Scientology, Deep in the Heart of Texas: The Voice at the Debbie Cook Hearing
Update: For a wrap-up of today's hearing and some analysis of the day's performances, we now have this new piece.
Today, former Scientology executive Debbie Cook will try to convince a Bexar County, Texas district judge to lift the strict terms of a temporary injunction as she defends herself against a lawsuit filed by her former employer. The Church of Scientology is seeking a minimum of $300,000 in damages against Cook and her husband, Wayne Baumgarten, after Cook sent out an e-mail on New Year's Eve to thousands of her fellow church members, criticizing church leader David Miscavige for Scientology's focus on "extreme fundraising."
After 17 years as Scientology's top executive running its spiritual mecca in Clearwater, Florida and then some time in California, Cook left Scientology's "Sea Org" in 2007. She and her husband, who also left the Sea Org, signed non-disclosure agreements (for which they were paid $50,000 each), and moved to San Antonio. Cook left staff, but didn't leave the church, and bided her time until her New Year's Eve salvo proved a major crisis for the organization.
Scientology filed its lawsuit two weeks ago and was granted a temporary restraining order which prevents Cook and Baumgarten from talking about the case. That TRO runs out today, and will be replaced with a temporary injunction which will keep the gag order in place throughout the life of the lawsuit -- unless Cook and her attorney, Ray Jeffrey, can convince a judge otherwise.
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The Voice is on the scene this morning in San Antonio, and we'll be doing our best to bring you updates throughout the day.
First update: 6:15 am, CST The district judges of Bexar County take turns presiding -- this week it's Judge Karen H. Pozza, and it will be her decision who will handle today's matter. Will she give it to Judge Janet P. Littlejohn, who handled last week's motion to dissolve the temporary restraining order (she denied it), or give it to someone else? Pozza could even keep it for herself. Put yourself in her place -- do you hear this case or give it to someone else? Finding out Pozza's decision will likely be our first matter of business.
8:30 am. The Bexar County Courthouse is a lovely old historic building. Looks like Judge Pozza is about to start with today's docket.
Bonus reason to be in San Antonio...
Now I'm feeling chingon. Let's get it on.
8:49 am. Ray Jeffrey just entered Judge Pozza's court with his two assistants. We're waiting now for her to get to the Cook case. She's got a line of attorneys at the bench, waiting to learn what court they'll be in today.
8:55 am. In walk Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder. They clean up well.
9:09 am. Pozza now reading the docket. Just met Joe Childs. Hot damn.
9:30 am. It's Judge Martha Tanner. We're headed for the 4th floor.
9:40 am. Rathbun: "They moved to exclude the media. She told them to shove it."
9:45 am. Judge Tanner's bench is decorated with the following signs...
"The witch is in"
"Yes I'm a witch, deal with it"
"Thou shalt not whine"
9:49 am. Three television cameras showed up. They're setting up one to serve as a pool feed.
Tom Tobin just introduced himself to me. What a hell of a thing.
Debbie Cook and Wayne Baumgarten are now at the table with their attorney Ray Jeffrey and his two assistants. On the other side, the church appears to have five attorneys.
10:19 am. George Spencer giving his opening statement.
10:28 am. Scientology's attorney, Spencer, tried to get the judge to scuttle Jeffrey's opening statement because it would violate the agreements! She said no. Now Jeffrey is up.
10:50 am. Jeffrey: "Ms. Cook was beaten. She was tortured. She was degraded beyond belief. She was made to watch the torture and beatings and degradation of others. And not just one or two. She was confined in inhuman conditions...they signed this agreement just to get away."
11:00 am. Jeffrey wrapping up his lengthy, impassioned opening statement (he got emotional at one point when he described Wayne Baumgarten wanting to not rock the boat with the church so he could continue to talk to his sons and father, who are church members). Scientology had wanted Judge Tanner to keep Jeffrey under constraints, but she hasn't interrupted him once.
11:09 am. Jeffrey finishing up by raising the issue of the church doing the exact opposite in Florida, where they want a court to butt out when it comes to contracts with members. Apparently, Jeffrey did word clear "estoppel." Recess.
