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Former Scientology insiders describe a world of closers, prospects, crushing quotas and coercion

Hy Levy rang up millions in his 16 years as a Scientology “registrar” in Clearwater. “What it’s become now is so bad I couldn’t keep silent anymore.”
Hy Levy rang up millions in his 16 years as a Scientology “registrar” in Clearwater. “What it’s become now is so bad I couldn’t keep silent anymore.”
Published Dec. 27, 2016

Hy Levy lived in terror of what would happen if he didn't make his number, a weekly sales target of $200,000. The money was due every Thursday by 2 p.m.

No excuses.

Often when he failed, his bosses exiled him to the kitchen to scrub pots. Sometimes they made him eat only beans and rice for a week. They publicly humiliated him, calling him a loser, a saboteur. They got in his face, screaming, swearing. You soulless bastard!

He said they used profanity a lot where he worked: the Church of Scientology.

• • •

For 16 years Levy was a "registrar" selling Scientology counseling and training services at the church's worldwide spiritual headquarters in Clearwater. He toiled morning to night, part of a team driven by fear and religious conviction to bring the church millions of dollars each week by "closing" people — church terminology.

His second Thursday on the job set the tone for the years ahead. German Scientologist Ulrich Katzschmann was backing off his agreement to buy an expensive counseling regimen. Levy had to change his mind, fast.

Levy and fellow registrar Dave Foster tracked down Ulrich's wife, Wilma, who was in Clearwater for her own Scientology counseling.

Please call Ulrich, they pleaded. He really needs this. Wilma dialed Germany from Foster's office.

It was 1:45 p.m., 15 minutes till deadline. Capt. Debbie Cook, a top church officer in Clearwater, glared at them through the panes of a French door. Another top executive, Mark Ingber, pressed Levy: "Are you going to handle this?"

The clock ticked.

Wilma got Ulrich to relent. Still on the phone, she filled out a check for $45,000 but didn't sign it. Levy's heart thumped.

It was 1:59 p.m. Wilma and her husband kept chatting.

Levy interrupted with a desperate whisper: "Sign the check!"

She did, just as the clock struck 2.

Time to start on next week's quota.

• • •

Today's Church of Scientology is an insatiable machine that aggressively separates parishioners from their money, according to dozens of former church insiders speaking out for the first time.

Scientology rings up astonishing sums: $100 million a year just from services sold in Clearwater, a minimum of $250 million since 2006 for the International Association of Scientologists, tens of millions for new church buildings called Ideal Orgs, and untold millions more from selling new volumes of church scripture.

Then there's the massive and long-delayed Super Power building in downtown Clearwater, which the church has used as a magnet for at least $145 million in donations.

A St. Petersburg Times investigation found:

• Scientology gets its money through intrusive, heavy-handed and often coercive tactics. Church fundraisers routinely show up, unannounced and uninvited, at parishioners' homes, then stay for hours, pushing for donations. A phalanx of religious workers blocked two young women who tried to slip out of a fundraising event aboard the church's cruise ship.

A teenage fundraiser, desperate to meet a deadline, surprised a Scientologist she'd just met by hitting him up for $35,000 on the ride from the airport to Clearwater.

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• Scientology staffers debited thousands of dollars from parishioners' internal church accounts without their knowledge or permission, charging them for books and CDs they hadn't ordered. Some former members called it out-and-out theft.

Church officials acknowledged "isolated instances" of unauthorized debits and said they disciplined those responsible and restored money to the parishioners' accounts. Former members say the unauthorized debits happened often.

• Supervisors at the Clearwater church used hidden microphones to listen in on conversations between Scientology salespeople and parishioners. A church spokeswoman said parishioners knew about the microphones, but a former insider said they didn't.

• Church workers push parishioners to exhaust every financial resource to purchase Scientology services and make donations. Got a credit card? Max it out. Have a mortgage? Take out a second one. The 401(k)? Drain it. The savings account, the inheritance — the church wants it all.

A Minneapolis woman, newly married and just getting by financially, put $10,000 on her credit card to get a church fundraiser off her back. The fundraiser convinced her not to tell her husband.

