1. News

Former Scientologists tell federal judge: Church thwarted process to get money back

Luis Garcia and his wife Rocio are pictured in their California home in 2011. On April 13, 2016, the couple filed a motion in their federal lawsuit in Tampa that alleges the Church of Scientology has put up roadblocks to an arbitration that could result in them getting their money back. [MAURICE RIVENBARK | Times]
Published Apr. 14, 2016

TAMPA — In an attempt to resolve their $1.3 million lawsuit against the Church of Scientology, a federal judge last year required Luis and Rocio Garcia to submit to "binding religious arbitration" set up by church officials.

That is easier said than done, the couple says in a new motion that accuses Scientology of obstructing a process already tilted heavily in the church's favor.

It puts the Garcias' claim entirely in the hands of practicing Scientologists, who frown heavily on defectors. It also requires them to find a practicing Scientologist to represent them on the arbitration panel, yet bars them from ever talking to such a person.

The couple argues that the church, by throwing up barriers, has effectively waived the right to have the matter arbitrated, and asks U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore to restart their lawsuit, which alleges fraud on Scientology's part.

"My client has been rather frustrated," said the couple's lawyer, Ted Babbitt of West Palm Beach, referring to Luis Garcia. "He's tried his hardest to comply with the court's order and the church seems to want to put roadblocks in the way of even attempting to arbitrate this matter."

The Garcias, who live in California, are seeking the return of $1.3 million in donations they made to various Scientology causes during their 28 years in the church — most notably a sum of more than $420,000 that went to the church's massive "Flag Building" in downtown Clearwater.

The couple alleges that church workers deceived and pressured them into making the donations. But their case has been made more difficult by the fact that they signed some 40 documents agreeing to go through Scientology's arbitration process if they ever had a dispute over the money.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Couple's lawsuit accuses Church of Scientology of fraud, deception

RELATED: Inside Scientology

Under that process, the church selects one arbitrator, the Garcias select another one, and those two arbitrators select a third person. All three arbitrators must be Scientologists in good standing.

But the Garcias say that finding a Scientologist in good standing to represent them on the panel has been every bit the challenge they predicted it would be when they urged Whittemore last year not to make them go through church arbitration.

The couple, who left Scientology in 2010, are up against a culture and a controversial doctrine that strongly discourages dissent and brands doubters and trouble-makers as "suppressive persons" or "SPs." It also demands that practicing Scientologists "disconnect" from SPs by severing all contact — even if they are family members.

Judges have consistently found these practices, along with the church's arbitration process, to be religious in nature and thus constitutionally protected. Early last year, when the Garcias' lawyers explained how Scientology's teachings tilted arbitration cases in the church's favor, Whittemore said the First Amendment prevented him from delving into that topic lest he start interpreting religious matters.

On March 13, 2015, he ordered them to undergo the church arbitration.

The Garcias' struggles with the process are outlined in more than 120 pages of emails and other exhibits filed with the motion late Wednesday.

At one point, after the couple emailed 20 practicing Scientologists directly, 17 did not respond, one wrote back with a derogatory message and two reported the contact to church International Justice Chief Mike Ellis.

Ellis told the Garcias it was improper for them to contact practicing members, and the only way they could approach them would be through him. He offered to send the Garcias a list of Scientologists he deemed qualified.

Not wanting an arbitrator preselected by the church, the couple asked for a list of all Scientologists in good standing. The church refused to provide one, saying it would violate members' privacy, was against policy and was an unreasonable request.

Left to guess who was in good standing and who was not, the Garcias tried submitting 45 names of people they knew, but almost all were vetoed by Ellis as not being in good standing. A handful were unavailable to serve.

In early October, after the Garcias sent Ellis a list of 35 names of possible arbitrators, he emailed them back, saying it was the Garcias who were abusing the process.

"I can already see that, once again, you are being disingenuous by proposing individuals who you know are not in good standing with the Mother Church," Ellis wrote. He singled out one member who was active on an anti-Scientology website and another who participated in a "squirrel group," a church term for those who engage in Scientology practices without church approval.

The Garcias wrote back, saying it was difficult from outside the church to tell who was in good standing. "We really have no way of knowing who posted what and where (on the Internet)," they told Ellis. "Unlike you, we do not monitor the dozens if not hundreds of anti-Scientology websites and blogs that exist."

