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Scientology critics allege church tried to influence Pinellas legal community in Lisa McPherson case

Published Nov. 20, 2012

Scientology critics allege in recently filed court papers that the church hired local lawyers to schmooze Pinellas judges and gave gifts to a prominent attorney trying to gain influence during the legal saga that followed the 1995 death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson.

High-profile defector Marty Rathbun says in a 57-page sworn statement that Scientology provided Super Bowl tickets to the lawyer for former Pinellas Medical Examiner Joan Wood, whose surprise decision to change her ruling in the cause of McPherson's death torpedoed the state's criminal case against the church.

Rathbun and longtime church antagonist Ken Dandar, a Tampa lawyer, both say the church hired former assistant Pinellas prosecutor Lee Fugate and Clearwater lawyer F. Wallace Pope Jr. to pal around with Pinellas lawyers and judges involved in both the criminal case and a wrongful-death suit filed by Dandar on behalf of McPherson's family. The thrust of the conversations: to demonize Dandar and talk up Scientology, Rathbun said.

Senior Pinellas Circuit Judge Robert Beach, who oversaw the final days of the McPherson civil suit, was so bothered by the allegations he canceled a doctor's appointment Monday so he could attend a hearing in Tampa, where Dandar discussed the claims. Beach, who continues to hear cases on assignment, seethed as Dandar made insinuations against him.

Pope, who opposed Dandar Monday, denied in court filings he influenced judges. Fugate did not return a call for comment.

Church spokeswoman Karin Pouw called Dandar's claims false and scandalous. Rathbun's allegations "morph with each retelling,'' she said.

She noted the Tampa Bay Times quoted Rathbun in June 2009 saying Wood changed her conclusion about the cause of McPherson's death after reviewing stacks of scientific information from church experts.

Dandar has been fighting Scientology in state and federal courts since 1997. He recently went to federal court in hopes of persuading a judge to prevent church lawyers from taking him to court again — this time next week in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. The church contends that in settling McPherson's civil suit in 2004, Dandar agreed he would not sue the church again. But in 2009, he filed another wrongful-death suit on behalf of another family.

The church sued him for breach of contract. That case is headed for a hearing Monday. The church seeks attorneys' fees from the civil case — more than $1 million. Dandar said if he loses, he might be ruined as a lawyer.

He filed Rathbun's statement in federal court to bolster his argument the civil case was improperly influenced by the church. Among Rathbun's allegations is that Scientology leader David Miscavige had several personal meetings with St. Petersburg attorney Jeffrey M. Goodis. He represented Wood during the years the church supplied her scientific data and research, demanding she review her decision in the cause of McPherson's death.

McPherson, 36, died after 17 days in the care of church staffers in Clearwater.

Goodis said Monday the church helped him locate Super Bowl tickets in January 2003 and that Miscavige also sent him a pair of cuff links. But he said both incidents occurred after he ended his representation of Wood in 2000.

That's when she ruled McPherson's death was "accidental'' and not "undetermined'' as she had initially decided. The change caused prosecutors to drop two felony charges against the church. Wood died in 2011.

Goodis said Miscavige visited him in his law office several times, bringing along Rathbun, who then was Miscavige's top deputy. They left behind "reams" of scientific analysis, which Goodis said he turned over to Wood.

In January 2002, Goodis was among hundreds invited to the church's celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater. He and his wife, Heather Goodis, met actor and Scientologist John Travolta, he said.

A year later, he decided to take his wife to the Super Bowl in San Diego in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would play the Oakland Raiders. Among the places he phoned in search of tickets: church offices in Los Angeles. "I figured, if there was a connection, it would be with the celebrities,'' he said. The church found two tickets for him. Goodis said he paid the church full face value.

The cuff links Miscavige mailed him also came after Wood no longer was a client. They bear Scientology's logo. He's never worn them, he said.

Church spokeswoman Pouw did not answer specific questions from the Times asking why the church acquired Super Bowl tickets for Goodis and why Miscavige sent him cuff links.

Goodis said "it's preposterous'' to allege he took favors in exchange for influencing Wood. "The idea I made an effort to influence Dr. Wood because of gifts is just untrue,'' he added. "The case was long since over; I didn't see an issue."

Beach, 82, said he was upset to be accused of corruption and conspiracy. He glared icily as Dandar exited U.S. District Judge Virginia Hernandez Covington's courtroom after she rejected the request for an injunction. "I never had any conversations with anybody about this case or any other case outside the courtroom," Beach said.

"I've never had an experience like this before,'' he said. "The idea it comes at the end of my career outrages me.''

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