• Many parishioners end up in serious debt. Some go bankrupt. But they are told not to worry because Scientology is priceless and will help them for eternity.

Scientology officials deny that the church coerces members, saying it is proud and fortunate to have generous parishioners.

"There is nothing evil about contributing to one's church," spokeswoman Karin Pouw said. "Nor is it evil for one's church to raise funds to erect churches, build cathedrals, succor those in times of need, provide education, drug rehabilitation and generally improve the moral fabric in society."

Exactly how much the church takes in is unknown. Because it's a tax- exempt church, Scientology is not required to disclose its revenues. While many religious groups voluntarily post annual financial statements, Scientology does not.

The former insiders speaking to the Times provide the most complete picture yet of how the church brings in money and how quickly the dollars add up.

They say overly aggressive fundraising tactics, playing out against a grinding recession, have driven away many members. The church denies that, boasting of growth worldwide. Church spokesman Tommy Davis said in 2009 there were 4 million to 5 million Scientologists in the United States alone.

But a survey led by researchers from Trinity College in Connecticut counted only 25,000 U.S. Scientologists in 2008, compared with 55,000 in 2001.

Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard had no compunction about discussing religion and money in the same breath. The church needed revenue to grow.

"Make money," he told his finance staff in a 1972 policy letter, and "make other people produce so as to make money." He praised the "magical" staffers who were good at it: "They just plow right ahead and SELL and CLOSE and take the money in full."

Hubbard's successor, David Miscavige, has embraced that creed. Ten years ago he used the Sept. 11 attacks to lay out his vision for an expanded church that would save the world from self-destruction. He said the plan would require parishioners' "unprecedented help." Meaning their money.

Hy Levy's job was to get it from them. His 16 years as a registrar gave him deep knowledge of the inner workings of the Clearwater church, known as "Flag."

Now he reveals, for the first time, the scope and character of Flag's money-raising operations.

He tells how he and other religious workers behaved like secular salespeople — using "tags" and double teams to "close" people, and referring to parishioners as "prospects."

He recalls how church "ethics" officers strong-armed their faithful, suggesting that donating would get them out of trouble. Refusing to give could halt their spiritual progress.

Levy says chasing dollars became more important than helping people.

"Most of Levy's descriptions of the activities of church fundraisers are false and his figures are clearly embellished," church spokeswoman Pouw said.

Asked about the church's quotas, Pouw referred to them as "fundraising targets" and said other nonprofits use them, too. She said the church's system of monitoring staffers through statistics is useful and effective.

Levy, 59, said he loved the work and still believes in Scientology tenets. But he left in 2009, unwilling to abide the ever-expanding sales campaigns that forced workers into frenzied competition and choked parishioners with money demands.

"By the end, I didn't want anyone to know I had anything to do with it," said the former registrar, who moved to New Jersey and now designs websites.

"It turned my stomach," Levy said. "There was an atmosphere that was nuts, insane."

Levy woke around 6:30 every morning at Hacienda Gardens, the bare-bones apartment complex in central Clearwater that is home to hundreds of Scientology workers. As a member of the church's religious order, the Sea Org, he earned the customary $50 weekly allowance. He shared a room with his wife, Lyne, who worked as his receptionist, for the 12 years they were together.

He boarded a Scientology bus for the seven-minute ride to the Sandcastle building on the downtown waterfront. His ground-floor office opened to a patio next to a brook where he sometimes took parishioners to talk.

In Scientology parlance, Levy was a "reg." (It rhymes with "hedge.") Many of his sales prospects were wealthy foreigners who'd come to Clearwater for a spiritual vacation. Their goal was to become an "Operating Thetan," purged of troubling memories from this and previous lifetimes, no longer dependent on the body, able to be their "true selves."

Levy's weekly quota, set by the church, started at $200,000 but fluctuated through the years, reaching $350,000.

He said he "reged" eight to 10 people a day in person and many others by phone. He asked them what issues they wanted to "handle" through counseling — illness, marital troubles, problems at work. Then he sold them 12½-hour packages called "intensives." The cost: $7,800 apiece, less if purchased in multiples.