11:26 am. Rinder and Rathbun have been excluded from the room because they will be witnesses.
Spencer calls Debbie Cook to the stand.
Debbie Cook on the stand in Judge Martha Tanner's court.
11:40 am. Spencer is showing a videotape of Debbie Cook, in 2007, being interviewed by church attorney Eliot Abelson as she agrees to sign the NDA.
12:05 pm. Lunch break. If the church's intention was to slow things down to a crawl, watching 4-year-old video of documents being signed, page by page, they succeeded. All energy drained from the courtroom. Everyone bolts for lunch. I'm headed to the Riverwalk with a couple of readers of the blog who invited me along.
Debbie Cook gets ready for her testimony to continue after the lunch break
Things start to heat up as Spencer continues to question Debbie Cook...
Spencer: You understood that it would not only be against Scientology ethics but also affirmatively fraudulent if you accepted the $50,000 unless you intended to live up to the agreement.
Cook: I understood that if I took the upper level materials and I put them out to broad public, or if I did something that was an outright violation of our ethics codes, that that would not be OK. Does that answer your question?
Spencer: You're saying that if you lived up to the spirit of the agreement, then it was OK for you to accept the money?
Cook: First, I never expected or asked for the money. I was going to need medical assistance....We did not plan on getting that money...and it was to make nice at the end. Also, I was out of it. I intended to sign whatever I had to sign to live. I signed pieces of paper that they wanted me to sign so that I could go.
Spencer: So you had no intent to live up to the bargain?
Cook: Really, the only thing that was in my mind was to leave.
1:54 pm. Spencer has now entered the New Year's Eve e-mail into evidence as exhibit 7.
Spencer: "Let's go through exhibit 7 line by line."
(OMG, we'll be here for weeks. What is he thinking?)
Spencer: You voice many criticisms of what is going on in the church.
Cook: I don't feel that they're criticisms. I feel that they're points of scripture for other Scientologists to follow and to see to it that only our parts of our scripture be followed.
2:10 pm: Funny moment, at least for me. Spencer asks Cook which was the first news story about her e-mail.
Cook: I think it was the Tampa Bay Times that was first.
[Without looking up from my keyboard, I smile and shake my head.]
Cook: No, I think it was the Village Voice.
[Yikes, I gotta watch that. Poker face!]
Spencer is now having her admit that the news stories put the church in an unfavorable light, as if she was responsible for what us hacks write. Seems pretty irrelevant.
[Someone on the church team is going to need to give Spencer a lesson on how to pronounce "Miscavige."]
Debbie sticks up for herself and says she isn't responsible for the Tampa Bay Times wording its story the way it did.
2:27 pm. Another interesting exchange...
Spencer: You knew, did you not, that you were acting to the contrary of the written agreement with the church?
Cook: I felt I was very careful not to violate my agreement.
Spencer: How long did you spend composing that e-mail?
Cook: A couple of weeks.
Spencer: Then you finally sent it out on New Year's Eve. Had you been drinking?
Spencer: Ten o'clock on New Year's Eve, nothing to drink?
A little later, Debbie says that she didn't expect to be sued. She figured a couple of people would come by after she sent the e-mail.
Spencer: You expected that because you knew it was a violation of your agreement?
Cook: No, I knew the church would not be happy with what I did. I didn't think it was a violation of my agreement.
Spencer is now asking her about an e-mail she sent a church attorney sometime after the New Year's Eve e-mail. Spencer quotes this e-mail to the attorney: "I am going to play an active role in the fate of the religion I love."
Spencer: By saying that to the church's attorney, you were communicating that you were going to keep writing and sending e-mails.
Cook: I wanted to communicate that I'm still an active Scientologist, and that I still love Scientology, and I'm going to be active.
Spencer: And that would include future e-mails like the one you sent out on December 31, 2011?
Cook: It would include what I felt was in the best interest of Scientology and Scientologists.
2:57 pm. We're at recess. I finally had a chance to see what Tobin and Childs put up. Amazing stuff. When I got here this morning, I saw that Joe had that pleading, but I didn't have time to get my own copy before the hearing. I've been planted here in the courtroom the whole time.
