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Scientology vs Debbie Cook, Day 1: Our Totally Unscientific Handicapping

Scientology vs Debbie Cook, Day 1: Our Totally Unscientific Handicapping

What an amazing time we had reporting from the Bexar County Courthouse today as Debbie Cook testified in the lawsuit filed against her by her former employer, the Church of Scientology.

We got back to our hotel room and saw for the first time the amazing comments left by our loyal readers. (Our Internet connection in the courtroom was very limited.) Good to see that this day seemed to have as much impact for so many of you as it did for us.

I won't go over everything that happened today. Please revisit our live updates from the hearing, or read excellent stories by the Tampa Bay Times and the San Antonio Express News.

In this piece, I'd just like to share some thoughts about how the case is going, from my totally unscientific, legally untrained, and I'm-doing-this-fast-because-I-want-a-margarita perspective.

First, let me give George Spencer his due. Scientology's local attorney is good, very good. He's methodical but not plodding. He's precise, and he keeps things narrowly focused. If his opening statement was a bit thin, his examination of Debbie Cook was laser-targeted. He simply wanted to show that she had left the church on good terms -- as the video of her signing her non-disclosure agreement in 2007 seemed to indicate -- that she was of sound mind when she agreed to a gag order, and that she should have been grateful to get $50,000 when she signed the agreement, and additional money and considerations.

Slender, of medium height, thinning on top, Spencer has a bit of a Hume Cronyn kind of look and appears to be in his 50s. He skillfully objected multiple times when Ray Jeffrey was getting a bit ahead of himself with leading questions. And Spencer seemed to think quick on his feet.

I thought he only did poorly a couple of times. Once was when he wanted Debbie Cook to admit that the headlines on news stories about her e-mail were disparaging of the church. It felt gratuitous and a little cruel -- Cook certainly wasn't responsible for the way us journalists write about her, and in a dispute over whether her e-mail disparaged Scientology, our news stories about the controversy are completely irrelevant. Cook actually did what she could to discourage us from writing about her. She asked me to take down her e-mail when I published it on New Year's Day (I complied), and she sent a note to the Tampa Bay Times pleading with them to understand that she didn't want to involve the press.

So to then blame her for the way headlines were written? Not Spencer's best moment.

I perceived another weakness when I thought later of his objection to Debbie Cook's eyewitness accounts of David Miscavige's alleged violence, and his severe mistreatment of her by putting her in "The Hole" at Int Base. Spencer said these stories were irrelevant because the defense had not proven that Miscavige has any connection to the plaintiff in the case, namely Scientology's Flag Service Organization.

This is an incredibly cynical ploy, but there's nothing wrong with it as long as the judge buys it, and Judge Martha Tanner did seem persuaded that the defense had not really proved a connection between Miscavige and FSO. (This is like saying that NBA Commissioner Daniel Stern has nothing to do with the New York Knicks because he doesn't put on shorts and heave three-pointers with the team.)

What I remembered only after I'd left the courthouse, however, is that earlier in the day, Spencer was trying to get Debbie Cook to admit that her New Year's Eve e-mail violated her non-disclosure agreement because it was disparaging.

Disparaging to whom? Well of course, David Miscavige.

So does Spencer get to have it both ways? Does Debbie Cook get punished for criticizing Miscavige, but she can't bring up Miscavige's own mistreatment of her? Well, this is exactly what Scientology's byzantine 1980s reorganization was made for, to provide the church's ultimate leader with deniability, since the shore story is that he's only the chairman of the board of one small Scientology entity, Religious Technology Center. Those who worked for him, however, say there is little in Scientology -- including FSO -- that he doesn't control with micromanaging fury.

On the other side, there's Ray Jeffrey, attorney for Debbie Cook and her husband Wayne Baumgarten. He's more homey, more emotional, and more fun to listen to than his competition, and in a long day in court, that does count for something. There were a few times when Spencer was objecting to the way he led Cook through her testimony that made me wonder if Jeffrey was going to recover. But he has amazing material to work with, so every small stumble quickly was overwhelmed with Cook's stunning testimony.

As for Cook herself, she was pretty damned credible on the stand. She handled Spencer's questions by being neither argumentative nor a doormat. She spoke up for herself when she needed to, and it never came off as a wrong move.

I think it would be difficult for anyone to conclude that she had not been through hell, and had signed pretty extreme non-disclosure agreements under less than ideal conditions.