Parishioners' bills ballooned because advancing in Scientology requires lots of counseling, which the church calls "auditing." After seeing Levy or one of the four other Flag reges, parishioners routinely bought multiple intensives, paying $15,000, $30,000, $60,000 and more. Always up front.

The reges, ever mindful of their quotas, often sold special deals to drive up revenue, Levy said. When parishioners didn't have the ready means to pay, the reges started probing.

Levy described a typical conversation.

"You got a guy in front of you. And he says, 'I don't have any money.'

"You say: 'How do you know?'

" 'My cards are maxed out.'

" 'Well, let's check them.' "

He would ask the parishioner to dig out his cards. He would jot down the guy's birth date, Social Security number, mother's maiden name.

"I'd say, 'Tell you what. You go up, have a cup of coffee.' " Then Levy would start dialing credit card companies, using their automated systems to find out how much available credit the person had.

"I make all the calls, and say, 'Okay, you have $35,000.' "

Sometimes he would call even before parishioners arrived at Flag, having saved credit card numbers and personal information from their last visit.

"Did I ever do it without their approval? Well, let's put this way: I never charged a card without anybody's approval. But I sure as hell lined up the money, figured out where it was, without their knowledge."

Knowing how much church members could borrow told him how far he could push them to buy. He said he convinced many of them to spend the most they could afford. The advantage of plastic was that the church could get the money right away, helping Levy meet that week's quota.

Levy and his fellow reges also searched for other sources of money. All assets — retirement accounts, inheritances, homes, cars — were fair game.

Second mortgages were a common option, but it took time to get the money. Borrowing from retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s, was simpler, with the funds generally getting to the parishioner in about 10 days.

Reges grew to know parishioners' finances the way sports fans know player stats.

"Maybe I've reged this guy for 10 years," Levy said. "I know him. I know his wife. I know his family. I know his kids. I know where he lives. I know all about him. I know the 401(k)s he pulls the money out of. I know the college fund. I know everything that I've needed to know to get him to pay me money over 10 years."

Pouw, the church spokeswoman, said that if Levy focused on dollar amounts, he violated church policy. His job was simply to enlighten parishioners about Scientology, she said, and he was reprimanded for going beyond that.

But Levy said his supervisors and other reges taught him the very sales techniques the church now says he wasn't supposed to use. "The finance office was always trying to create more clever and creative options to pay," he said. "I learned from the masters, and it was promoted. It was part of the job."

He knew about stock portfolios, too. The church's finance office worked out the legal aspects of taking stock as a direct donation during the bull market of the 1990s, Levy said.

He became an expert in how banks worked and how money moved.

One Thursday, as the 2 p.m. deadline loomed, he hammered phones all morning trying to herd money from a parishioner's bank in the Caymans to a Flag bank account. The money had to go through three banks on the way, a process that could have taken days. Levy got it done by 2 p.m.

"I could tell you stories like that till the cows come home,'' he said. "They aged me."

Another Thursday, he was working with a parishioner who wanted to use an inheritance to pay for counseling. When Levy learned that the inheritance check hadn't been mailed in time to make his deadline, he called the issuer. He asked her to cancel the check and wire the money.

"I say, 'Can you do it right now?'

"She says, 'Well, if you insist.'

"I had the money in 10 minutes."

He had the same knack with parishioners. One Scientologist needed to finish a counseling regimen but said he was tapped out. The veteran reg pressed him.

What about reserves?

I don't have any reserves.

What about secret reserves?

Nope. Spent that, too.

What about the one that not even your mother knows about? Levy asked, bluffing.

The man went home and returned with $7,000 cash in a paper sack, Levy said.

"So you begin to realize everybody's got the money and everybody says they don't."

Levy had no qualms about talking people out of their money because he believed Scientology would change their lives.

"Realize money is just a means to achieving something the person wants," he said.

"The benefits that we're giving in Scientology are priceless … If the guy really feels he's going to get (a problem) handled and you really just get him to look at that — how much it's going to mean to him and his life, and how different his life will be — he stops worrying about the money."

