and questioning his mental health. ( Click here to read the church's letters. ) Pouw started by saying Jackson may have memory loss or the onset of Alzheimer's. (Jackson had just had a physical. He provided the Times the results of an MRI that revealed no problems and a report from a neurologist who had given him a memory test. Jackson had a perfect score.)
Pouw then said Jackson was telling people he was communicating with the dead, including Hubbard. That indicates he is "delusional" and "certifiably insane," she said.
Jackson laughed. He said he never communicated with the dead or told anyone that he did.
He stares into the camera.
"We Scientologists can fix this," he says in a Times video interview in his attorney's office. "My solution is simple."
He names the Religious Technology Center, where Miscavige is chairman of the board. Speaking as though he's talking directly to its three trustees, even though he doesn't know who they are, he says: "Two trustees of RTC can convene a board meeting to remove David Miscavige as a director.
"You should know: It only takes two of you."
He names the California lawyers he has hired: Lisa Runquist and Mark Cohen.
"If any trustees or directors are hearing my message, I can connect you with attorneys such as these," Jackson says.
He closes: "I'd like to remind you: Your duty is to the church, not David Miscavige . … Remember, Ron told us a thetan has the potential to correct anything anywhere."
Contact Joe Childs at firstname.lastname@example.org.