Someone asked about Debbie's demeanor in the videotape. It was hard for us to see -- the church attorneys directed the television at the judge.
Keep one thing in mind -- Cook in that 2007 video is saying nice things to Abelson about her treatment by the FSO and the Sea Org in general. As she said in testimony, she was just trying to have things end well as she left. But the abuse she alleges happened some time before that out in California, not in Florida where she was signing that document. I have a feeling that when Jeffrey finally gets a chance to question Debbie, they'll move to what happened at Int Base, which Spencer is keeping well away from at this point.
3:04 pm. Ray Jeffrey's turn to question his client, Debbie Cook. He's cuing up the same Eliot Abelson video from 2007.
Jeffrey is asking questions that lay the ground for what the videotape doesn't show -- that she was held against her will at the Hacienda Garden Apartments in Clearwater.
Spencer objects, and says that even if there was duress -- which he does not admit -- it would have been taken care of by the money she accepted. Wow.
Tanner overrules his objection. Jeffrey continues, now talking about the security at the Hacienda Garden, motion detectors, etc.
3:20 pm. OK, now we're finally getting to Int Base and "The Hole." Here we go....
She's tearing up now. this isn't easy...
Cook: We were made to do these confessions...one time in front of 100 people, yelling at you. I was put in a trash can, cold water poured over me, slapped. One time it went on for 12 hours...There were times I was accused of being a homosexual, a lesbian.
Definitely a remarkable moment. But now Jeffrey is back to asking her about trying to get out of Clearwater. Was that really enough about Int Base?
Jeffrey: As you sat there, what freedom did you have to refuse to sign that agreement?
Cook: If I had refused to sign it, I wouldn't have been able to leave...
She then explains that the only reason she had returned after blowing a few weeks earlier was that she and Wayne wanted to avoid being declared...
Cook: Basically there's a practice in Scientology where you get declared to be a suppressive person, in other words...like being excommunicated. And then any Scientologists who are connected to you are told to disconnect from you, cease to be in communication with you, or the same thing will happen to them...That had a lot of effect, particularly for my husband, whose mother and father and sister and their kids and his own sons are all Scientologists. He'd basically lose the ability to communicate with any of them. It would be the same for me and my brother.
Now Jeffrey has asked her to give her whole history of joining Scientology and then moving up through the ranks...
We're hearing about days from 9 am to midnight, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, about her health problems coming on in 2000, about how Miscavige began sending her places like Spain and England and LA and the Int Base, but she still had to keep on top of things at Flag.
In order to do that, she's saying they could sleep only every other night, eat every other day. Everything she had done to handle her health problems were being affected by this new schedule....
3:43 pm. Oh, you knew this was coming! As Cook begins describing incidents of violence by David Miscavige, Spencer stands and objects, saying that they haven't established a relationship between Miscavige and the plaintiff -- Flag Service Organization!
Jeffrey then goes through with Cook how Miscavige is Chairman of the Board of RTC, that he ran things at CSI's Int Base, and that he oversaw what happened in Clearwater -- but Tanner sustained Spencer's objection that they hadn't proved a connection between Miscavige and FSO! Oh, amazing.
But now they're back to sadistic DM. An executive made to lick a bathroom floor for a half hour. DM telling one of his female communicators to break Debbie's finger if she didn't answer a question (it was bent back). Now we're hearing about people being forced into an ice-cold lake.
Jeffrey: How did you end up in the hole?
Cook: May 2007, I was at the international base, Mr. Miscavige was not there, but I was supposed to be doing numerous things at the Int base at his direction. I was on the phone to him every day, sometimes several times a day. And there were certain thing he was unhappy about, that weren't done to his satisfaction. Anyway, I was on the phone to him, somebody was pounding on the door. I was on the phone, so I couldn't answer it...Somebody pried the window open, two big guys came in. Mr. Miscavige said on the phone, "Are they there?" Yes, I said, they are. And he said, "Goodbye."
Over 100 top executives in the hole when she got there, sleeping on the floor, ants. Temperatures of 106 in the summer...