Hyman Victor Levy grew up in San Francisco and moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., at 16. After high school he went to Brooklyn College for a couple of semesters, but college didn't take. He got interested in computers and taught himself enough to start a career.

He had been raised an Orthodox Jew but entered his 20s with no religious leanings. "To me, there were no answers outside the physical universe," he said.

Then one day at work in 1974 he injured his hand and a co-worker performed a Scientology "contact assist," a procedure said to relieve pain from an accident by gently re-creating the incident.

The bleeding and throbbing stopped, Levy said. "It made me realize there is something more that I don't understand." The co-worker told him more about Scientology, and it transformed his thinking.

Over the next decade, he worked his way up Scientology's "Bridge to Total Freedom" on his way to Operating Thetan VII, one level shy of the pinnacle. He figures he spent $100,000 to $150,000 on counseling. Scientology services were cheaper then.

Levy said church counseling gave him more confidence and ability. Like many parishioners, he became interested in helping to spread Scientology.

In 1985, at 33, he left his career in computers and moved to Clearwater to join the Sea Org. He signed its billion-year pledge, symbolically committing to serve through several lifetimes.

Levy first worked as a director of processing, assessing parishioners and recommending counseling programs. When his bosses made him a registrar in 1993, he resisted at first because of the quotas and high pressure.

But he soon took to the work. Standing 5 feet 3, Levy has a salesman's natural gifts — wit, charm, a nimbleness with words and numbers. At times he laughs so hard it sounds as if he's gasping for air.

Some parishioners jokingly called him their rabbi.

"They'd come into my office crying because the things they want to handle are things that were the closest to their life," he said. "Their hopes, their dreams, their goals, very emotional areas. And of course I made sure I always had plenty of tissue."

Sometimes he needed them for himself. The pressure to produce was "beyond anything you can imagine."

Levy needed to bring in about $40,000 most days to keep his bosses at bay. He would offer selections from Scientology's counseling menu, programs with titles like the "Havingness Rundown" or the "False Purpose Rundown," which are said to address problem areas in people's lives. The seriousness of the problems determined how many intensives parishioners bought.

Church executives in Clearwater and California were watching closely: As the Flag registrars "closed" transactions with parishioners, their immediate supervisor, Kathy West, listened in through hidden microphones in the reges' offices.

West coached Levy during reg sessions. If she felt a deal slipping away, she would call his desk.

Sometimes he didn't pick up because he considered it rude to take phone calls with a prospect in his office.

West would call the receptionist, Levy's wife, and tell her to interrupt the interview and hand him a note:

Dir reg says you better get on the f---ing phone.

"So I'd pick up the call and Kathy would say stuff like, 'Listen. He's saying he doesn't have the money. He's lying to you. He's lying. I know exactly where it is. Don't let him bulls--- you."

Early on, the microphones were hidden on reges' desks, behind pencil holders and other items, Levy said. In later years, he said, they were wired into the phones, allowing bosses to listen in on calls and pick up conversations in the room.

Florida law prohibits secret monitoring of conversations when people have a "reasonable expectation" of privacy. All parties to the monitoring must give prior consent.

The church said the microphones are used to ensure that fundraising interviews are conducted according to its standards. It said the policy allowing the use of microphones is "publicly available" to all parishioners.

The policy is mentioned in the "green volumes," 12 Scientology books covering thousands of pages. Levy said that only a small number of parishioners would ever come across it.

When pressed about whether the written policy constituted prior consent, the church said it conspicuously posts signs telling parishioners they might be listened to. "Fundraising interviews are conducted in accordance with Florida law," the church said.

Levy said there were never any signs like that in the offices where he worked.

The church did not address whether parishioners were informed about the system when reges made phone solicitations.

Hubbard's writings in the green volumes suggest the microphones should be hidden. He wrote that churches should install "a mike that looks like a calendar or ornament on the Reg's desk and a listen-in switchboard system in the (director's) office so he can overhear any interview in progress."

An anxious West sometimes called the moment a sale closed. She told them she was marking it down as confirmed income.

