Scientology: Told to Chill in Texas, and Another Embarrassing Admission in Israel (UPDATED)
After a flurry of court filings in the Church of Scientology's lawsuit against former church executive Debbie Cook, there was a showdown of sorts this morning at the Bexar County, Texas courthouse.
Judge Cathy Stryker
Leading up to the hearing, Scientology's attorneys had been pushing for a fast resolution to the case, asking for summary judgment from the court in what it calls a simple contract dispute. Debbie Cook, on the other hand, was asking the court to slow things down so she could get some discovery out of the church, including a deposition, videotapes, and other evidence she needs to prove that her 2007 non-disclosure agreement was signed under duress. The church argued back that none of that discovery was necessary as the case was so simple and its position so strong.
This morning, Bexar County District Judge Cathy Stryker told Scientology to cool its jets.
She pushed back a hearing on its motion for summary judgment from March 23 to May 7. In the meantime, the church will have to answer Cook's request for a deposition by naming a church official who can be made available for it. And, by next week, the church should have to begin answering some of Cook's other requests for information.
"It was a good day for us, and they didn't seem to leave the courtroom very happy," Ray Jeffrey told me this afternoon by telephone.
"It was a real dog fight. More than I thought it would be," he says. "They had about eight people on their side. I was down there by myself with Debbie and Wayne. I'm not sure how many were lawyers and how many were Scientology folks. I know a couple of them were Sea Org folks from California."
(Jeffrey and I both laughed about this. Earlier this week, the church complained in a court filing that it would be burdensome for Scientology to be expected to send someone from its Flag Service Organization in Florida for a deposition in Texas -- those of us familiar with the church know that in fact it flies its executives and operatives all over the country at the drop of a hat.)
"The judge ruled that we are entitled to additional time to get discovery. The other side argued vociferously that we don't need any discovery, that the case is so cut and dried no additional information was necessary. She didn't buy that. She continued it to May 7," she says.
He added that the church has until Wednesday to send a list of topics they agree to and the name of a church official who will be made available for deposition. "If they respond in a way that's unacceptable to me, I'll have to go back to court and complain about it," he says.
This morning's hearing lasted about an hour, and I asked Jeffrey if there were any moments that stood out.
There was a humorous exchange when, he says, he was trying not to go into too much detail with a judge who had only received the case that morning. (In Bexar County's scheme, the case has been heard by three different judges for its three separate hearings.)
"The judge was obviously not familiar with the case, and when it was mentioned that it had received media attention and that there were reporters in the courtroom, she looked at me and said, 'What is this case about?' I told her I'd be happy to give her some background. Spencer then jumped up and said judge, you should just read our motion for summary judgment. But she didn't buy that," Jeffrey says. She allowed him to give her some background on what had happened at the remarkable February 9 hearing, when Debbie Cook stunned the courtroom with testimony about incarceration and abuse of church executives at Scientology's California international headquarters.
"She just wanted some background on what the heck the case was about," he says.
At another point, Jeffrey says, Scientology's attorneys argued that they needed the case to be hurried because they were losing the benefit of the agreement that Cook signed, which required her to be silent about the church.
"I pointed out that they were the ones who withdrew the injunction, and all that's left is a lawsuit about damages. They already lost the benefit of the bargain if that's what they think they're entitled do under the contract, her silence. They withdrew that when they withdrew their request for the injunction," he says.
Judge Stryker apparently agreed, and set things back, giving Cook time to begin getting evidence she needs on her side.
I asked Jeffrey if he or Cook recognized all of the people who seemed to be in the courtroom on Scientology's side. He said they didn't know who everyone was.
"There was one fellow in a trench coat, none of us knew who he was. Someone asked him his name, and he said they didn't need to know his name," Jeffrey says.
UPDATED: Columnist Brian Chasnoff tells this last anecdote in his own eyewitness account at the San Antonio Express-News tonight. He also does a fine job summing up Debbie Cook's situation and the odd position of the church -- that the way it punishes people is an ecclesiastical matter.
But we'll point out that the church may paint itself into a corner with that excuse. As Ray Jeffrey put it in his interrogatories, is it really a religious value to have a church executive lick a bathroom floor for half an hour? Really?
Meanwhile, in Israel, another interesting admission by Scientology's attorneys. A couple of weeks ago, we told you about a surprising development in the church's fight with an Arab Muslim contractor who had renovated the Jaffa building it intends to be an "Ideal Org."
Naif Salati says that he finished the renovation but was shorted by the church, which used a front to hire him and never informed him who he was actually working for. Scientology claims that Salati never finished the renovation and doesn't deserve any more money.
In December, however, we published a video on our website which was recorded in October showing Scientology leader David Miscavige showing an extensive visual tour of the building, and telling a crowd of thousands that it was in magnificent shape, was completely renovated and staffed, and was "the new Church of Scientology in Israel" -- implying that it was open for business.
We pointed out that when we visited the building in November, it did appear to be renovated, but it wasn't open for business.
Anyway, that video we showed here was grabbed by Salati's attorney, Eitan Erez, who entered it into evidence in the lawsuit to show that even the church's leader is saying publicly that the renovation was completed and fabulous.
We reported that Scientology's own attorneys, in a subsequent court filing, admitted that the video footage was actually faked for the benefit of "donors." We pointed out the stunning fact that Scientology's own attorneys were saying in a court document that Miscavige had pulled a fast one and had shown fake footage for fundraising purposes.
Well, now a newspaper in Israel, Yediot Tel Aviv, has published a story about this incident, under the headline "The Glamorous Video, Photoshop, and the Donors." (Heh.)
And we're thrilled to see that reporter Yoav Malka managed to get a response from Michael Deker of Yehuda Rave and Associates, the attorneys working for the church:
"Since we are dealing with a film that is meant to get donors, significant defects were concealed on purpose. Naturally, if the clip is for the donors, I will not show them the holes in the floor, urine and feces of Salati's workers left on the roof, and I will not show the electric cords that we had to remove because of the severe negligence of Salati."
Well, the attorney can trash Salati all he wants, but every time he talks about concealing the truth for donors, a body thetan gets its wings.
We don't know if Salati will win his court case -- he's appealing a dismissal of his temporary foreclosure order by a district court -- but as long as he keeps getting admissions out of Scientology that David Miscavige is putting on dog and pony shows for the fundraising fun of it, well, we hope this case never ends.
Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you ask nicely he'll put you on his mailing list for notifications of new stories, which tend to come out each and every morning at 8 am, but can suddenly appear at any time of the day. You can also catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, a Tumblr, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.
New readers might want to check out our primer, "What is Scientology?" Another good overview is our series from last summer, "Top 25 People Crippling Scientology." At the top of every story, you'll see the "Scientology" category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories. As for our regular features, on Thursdays we do a roundup of world press, on Fridays we visit L. Ron Hubbard on the yacht Apollo circa 1969-1971, on Saturdays we celebrate the week's best comments, and on Sundays we publish Scientology's wacky and tacky advertising mailers that people send us.
As for hot subjects we've covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and is now being sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology's "Mecca," whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.
Other stories have looked at Scientology's policy of "disconnection" that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We've also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there's plenty more coming.