The new year brought a big surprise for the Church of Scientology: One of its most respected and widely known figures went public in dramatic fashion, calling for internal reforms and decrying heavy-handed fundraising practices she says have allowed the church to amass reserves of more than $1 billion.
With an email blast to thousands of current and former Scientologists late Saturday, Debra J. Cook quickly emerged from a quiet private life in San Antonio, Texas. Her message contained a bombshell of a letter urging parishioners to start pushing back against the church's aggressive money demands.
Cook was a prominent figure in the church's Clearwater operation for 17 years. Her strong reputation within Scientology brings new credibility to a growing movement, now more than two years old, to reform the church.
She declared that Scientology staffers are pressured by church managers to engage in "extreme" fundraising campaigns for unnecessarily "posh" new buildings and to enrich the church's membership group, the International Association of Scientologists, known as the IAS.
She said the church is hoarding "well in excess of a billion dollars" in IAS donations, in violation of policies written by church founder L. Ron Hubbard. The money was supposed to be used to disseminate the religion, she said in the letter.
"Only a tiny fraction has ever been spent. ... Only the interest earned from the holdings (has) been used very sparingly to fund projects through grants."
The church did not respond Sunday to requests for comment.
Most of Cook's topics were covered in a recent Tampa Bay Times series, "The Money Machine," in which dozens of church members described coercive selling tactics and deceptive practices used by the church's religious workers.
The members said Scientology workers made unauthorized debits to their internal church accounts and relentlessly pressured them to donate, often blocking them from leaving fundraising events, showing up unannounced at their homes and threatening to slow their spiritual progress if they didn't give.
The series also revealed the scope of the church's money making operations: At least $100 million a year from the Clearwater entity Cook once headed; more than $250 million raised by the IAS just since 2006; and millions more raised annually from book sales and building donations.
Cook said in her letter that the dominance of church leader David Miscavige as the sole source of power in Scientology violates a system of checks and balances put in place by Hubbard before he died in 1986. She said top church executives who could check his authority face "long and harsh" discipline programs and have been absent from their posts for years.
Cook, 50, was the face of Scientology's worldwide spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, known as "Flag." As Flag's "captain" from 1989 to 2006, she acted as the church's local CEO but also was known and respected throughout Scientology. She was the top Clearwater officer in the Sea Org, Scientology's military-style religious order.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
A fixture in Flag's magazine, Source, a smiling, confident Cook was always pictured in her formal blue uniform with an upbeat message for parishioners.
She later moved to the church's international management ranks in California, but left the staff in 2008. Cook and her husband, Wayne Baumgarten, also a former church staffer, run a San Antonio-based business consulting firm specializing in Internet marketing, web design, social media, financial planning and other areas.
Cook's pronouncement is a rarity in a church that works hard to keep its secrets and controls former staff long after they leave. While some former church executives have spoken out after defecting, Cook wrote her letter while still a full-fledged insider.
She has stayed in regular contact with practicing Scientologists since her departure from the staff, according to her Facebook page and company website Many are her customers.
She said in her letter she has remained in good standing with the church and was writing fellow Scientologists as someone who remains "completely dedicated" to Scientology and Hubbard.
"However," she added, "there is no question that this new age of continuous fundraising is not our finest moment."
Cook's status in Scientology is sure to change. Typically the church views open criticism as a "suppressive" act and moves to banish violators from church activities while quickly cutting their business and personal ties with practicing members.
Cook could not be reached Sunday for an interview, having emphasized in her letter that she was appealing directly to fellow Scientologists. She told them she did not want to involve the media.
The letter promises to send shock waves through the community of Scientologists loyal to the church after more than two years of unflattering media reports about church management — from allegations of violence in the top ranks to repeated stories about the church's controlling nature.
Other high-ranking figures have left in recent years and spoken out. Most notable were Mike Rinder, the former church spokesman, and Marty Rathbun, a top executive who worked for years at Miscavige's side.
But Cook was far better known among average parishioners and she enjoyed an impeccable image, linked as she was to the church's desire to make Flag an upscale and spiritually uplifting destination for all Scientologists.
Some of her Scientologist friends reacted positively on her Facebook page. Others reacted angrily, saying the online discussion was unseemly and should be handled quietly within the church. Still others said they didn't believe it, insisting Cook's Facebook and email accounts had been hacked by church critics.
As the debate simmered on Sunday, Cook pulled the discussion thread from her Facebook page. She also posted this message to the page: "Dear Friends. Yes, the e-mail was written by me. No I am not connected to anyone not in good standing. I did it because of my love and respect for LRH (L. Ron Hubbard) and the desire to see us correct situations that need correcting within our group."
Cook referred in her letter to the church's recent publicity troubles, saying Scientologists had weathered many storms. "I am sorry that I am the one telling you, but a new storm is upon us. Its waves are already in the media and the world around us."
She encouraged parishioners to make their voices heard by paying only for Scientology's religious services and challenging church staffers who press for extra donations to show where their request is supported in Hubbard's writings.
She cited several Hubbard writings that she said conflicted with the church's current fundraising practices. She said the heavy emphasis on meeting fundraising quotas was a distraction for the church and that dedicated staffers have been dragged into the task.
Rathbun, now a leading figure in a movement for Scientologists to practice independently of the church, said the impact of Cook's letter would be huge, but it would take time for Scientologists to accept and absorb it.
"Over the next few weeks and months, you're going to see a lot of prominent Scientologists who are going to make themselves known," he said in an interview. "This could be one of the more significant developments in some time."