The bosses checked on the registrars' revenue totals as often as every 10 minutes, coming down hard if they weren't on pace to break the previous week's mark.

The strict 2 p.m. Thursday deadline to report weekly statistics loomed like a dark cloud.

"My statistic was not the number of people that I helped," Levy said. "My statistic that I was measured on was number of dollars gotten in. Very simply: gross income."

Wednesdays, the day before deadline, brought a frenzied push for sales and, inevitably, a 16-hour workday. Levy said he rarely took the 30 minutes he was allowed for lunch, or the time Sea Org members got for daily study.

If the reges weren't talking to parishioners in person, they were calling them, hoping to make their quotas by selling counseling for future trips to Clearwater.

When it got too late to phone the Eastern and Central time zones, Levy called the West Coast, then Australia, then Europe, depending on the earth's rotation to lengthen his day. He often finished at 1, 2 or 3 a.m. Thursday.

Adding to the pressure: a requirement that parishioners make their payments immediately. No pledges.

"Money, cash, bankable funds by Thursday 2 p.m. — that's all that counted," Levy said. "Meaning the check was good, the credit card went through, the bank wire arrived."

Registrars who failed to secure cash or meet a quota could expect punishments.

The church might feed them only beans and rice.

They were sometimes made to sleep in "pigs' berthing" — shabby rooms with no air conditioning and a mattress on the floor.

At weekly sessions called "Flaps and Handlings," supervisors vilified them, making them confess their failings in front of hundreds of co-workers.

"You got to go up there and bare your soul to the crew," Levy said. "It's a degrading, horrible thing."

Often when Levy failed at work, West sent him to the galley at the Sandcastle Hotel. One minute he was working with banks and brokerage houses, the next he was elbow-deep in a sink of dirty pots, an apron covering his shirt and tie. To keep from slipping, he pulled on boots if he could find a pair.

Levy said he preferred those penalties to the ridicule he often got from West and other supervisors.

He described the things they screamed at him: "If you don't pull this off, I'm going to make your life a living hell!" … "Scumbag!" ... "Motherf----r!"

When he didn't make his number, they said he had an "evil purpose" to hurt Scientology. He was "CI" — short for "counterintentioned" — about the church's advancement.

"It would push me to tears," Levy said. "I was, I thought, a pretty decent, strong person. But it demolished me."

Church spokeswoman Pouw said no one was vilified or made to confess at "Flaps and Handlings." The meetings were held "to develop a team spirit of mutual cooperation and coordination."

She said Sea Org discipline is comparable to that in other religious orders, and that West was never abusive to Levy.

Pouw said Levy's tale is typical of apostates, who "rehearse an atrocity story" to explain why they were so deeply involved in an organization they now condemn.

One disastrous week when several sales fell through, Flag Capt. Debbie Cook ordered the reges to the Fort Harrison Hotel ballroom and told them they were criminals. She rarely lashed out, Levy said. But when she did, "she could yell with the best of them."

He also remembers a time when Cook rewarded the reges. One Christmas Eve in the mid 1990s, after sales topped $3 million for a week, she surprised the registrars, their staff and their spouses with a two-day trip to a local resort.

The party of about 30 Sea Org members — all accustomed to spartan living — rode there in limos. They ordered from room service, lounged around the grounds and ate a fancy dinner the next evening.

"It was the best time I ever had," said Levy, who wrote Cook to thank her. She told him they deserved it.

The Sea Org's system of rewards and penalties got results.

Levy alone logged weekly sales of $200,000 to $350,000 for the church. Abby Wavell, 55, a well-liked reg who worked just down the hall at the Sandcastle, sold similar amounts.

Other registrars worked a few blocks south, initially at the church's Fort Harrison Hotel and later at the Oak Cove, its high-rise atop the downtown bluff.

Levy remembers their sales numbers. Dave Foster, 75, a Dartmouth man who once worked alongside L. Ron Hubbard, sold $200,000 to $250,000 a week. Paul Miller, 56, a soft-spoken veteran, typically generated about $350,000 in sales.

Sonya Jacques, 67, sold to celebrities such as John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Tom Cruise. Considered the queen of the Clearwater reges, she consistently led the board with sales of $500,000 to $700,000 a week, Levy said.

