Scientology Sues Debbie Cook Over Her New Year's Eve E-Mail
Monday evening, the Tampa Bay Times reported that the Church of Scientology filed a lawsuit Friday in San Antonio against Debbie Cook and her husband Wayne Baumgarten. The lawsuit, which accuses Cook of violating the terms of a non-disclosure agreement when she dared to criticize the leadership of her church, should draw major media attention to various issues that have been splitting Scientology apart, as we've been reporting over the last few years here at the Voice
Cook, from her website
On January 1, the Voice was the first in the press to report that on New Year's Eve, Cook sent out a remarkable e-mail to thousands of her fellow Scientologists which harshly criticized the "extreme fundraising" of the church under leader David Miscavige. Carefully citing the words of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Cook made it clear that she was not an outsider, but a member in good standing who wanted her fellow members to question where the church was headed.
Now, Scientology reveals that Cook and Baumgarten were paid $50,000 each to sign non-disclosure agreements as they left their staff jobs with the church in 2007. By speaking out in the e-mail, Cook violated her agreement, Scientology's lawyers claim. (Baumgarten is accused in the suit of being a "co-participant" in sending out the e-mail.)
But could such a gag order really prevent an American from following her conscience and exercising her Constitutionally-guaranteed rights of religious freedom? We're going to find out, and Scientology, normally shy about press, could get much more exposure than it's had in a while.
For some time, we've been hearing from our sources that Scientology had stepped up its use of gag orders with former members, sending out teams from its intelligence wing, the Office of Special Affairs, with offers of payment if disaffected parishioners would promise not to criticize the church. As Janet Reitman explained in her excellent history of the church, last year's Inside Scientology, there's been a significant drain of longtime members and high-ranking executives from the church in recent years which Reitman characterized as an "Exodus." Ex-Scientologists have been telling us that the church has been dealing with this drain of the disaffected by offering many of those people cash payments if they will keep quiet about their experiences in Scientology.
Two high-ranking former executives, Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder, had told us that they helped develop those gag orders, and that they were designed to be draconian in their terms and intimidating in their effect. Rinder had even told us in recent days that he was going to search through his personal records to see if he had a sample agreement to show us.
As Tampa Bay Times journalists Joe Childs and Tom Tobin point out, getting to see Cook's gag order is "a rare look at the extraordinary lengths the church goes to to keep its inner workings secret."
In their story last night, they list some of the things Cook and Baumgarten agreed to in the gag orders:
• They waived their First Amendment rights to free speech.
• They can never, "in perpetuity," disclose any information about the church, its staff or former staff.
• They can never publish, attempt to publish or help anyone publish any information about the church in any media, including newspapers, television, radio or the Internet.
• They can never utter a disparaging word about the church, either directly or indirectly.
On New Year's Eve, however, Cook sent out an e-mail to thousands of her fellow church members, complaining that with Scientology's focus on constant fundraising, on purchasing new buildings it calls "Ideal Orgs," and collecting massive reserves -- a billion dollars, by Cook's estimate -- the church under David Miscavige was betraying the intentions of Hubbard, whose proclamations are still supposed to be sacrosanct, even 26 years after his death.
We watched in some fascination as Scientologists, unused to such criticism of management from within the church, panicked in a very public way on Facebook after reading the e-mail, advising each other to unfriend Cook, who had enjoyed a stellar reputation as one of the most respected executives in the church.
Our sources told us that this effort hit Cook in more ways than her friends list at Facebook. Since she left her church post in Clearwater, Florida, Cook built a business consulting venture in San Antonio with many Scientologists as clients. Rathbun, at his blog, writes that the church has been busy convincing those clients to leave.
And now, Scientology's attorneys have filed a lawsuit against Cook and Baumgarten and obtained a temporary restraining order to prevent them from saying anything further about the church. (Childs and Tobin report that Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw characterized the $50,000 payments to Cook and Baumgarten as "help," and "Only with recent violations of that agreement was it necessary for the church to pursue and protect its rights.")
Rathbun has said publicly that he is not in touch with Cook (who has turned down our repeated requests for an interview and who has so far maintained that she is not communicating with church outsiders), but he had anticipated a legal move against her and has already set up a legal defense fund. Cook herself has set up one as well. In the lawsuit, however, the church says that when it told Cook to stop violating her agreement, she responded in an e-mail, "If you sue me, it really doesn't matter ... I have no money to spend on an attorney."
I asked our resident expert on Scientology and legal matters, Manhattan attorney Scott Pilutik, to look over the lawsuit and the non-disclosure agreements last night. Here's what he had to say...
Scientology's lawsuit cites a number of instances within Cook's e-mail they claim breaches the non-disclosure agreement (NDA) she and Baumgarten signed, and the question of whether they did will probably wind up being many separate questions, with individual passages of the e-mail matched to the passages of the NDA. The complaint doesn't do this beyond citing some paragraphs of the NDA they argue were violated [6(b), 6(d), 6(e), 6(h), 6(f) & 7(a)], so it's not worth speculating too extensively as to which sections of the e-mail violate which terms just yet.
That said, I think one key question will focus on whether Cook revealed privileged information due to her former position [paragraph 6(b) of the NDA], or whether (as Cook will likely argue) that information was otherwise widely available. I think, too, that the meaning of "disparagement" could be key. It's not a reach to suggest that Cook's e-mail is critical of Church management and the relevant paragraph of the NDA [6(h)] is written somewhat broadly. And Cook did, presumably, cash the checks.
But Cook and Baumgarten also have possible affirmative defenses that could make this case truly fascinating. Cook's e-mail is, at heart, a sincere religious argument. She's genuinely concerned about the direction of Scientology and strongly suggests that the current management is not adhering to Hubbard's doctrine, quoting him liberally throughout.
A legitimate question therefore exists, I think, as to whether this isn't a contract dispute at all, but rather a religious dispute, which the Court could not resolve without violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment (i.e., courts are prohibited from deciding religious disputes lest they become impermissibly entangled in religious disputes), or without violating Cook and Baumgarten's First Amendment free exercise rights. If the Court is to find for Scientology over Cook/Baumgarten, it must not appear to be taking sides in a religious dispute, and that doesn't appear to be so easy a task.
I asked about Cook waiving her free speech rights: could she really give up her Constitutionally protected rights of religious freedom?
No, the NDA only cites her waiving "free speech", not free exercise, which is a whole other animal, despite also being part of the same First Amendment.
I just started noticing too that the agreement cites that it's to be governed by Florida law (with regard to disputes involving the Flag Land Base in Clearwater); I wonder what a Texas court is going to make of this. It's probably in Cook's interest to keep the case out of Florida.
These are obviously early days, and we should get a better idea soon of how vigorously Cook is going to fight back.
At the least, it will be interesting to see if this country's mainstream press begins to take the kind of interest in Cook and recent crises facing Scientology that we've been seeing in the European and Australian press.
Debbie Cook Coverage in the Village Voice...
Also, please see our primer, "What is Scientology?"
Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he's been writing about Scientology at several publications.
Keep up on all of our New York news coverage at this blog, Runnin' Scared
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