The 35 names came from a church-owned website that tells visitors they can "Meet over 16,000 Scientologists on-line."

"If they're not in good standing, how do we know who is?" asked Babbitt, the Garcias' lawyer.

Clearwater lawyer F. Wallace Pope Jr., one of the church's lead attorneys on the case, said he was reviewing the Garcias' motion and planned to file a response. He declined to comment further.

The Garcias were among dozens of Scientology parishioners featured in a 2011 Tampa Bay Times investigative series, "The Money Machine," which reported that church workers drove up contributions using tactics described as intrusive, heavy handed, coercive and relentless.

The couple made their fortune as owners of a commercial printing operation in Irvine that had annual revenues topping $14 million. They joined the church in 1982 after Luis acted on the advice of a stranger and read Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. They said they left after growing weary of the money demands and convinced that Scientology's spiritual practices had been "corrupted.''

The church has called the lawsuit frivolous and many of its claims "blatantly false."

Contact Thomas C. Tobin at Follow @ThomasCTobin.


  1. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos listens to a speaker share an opinion about a city matter during a city council meeting at Clearwater City Hall in Clearwater, Fla. on Thursday, April 20, 2017.  On Thursday, the Clearwater City Council rejected the mayor's resolution urging lawmakers to ban assault weapons.  [Times files] TIMES FILES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    However, the city did pass a resolution calling for more modest gun control measures.
  2. An American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft approaches Miami International Airport for landing in March. Bloomberg
    The 60-year-old veteran airline employee told investigators he was upset that union contract negotiations had stalled.
  3. Maurice A. Ferré at his Miami home earlier this year. JOSE A. IGLESIAS  |  Miami Herald
    He served as mayor for 12 years and set the stage for Miami to become an international city.
  4. Lilly Beth Rodriguez, left, Laura Robertson and Linda Lamont work on a Habitat for Humanity house in north Pasco. [Times (2013)]
    The increase is expected to happen in the first half of next year. CEO hopes other nonprofits follow suit.
  5. Terry Spencer carries his daughter, Trinity, through high water on 59th Street near Stewart Road in Galveston, Texas, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, as heavy rain from Tropical Depression Imelda caused street flooding on the island. JENNIFER REYNOLDS  |  AP
    Although the amount of predicted rainfall is massive — forecasters say some places could see 40 inches or more this week.
  6. This April 2001 photo, which appeared in a newsletter from the West Point Grey Academy, shows a costumed Justin Trudeau, his face and hands darkened by makeup, attending an "Arabian Nights" gala. The academy is a private school in Vancouver, B.C., where Trudeau worked as a teacher before entering politics. (West Point Grey Academy/The Canadian Press via AP)
    A few Southern politicians responded to similar scandals recently with denials, apologies, and promises. Most of them have managed to stay in office.
  7. The number of single-family homes sold in the Tampa Bay area during August rose 2.8 percent when compared with the same month last year, according to a monthly report from Florida Realtors. (Times file photo)
    The midpoint price in the bay area rose to $250,000, which is still lower than the state and national median prices.
  8. This April 14, 2019 file photo shows a western meadowlark in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colo. According to a study released on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, North America’s skies are lonelier and quieter as nearly 3 billion fewer wild birds soar in the air than in 1970. Some of the most common and recognizable birds are taking the biggest hits, even though they are not near disappearing yet. The population of eastern meadowlarks has shriveled by more than three-quarters with the western meadowlark nearly as hard hit. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) DAVID ZALUBOWSKI  |  AP
    “People need to pay attention to the birds around them because they are slowly disappearing,” said the study’s lead author.
  9. Michael Robert-Jose Harbaugh has pleaded guilty in the 2017 slaying of Safety Harbor neighbor David Sommer, a former reporter. Harbaugh also pleaded guilty to a charge he tried to have a witness in the case killed. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
    Former journalist David Sommer was killed in 2017. Michael Harbaugh, 42, agreed to serve 30 years in prison for his crimes.
  10. Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, during a Feb. 7, 2019, meeting of the House PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee. [The Florida Channel]
    ‘One test should not determine the rest of your life,’ Rep. Susan Valdes says.