With their assistants, these five registrars averaged more than $2 million a week, which does not include what the church takes in for accommodations, food and other donations.

The Flag reges' biggest week was $4 million in December 1997 as parishioners clamored to beat a pending price increase.

Levy said he sold $15 million in Scientology services that year, his best ever.

Sea Org members were entitled to a day off every two weeks if their statistics were up. But Levy rarely asked for "liberty," or "libs," figuring there was no way he could lose a day and still make his number.

Other than Christmas, he estimates he took fewer than five days off in 16 years as a registrar.

Scientology trains its reges in the sales methods of Les Dane, whose 1971 book, Big League Sales Closing Techniques, caught Hubbard's attention.

Dane conducted seminars for Scientology reges throughout the world and became Hubbard's friend.

His premise was that every prospective customer wears a "brick overcoat" and each brick represents a fear or concern that must be addressed before he buys. Remove those bricks and the customer's resistance falls away.

A key principle: Get the customer to buy now.

The reges offered limited-time offers and discounts for counseling hours bought in bulk. They created false urgency by telling parishioners that part of the money they spent for counseling would go for an important project, such as a renovation.

Levy remembers parishioners asking, why the rush?

"I couldn't say, 'Because my senior is yelling her head off at me and is about to demolish me if I don't get it now.' … I'd make something up as to why they had to do it right now." Often, that worked.

Other common tactics: Dane's "double-team," where two or more staffers converged on a parishioner, and the "tag," where one reg started the conversation and another swooped in to help close the sale.

In one scenario, a worker in charge of counseling stormed into the reg's office, faking a tirade.

Why haven't you sold this parishioner more hours? He needs them now! If you can't get it done, I'll find someone who will!

Parishioners felt so uncomfortable about the conflict they would buy the counseling hours.

"I used that one all the time," Levy said.

The conduct Levy describes is "contrary to and expressly prohibited by church policy," and his characterizations of Dane's techniques are "inaccurate," the church said.

If anything he says is true, it only shows his own misbehavior, the church said.

Levy said he sometimes overpromised on his production numbers. And he cost the church money by giving discounts to parishioners that he wasn't cleared to give — say, $2,000 off the cost of an intensive.

"I never said I was lily white," he said. "And I admit freely, I pissed off my seniors when I did that."

He twice was required to reimburse the church. In one instance, he paid $4,000 he had saved from his salary and small bonuses. In the other, supervisors said he had to repay $120,000 in unauthorized discounts, an impossible sum for a Sea Org member making $50 a week. But the debt was forgiven after Levy and his colleagues hit a major financial target.

The Church of Scientology said parishioners should buy counseling and make other donations "within their financial means."

"Fundraisers do not persuade or pressure parishioners to take on debt," spokeswoman Pouw said.

Some parishioners are so fervent that they "may be willing to make a sacrifice and stretch themselves financially" for the church, she said.

Levy estimated that 70 percent of the church members he dealt with borrowed heavily to pay for counseling. He has some regrets about that.

An unemployed engineer traveled from Los Angeles to Flag, hoping counseling would identify the mental barriers preventing him from getting a job.

His only resource: a $200,000 home equity line of credit with interest-only payments. Like many parishioners, he was there for help but hesitant about the expense.

Hubbard implored reges to help people overcome such fears for their own good. Levy explained that the parishioner's "reactive mind" — the source of his problems — was telling him not to get help.

He told the engineer that the money was secondary.

Let Scientology address your demons. That will help you get a job and pay the money back.

He recalls it was 2008 or 2009. He and the parishioner fell into a routine over the next two or three months, ringing up the man's credit line as he paid for counseling hours.

One day the charges didn't go through.

"Something's wrong with the card," Levy said.

"No, it means I'm out of money," the engineer said.

The two had blown through $200,000 in a matter of weeks, and the counseling had yet to solve the parishioner's problems. Now he had to pay it all back.