As we reported earlier, what led to Debbie's ending up in a trash can was a forced confession of Guillaume Lesevre and Marc Yager that they were homosexuals and were having an affair. They were beaten, Cook says.
Jeffrey: Why didn't you just leave?
Cook Not possible.
4:00 pm. My impression at this point: Jeffrey sometimes asks leading questions and he gets called on it by Spencer. But Debbie is really cool, calm, isn't overstating anything. Totally unflappable when she was being questioned by Spencer.
Describing how horrible your mental state is in the hole, she gets emotional -- and it's moving because she really hasn't appeared that way much at all. I'd say she's doing very well, but what do I know. Spencer is very effective in his own way, keeping things very narrow when it's his turn. Some of what Jeffrey and Cook are talking about must sound so outlandish to someone not familiar with the Hole, I wonder how much it sinks in with the judge. Always a mystery in a situation like this.
Debbie testifies that she finally was let out of the hole because they needed her for an event at Flag, back in Florida. While she was at Flag, she was watched closely, a personal guard put on her.
Cook: Even if I went to the bathroom, she went to the bathroom with me. She had a radio and a phone, and if there was any trouble, she could call security.
Jeffrey confirms with her that that guard came from Int management, not FSO.
Ooh, this is an interesting detail. Jeffrey asks her what the food was like when she was in the hole...
Cook: Horrible. It was a big pot of slop. You'd line up and get a bowl of slop for breakfast, lunch, and dinner....It was like leftovers. Bits of meat, soupy kind of leftovers thrown into a pot and cooked and barely edible.
Cook is now describing how she and her husband finally got away from Flag and made a run for North Carolina, where her parents where.
Cook: We stopped in South Carolina in a dining room, a cafe, to get a sandwich. We were sitting there eating and looked up, and Kathy True was standing there...She's external security. Any external matters that the church considers a threat.
Jeffrey: Had you told anybody that you were stopping at a cafe in South Carolina?
Cook: No we had not.
Jeffrey: How did they track you down?
Cook: There's a procedure when someone of significance [blows]... a number of people are put on tracking you down. They're sent to the airport, bus stop, they're sent where your family is. They start a whole operation to track you down.
Jeffrey: Had you ever been involved in an operation like that as Captain of Flag?
Cook: Yes, I have.
Jeffrey: Who was directing you in your activities in that search?
Cook: ...when Ben Shaw blew, he left, and I was getting direction from Mr. Miscavige...
So True had tracked them down, wanted them to come back. Cook told her she was done. True threatened them with being declared and Wayne's family would disconnect from him.
This is the classic approach, and so was Cook's response: we'll come back for a few days to route out correctly. Why do Scientologists always agree to this? It's amazing.
This is clever. Jeffrey is using Spencer's own words here. Cook and Baumgarten had worked out a deal to return to Clearwater to route out, and were assured that they'd be taken go the Regal Palms, an assisted-living center where Wayne's mother was, a place without guards and fences. Instead, they were taken to the Hacienda Gardens and were put under security.
So Scientology didn't live up to the agreement, Jeffrey asks, clearly echoing what Spencer had been asking her about the agreement she had made.
Another moment of supreme irony. Jeffrey asks Cook about confessionals she was subjected to at Hacienda Gardens. Following on what she had been through at Int Base, she says it caused her to have a meltdown. Jeffrey wants to get to the point that she has to go through this nightmare activity in order to leave, but Spencer leaps up and objects, saying that this is getting into doctrinal, theological matters that aren't the subject of a court of law! Oh, really?
The judge allows them to continue, and Jeffrey and Cook are able to get in that she had no idea how much longer she'd be subjected to such treatment. This is what led up to her signing the agreement.
Finally at the end of her rope, she called her mother and said if she wasn't out in three days, she should call the police. She also, in a letter, talked about slitting her wrists.
Starting to get into the subject of where they would go from Clearwater, that they were told they couldn't live with family (they had wanted to move in with Wayne's sister in California), when the judge asks to recess for the day.
What a day of testimony from Debbie Cook...
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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