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Operators of Scientology rehab center to open Clearwater halfway house

Published Jul. 26, 2014

Operators of a drug rehabilitation center in Hernando County, which uses Scientology-affiliated Narconon treatments under intense scrutiny in several states, plan to open a 60-bed halfway house in Clearwater.

And they won't say why.

Longtime center treasurer Sean Strickling heads a company that paid $950,000 in May 2013 for a plot on Sunset Point Road in north Clearwater. Contacted this week by phone, he declined to be interviewed.

His wife, Tammy, the top officer at the Spring Hill Narconon, helped usher the project through Clearwater's permitting process. She too declined to comment.

Prominent Clearwater Scientologist Kurt Feshbach, who heads a company that owns the Hernando Narconon center, also did not respond to interview requests this week.

The Spring Hill facility largely has avoided the furor surrounding a series of patient deaths and allegations of deception at Narconon centers outside Florida.

It has received sterling scores from state inspectors in recent years. Its only apparent involvement in the controversy is being named one of 82 defendants in a federal lawsuit challenging certification claims by several Narconon drug counselors.

But the 48-year-old Narconon program, which grew its revenues steadily as drug use expanded, has become the target in recent years of government investigations and a slew of lawsuits. Among the developments:

• In Oklahoma, three patients died in nine months at Narconon's flagship facility, Arrowhead, in 2011 and 2012. Another patient had died in 2009 after being transferred to a hospital. Several former patients have sued, alleging misrepresentations. One claimed she saw staffers trade drugs for sex with patients. Local and state agencies launched inquiries. Now, a multicounty grand jury reportedly is investigating.

• In Georgia, parents of a patient who had died in 2008 at an Atlanta-area center pursued a wrongful-death suit that drew the attention of state investigators. Allegations of insurance fraud also surfaced — specifically a claim that an insurer was billed $116,000 for treatments that never happened. Agents raided the center in April 2013. As prosecutors bore down, the center closed.

• In Canada, authorities in Quebec shut down a Narconon center in the city of Trois Rivieres in 2012, concerned that treatment procedures could "represent a health risk.''

• And in California, Nevada and Colorado, a parade of former patients and their families have filed 17 lawsuits, accusing Narconon centers of fraud, deception and veiled strategies to lure patients into Scientology.

Many of those suits, all filed by Las Vegas attorney Ryan Hamilton, recite a familiar narrative:

Families of drug users search the Internet for referral services. They speak to a representative who touts a program with a 76 percent success rate.

The program is said to have no religious involvement and boasts certified counselors. Patients pay up to $35,000 and enter a program requiring hours of sauna treatments and reading.

It's actually an immersion into Scientology teachings and programs, the suits contend, asserting the success rate is not supported by verifiable evidence.

The Church of Scientology's chief spokeswoman in Los Angeles did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Narconon is a nonprofit, tax-exempt program, like many of Scientology's affiliated entities. According to the church, it was started by an Arizona prison inmate in 1966, who, after reading the writings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, was inspired to help other inmates. Today, there are more than 100 Narconon treatment centers worldwide.

The Spring Hill Narconon paid Feshbach's company, Toucan Partners, $175,000 in rent in 2012, according to the center's latest available tax return.

Feshbach has been a major donor to Scientology causes. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he and his brothers Matt and Joe made a fortune with their Feshbach Brothers investment firm in Palo Alto, Calif., specializing in shorting stocks.

He now operates Clearwater's Falcon Research, which gathers information about investment opportunities for clients.

The Spring Hill Narconon reported $1.97 million in revenues in 2012, down slightly from the $2.05 million generated in 2011, its highest-grossing year. Tammy Strickling was paid $109,117 in 2012. Sean Strickling was paid $39,400.

The center opened in 2008. The next year, it sought to expand from 22 beds to 54. Hernando County's government said no. The center sued, claiming discrimination. It recently won an appeal and a mediation session is scheduled in August.

Narconon is a drug-free treatment program. The Spring Hill center's website instructs drug-dependent users to first seek treatment at a detox unit and then transfer in. It does not suggest a specific facility, but a Feshbach company owns one a few miles away — Novus Medical Detox Center in New Port Richey.

It's possible the Clearwater halfway house will become a destination for those patients. One indicator it might not become a Narconon center: Remodeling plans at City Hall show no sauna. Sauna treatments are central to Narconon's program.

Other records indicate the Clearwater facility, at least for now, will have the same name as the Narconon in Spring Hill: Suncoast Rehabilitation Center.

Times staff writers Barbara Behrendt and Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report. Reach Joe Childs at jchilds@tampabay.com.

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