"I'm not proud of this one, and it kind of snuck up on me," Levy said. "I really thought the guy could handle it and then I realized: 'Who am I kidding?' "

In Levy's last few years at Flag, the church increasingly pushed him and other staffers to raise money in new ways: selling special releases of Hubbard's writing and lectures, soliciting donations to the International Association of Scientologists, and, finally, pushing a collection of Hubbard's books known as "The Basics."

Each initiative came with its own daunting quota.

Levy sold the special releases during evening events at the Fort Harrison Hotel after laboring all day at his regular post. He worked the ballroom until the crowds filtered out, then hit the phones until the wee hours.

Raising money for the IAS at big church events became a heavy burden. In the 1990s, Levy's IAS quotas for a single event generally were under $10,000. By the mid 2000s they soared to six figures, sometimes as high as $1 million, Levy said. Though impossible to meet, the targets made a point: "You had to work on it constantly."

Levy loved selling Scientology counseling because he saw it as helping people. But selling books, lecture recordings and IAS memberships seemed crass. His heart wasn't in it.

After the Basics were released in 2007, the pressure to sell them sapped his enthusiasm.

Hundreds of staffers pitching the $3,000 sets phoned parishioners at all hours. They cornered them in Flag restaurants, waiting rooms, parking lots. They showed up at their homes. Parishioners confided to Levy that they ended up with little money left for counseling.

"Everybody became in competition with everybody," Levy said. "It was a nightmare."

In one case, four Scientology officials suggested they could expel a parishioner if he didn't buy Basics packages. Levy was outraged because one of the officials was an "ethics officer" whose job was to ensure that Scientologists behave honorably.

It was a clear abuse of power, Levy said.

After six hours, the hungry and exhausted man gave in and bought $25,000 worth of Basics.

"Extortion is the word,'' Levy said, "basically saying, 'We'll take away your eternity if you don't buy these now.' "

For years, Levy lived with the discomfort and indignities of Sea Org life, thinking he was doing good for the world.

Beans and rice for dinner? He seasoned the dish with salad dressing or butter.

Heavy labor? He made a game of it.

Yelling and screaming in his face? He endured it and tried to move on.

His work was so important to him that he waited until the last minute to go to his mother's deathbed in 2003. And he returned to Clearwater while his family was still in the middle of the traditional Jewish mourning period.

He read the disappointment on his father's face, and now confesses to something about his mother's death. "I hate to admit this ... It was a distraction," he said, sobbing at the memory.

He tried to explain: "I'm trying to get something done that's almost humanly impossible if you break your concentration for one second. … Every week. Week after week. Day after day … You couldn't think, you couldn't breathe anything else."

He had always been willing to put up with a lot for the cause, but the church's increasing focus on money was more than he could take.

On a Saturday morning in November 2007 — a workday — he stuffed clothes into a soft briefcase and another bag and boarded the church bus to downtown Clearwater. When it made a stop along the way, Levy got off and took a cab to Tampa International Airport. Flush with feelings of freedom and wanting a real escape, he bought a ticket to Las Vegas.

But even as he ran away, he couldn't shed his sense of duty. On the long flight, he wrote nine pages of notes to his fellow reges about the parishioners who needed to be "closed" before the coming Thursday deadline. He faxed his notes to Flag from his $80-a-night Vegas hotel.

The next morning, two Sea Org members appeared outside his room to bring him back.

Levy wanted to remain in good standing with the church, so he returned with them to Clearwater and started the formal process of "routing out" of the Sea Org. It took 19 months. He stayed at his post, still logging sales of nearly $200,000 a week.

At the end, he was taken to a small room in security. Church officials told him to sign a declaration that someone else wrote.

The church gave the Times portions of it. Levy is quoted saying Scientology emphasizes "honesty, integrity and ethical conduct" and "has taken great care" to abide by the law. The document has Levy admitting there were times he wasn't honest and was slack in his duties.

"I just wanted it over with," Levy said recently. "And there was enough truth in there that I could sign it."

He signed another document that threatened steep financial penalties if he said anything bad about the church. They gave him a severance check.

Over 16 years, Levy brought in close to $200 million for the Church of Scientology. The check in his hand was for $500.


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