Some Scientologists give until they're bankrupt

Published Nov. 19, 2011

Church of Scientology fundraisers tell followers that it's worth it to stretch their finances for the good of the church and the future of the planet. But some parishioners stretch too far. • Bankruptcy filings and other court records from around the country reveal how some Scientologists donated heavily and fell on hard financial times. • The church said that contrary to the statements of numerous former members, Scientology "fundraisers do not persuade or pressure parishioners to take on debt."

Hector M. Guevara

By the time the New York entrepreneur landed in Clearwater in 2001, church staffers knew all about him.

"We were primed," said Hy Levy, a former registrar responsible for selling church counseling. "We knew he was going to be a good prospect."

According to court records, Guevara paid about $8,000 that September to Scientology's main entity in Clearwater, known as "Flag." He paid another $33,000 that October.

The next month he secured a $147,000 federal government loan from the Small Business Administration for his company, Hytech Industries, which developed alternative energy products. Eight months later, he started spending more at Flag and donating to other church entities.

Guevara gave $27,000 to the International Association of Scientologists on July 2, 2002. The next day he gave $5,000 to the "Super Power" building under construction in Clearwater. After that, he made payments in almost daily increments: $5,000 … $1,500 … $380 … $2,890 … $1,500 … $4,643 … $28,000 … $120,000 … $1,000.

By the time he filed for bankruptcy in 2004, he had spent at least $322,000 on the church, about $196,000 of it for counseling.

Records show he amassed $1 million in liabilities, missed tens of thousands of dollars in child support payments, owed $200,000 to a business consultant and defaulted on $120,000 in government loans.

The bankruptcy trustee sued the church to recover some of the money on behalf of Guevara's creditors. The trustee settled for $180,000.

William Rex Fowler

At a meeting in January 2009, the founder and chief financial officer of a Denver area software firm told workers that the company bearing his name had lost money.

He didn't mention that "a sizable sum of money was missing because he took the money out himself," one of his employees, Stephan Samuel, told sheriff's detectives in Adams County, Colo.

Fowler had secretly given an estimated $200,000 to $250,000 in company money to a Church of Scientology entity.

A 35-year parishioner who had advanced to Scientology's upper levels, Fowler apologized to his co-workers. But the incident led to tension between Fowler and chief operating officer Thomas Ciancio.

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On Dec. 30, 2009, Fowler met Ciancio in his office and shot him three times with a 9mm Glock handgun, killing him.

He then shot himself beneath the chin but survived. A Colorado jury convicted Fowler of first-degree murder in February, and he is serving a life sentence.

Why did Fowler raid company accounts for the benefit of his church? Which Scientology entity got the money? Was the money ever returned?

Those questions went unanswered after a judge ruled that events relating to Scientology were not central to the murder.

Rene Piedra

In Miami, Piedra's busy dental practice transferred more than $700,000 to Scientology entities while his creditors went unpaid. The St. Petersburg Times told Piedra's story in an article called "Tithing through the teeth."

Among his victims: scores of poor and middle-income South Florida residents who advanced Piedra thousands of dollars for dental treatments they never received.

Records show that Piedra larded several church entities with donations — many of them while he failed to pay bills, refused to grant patients' refunds and borrowed cash to keep his practice afloat.

After a court-appointed trustee sued the Scientology entities to get the money back, the church agreed to pay a $350,000 settlement.

Joseph A. Talerico

The Salt Lake City Scientologist emptied his retirement and bank accounts and cashed in a life insurance policy to donate to the church.

"And then I made more donations using credit cards," Talerico told a bankruptcy trustee.

Records (right) show that he gave the church more than $340,000, including more than $93,000 while he was insolvent.

Talerico's credit card debt ballooned from $17,936 in January 2007 to $167,764 in 20 months. He said in a sworn statement that much of the money went to church entities in Utah and Los Angeles, plus the International Association of Scientologists.

Asked by a lawyer if he was still active in Scientology, he said: "Very much so." A bankruptcy trustee is suing the church to recoup Talerico's donations.

Charles L. and Susan A. Jacobs

In June, a trustee in Los Angeles bankruptcy court sued three church entities, attempting to recover $191,321 in donations made by the Jacobses.

The couple donated about 25 percent of their annual income to the church over the last decade, according to the file. It says Charles Jacobs is a musician who earned about $100,000 a year until hard times eroded his income and benefits. Susan Jacobs, according to records, works for a small Scientology church in Van Nuys, making less than $200 a month.

In 2010, the couple stopped making credit card payments and Charles Jacobs started receiving government unemployment checks. Still, they gave Scientology 37 percent of their income that year, the same year they filed for bankruptcy. Records show they made five donations totaling $26,800 to Flag.

Mayda M. Kasbarian

Kasbarian earned $31,400 a year at a financial management company. The Los Angeles resident paid $1,100 in rent and supported two teenage daughters.

In the fall of 2005, she made two cash payments to the Church of Scientology of Beverly Hills totaling $12,000 — 38 percent of her income that year.

She filed for bankruptcy eight months later. A trustee sued the church to recover the money, settling for $8,500.

The church declined to comment on these cases but said, "It is unfortunate that some isolated individuals mismanage their personal finances. Personal finances are the responsibility of the individual, not of the church."

The church said it does not delve into parishioners' finances during fundraising pitches. It said parishioners donate $1,000 a year on average, less than the tithes in other religions.

Guevara and Piedra have declined to comment. Talerico and Kasbarian did not respond to interview requests. The Jacobses said their bankruptcy resulted from business decisions, not their involvement in the church.

Kim Hawkins of Portland, Ore., said he saw people buckle under the costs of Scientology — and the pressure to donate — while he and his wife, Cathy Mullins, were church members in San Diego several years ago.

"People who owned houses were having to sell them. People who were renting were having trouble paying their rents.

"Scientologists who are trying to be good Scientologists end up just struggling tremendously," he said. "You couldn't be a good Scientologist if you weren't in hock up to your limit."

Former Minneapolis parishioner Suzanne Working was a financial analyst in the late 2000s when four Scientologist couples asked for her advice about filing for bankruptcy, she said. One couple lost their home to foreclosure, she said. Another with $40,000 in credit card debt planned to file for bankruptcy a second time.

The church pressed for donations even as the Great Recession settled in, Working said. Scientology staffers told parishioners they were "big beings" who could "make it go right" regardless of the economy, she said.

"It was easy to go along with if your house kept going up in value 20 percent each year and you thought there was going to be this unlimited equity in your home, but when people's IRAs started dropping and 401(k)s started tanking and house values dropped 30 percent, people were forced to confront their financial situation. And it wasn't pretty."