Debbie Cook -- Exiled by Scientology?
Tampa Bay Times journalists Joe Childs and Tom Tobin have done it again, surprising us with yet another gem of reporting on the Church of Scientology.
This time, they learned from a man named Jon Donley, who worked as a media consultant for Debbie Cook, that she and her husband, Wayne Baumgarten, are leaving San Antonio this week for a new home on the French island of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean.
For those of us who followed Debbie's short but eventful career as Scientology's most visible dissident, it's a disorienting finish to a saga that seemed to have ended prematurely just a few weeks ago. And now, we're left with more questions than answers about this middle-aged couple who once were important officials in a church that has now twice seemingly exiled them from any community where they had family or friends.
In 2007, we learned in Debbie's court testimony, Cook and Baumgarten moved to San Antonio primarily because they knew no one there, and because Scientology had little presence in the town. Now, it appears they are trying to isolate themselves even further, and Childs and Tobin wonder if it wasn't an unstated condition of Cook's recent court settlement.
If you've followed our stories about Cook, you know that for 17 years she had one of the most important, and most visible positions of authority inside Scientology, running its spiritual mecca, Flag Land Base, in Clearwater, Florida. She then went through a harrowing ordeal, according to her court testimony, as church leader David Miscavige subjected her to brutal treatment at Scientology's international headquarters in California. In 2007, she left her job working for the church, and she and her husband signed confidentiality agreements, promising to say nothing about their experiences. They were each paid $50,000 and then moved to San Antonio, even though they had family in places like California.
Cook testified that they chose San Antonio because the church wanted them to be isolated from family and friends.
But Cook remained connected to many fellow church members through her marketing business and through Facebook, and she used those connections on New Year's Eve, when she sent out her now-infamous e-mail, a lengthy diatribe that criticized Miscavige's leadership. The church then sued the couple, citing the non-disclosure agreements they had signed, and asked for a minimum of $300,000 in damages.
The case went badly for Scientology, however, when it tried to enforce those gag orders and instead ended up with Cook giving testimony at a remarkable February 9th hearing. Church lawyers threw in the towel the next day, and a few weeks later, the two sides hammered out a settlement agreement.
According to that agreement, both sides walked away with no money changing hands, and Cook and Baumgarten once again promised never to speak publicly about Scientology.
We wrote that although it was disappointing to see the case end so suddenly, the damage had been done -- Cook's sworn testimony was already out there, and will continue to be a headache for the church.
But many found it hard to believe that Cook and Baumgarten really walked away with no money in the settlement. Although the final court order was explicit about that, many of our readers wondered, could there have been a secret side arrangement that proved lucrative for Cook?
Our legal expert, Scott Pilutik, said it wasn't likely.
What good is a secret agreement which contradicts an existing, simultaneously-entered-into court-ordered agreement? What legal force would such a document have? And why would Scientology give money away without consideration -- consideration which would otherwise be found in the court-ordered agreement? How stupid do you think Scientology's lawyers are?
Childs and Tobin, in tonight's story, were clearly trying to figure out if Cook and Baumgarten moving to Guadeloupe implies that they've been paid. Donley denied that that was the case.
She and her husband, Wayne Baumgarten, have sold their car, their furniture and many other household possessions, said Jon Donley, a Web designer and media consultant who worked for the couple in 2010 and 2011 at their now-defunct marketing company in San Antonio, Texas.
The couple is keeping their home on the outskirts of that city and will rent it, Donley said.
...Donley said Baumgarten stuck to the language in the agreement when they met shortly after the talks ended. He said he and Cook walked away with nothing, Donley said.
Tobin and Childs also wonder how Cook and Baumgarten came to choose Guadeloupe, of all places...
Why they chose Guadeloupe isn't clear. The island, in the Lesser Antilles, is an overseas territory of France, whose government has taken a strong stance against Scientology. The church likely has little, if any, presence there.
Guadeloupe's port city, Pointe-à-Pitre, is a cruise ship destination, but Scientology's passenger ship, the Freewinds, which sails in the Caribbean, does not stop there, former church members said.
For me, however, what really struck home were the concluding lines of their article. They immediately brought to my mind what I'd heard Debbie Cook say previously, that five years ago, they had tried to find a place on the map where they would be farthest away from Scientology that they could find -- and also away from their own family members, which would please the church itself. And that's how they chose San Antonio, Texas. Now, it appears they've chosen an even more remote exile, where they don't even speak the language...
Donley asked if their move out of the country was a condition of the settlement.
"They looked me right in the eyes and said, 'We can't talk about that,' '' he said.
We wish Cook and Baumgarten well.
UPDATE: Some thoughts from Scott Pilutik this morning...
Giving it a little bit more thought, perhaps there was a second agreement. My reasoning that there was no second agreement was predicated on there being no consideration on one side of the table -- i.e., Cook gets paid and Scientology gets what? The consideration they naturally sought was already accounted for in the court-ordered agreement, meaning that they'd never be able to collect their money; and they'd effectively be funding C/B's future defense in the event of a breach (assuming the payment was considerable, say north of $250k).
But perhaps the second agreement was simply: "Scientology agrees to pay Cook/Baumgarten $_XX_ upon proof of C/B having sold all their US possessions, renunciation of their US citizenship, and proof of their obtaining citizenship of and taking up residence within a country chosen from the following list, A, B, C, etc." The agreement to exile oneself *would* be "consideration." The problem with this is enforcement though; I'm having problems imagining such an agreement that isn't also against public policy. I mean, what if C/B show up in the San Antonio in five years? The court doesn't have the capacity to enforce that agreement (presumably by deporting Cook/Baumgarten). But legally specious contracts haven't troubled Scientology from drafting them before, so who knows what went down.
Thanks for that, Scott.
Before this story appeared in the Tampa Bay Times, some of my sources had been giving me circumstantial evidence that Wayne and Debbie had received a large payment. None of it rose to the level of "moving to a Caribbean island," however, so I didn't write about it.
I have a couple of thoughts about them receiving money, if that happened.
First, good for them.
I think there's overwhelming evidence that Debbie Cook was extremely naive about the media and the courts, and really did not know what she was getting into with her New Year's Eve e-mail. She subsequently found herself in a very dicey situation, and I was in that courtroom and can tell you that it can't be fun to be sitting opposite six or eight church attorneys who have, on paper at least, the possibility of making you liable for millions of dollars.
So if it turns out that Debbie managed to testify in court, under oath, about the horrors of the "Hole" at Int Base and take a large cash settlement out of Miscavige? Wow. She's more movie material than ever.
Second, of all the reactions I've seen online, the one I'm least swayed by is this notion that Miscavige paid because Cook was sitting on even more, and even more damaging information. When people suggest that, they are really talking about the Lisa McPherson case. Yes, Cook was in charge of Flag -- which included the Ft. Harrison Hotel -- when McPherson died there in 1995. But all of my sources say that she had less to do with that matter than the people we've already heard from.
I think it's most likely that Cook already revealed her most damaging information -- and may have then received payment for it. A neat trick.
Now, moving to a foreign country that has perhaps the most anti-Scientology track record in the world, who knows -- maybe after Debbie's settled, she'll give me a call without worry that the church's attorneys can do anything about it.
One can dream.
********** 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. 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 hot subjects we've covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and was 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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.