But does any of it matter? This is what makes it so difficult to handicap what's going on in the courtroom. Sure, Debbie Cook provided stunning testimony about seeing a high-ranking Scientology executive ordered to lick a bathroom floor for a half hour, and about her own "confessionals" that gave her a mental breakdown -- but does any of that trump the fact that she signed a gag order and then may have violated it with her New Year's Eve e-mail?

It's hard to read Judge Tanner, and she may just decide that Cook signed an agreement and the church has every right to shut her up until the trial can occur. We'll know tomorrow.

But one thing doesn't hinge on the whims of a Bexar County Judge -- today, under oath, one of the most well known former executives in Scientology put on the public record a harrowing tale of degradation in the Sea Org. And you have to think, was that really worth suing Debbie Cook?


Debbie Cook Coverage in the Village Voice...

January 1: Scientology rocked by allegations of greed in e-mail to 12,000 church members

January 3: Is Scientology imploding? Watching the panic after a former executive dares to question church management

January 4: Scientology in crisis: Debbie Cook's transformation from enforcer to whistleblower

January 6: Scientology in turmoil: Debbie Cook's e-mail, annotated

January 31: Scientology sues Debbie Cook over her New Year's Eve e-mail

February 2: Debbie Cook files to dissolve Scientology's temporary restraining order: We talk to her attorney, Ray Jeffrey

February 3: Debbie Cook's motion denied: Scientology's restraining order remains in place until Thursday hearing

February 4: Scientology wants it both ways: The church's opposite legal strategies in Florida and Texas

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.

tortega@villagevoice.com | @VoiceTonyO | Facebook: Tony Ortega

Keep up on all of our New York news coverage at this blog, Runnin' Scared


SCIENTOLOGY IN THE VILLAGE VOICE

[All recent stories] | [What is Scientology?] | [Top 25 People Crippling Scientology] [Commenters of the Week] | [Thursday 2pm Stats!] | [Scientology vs. South Park] [This Week Aboard the Apollo] | [Sunday Funnies]

FEATURED INVESTIGATIONS

[Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis secretly recorded discussing "disconnection"] [Benjamin Ring, LA deputy sheriff, wants you to spend your 401K on Scientology] [Scientologists: How many of them are there, anyway?] [Scientology hates clean ice: The "Fair Game" operation that should turn your stomach] [Scientology hates clean ice, part 2: Another target, and the web as weapon] [Paulette Cooper, Scientology's original and worst nightmare: a Thanksgiving tribute]

THE TOP 25 PEOPLE CRIPPLING SCIENTOLOGY

1. L. Ron Hubbard | 2. David Miscavige | 3. Marty Rathbun | 4. Tom Cruise | 5. Joe Childs and Tom Tobin | 6. Anonymous | 7. Mark Bunker | 8. Mike Rinder | 9. Jason Beghe | 10. Lisa McPherson | 11. Nick Xenophon | 12. Tommy Davis | 13. Janet Reitman | 14. Tory Christman | 15. Andreas Heldal-Lund | 16. Marc and Claire Headley | 17. Jefferson Hawkins | 18. Amy Scobee | 19. The Squirrel Busters | 20. Trey Parker and Matt Stone | 21. Kendrick Moxon | 22. Jamie DeWolf | 23. Ken Dandar | 24. Dave Touretzky | 25. Xenu

HELD ABOARD THE FREEWINDS: TALES OF THE SEA ORG

[Valeska Paris, held against her will from 1996 to 2007 on Scientology's cruise ship] [Ramana Dienes-Browning, marriage at 16, sexual interrogation, life in the engine room] [Melissa Paris, Valeska's sister: forced to marry at 16]

SCIENTOLOGY VS. SOUTH PARK: INVESTIGATION AS RETALIATION

[Scientology targeted South Park's Parker and Stone in an investigation] [More documents in the South Park probe: instructions to send in a young mole] [Scientology responds in typical fashion] | [Lloyd Kaufman confirms the probe] [Mark Ebner also investigated after South Park involvement] [Mark Chauppetta, private eye, explains what Scientology operatives look for]

MARTY RATHBUN AND THE SIEGE OF SOUTH TEXAS

[Scientology has Rathbun arrested] | [Rathbun and Mark Bunker reveal surprising ties] In Germany with Ursula Caberta: [Announcing plans] | [Press conference] | [Making news about Tom Cruise, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair] | [Post-trip interview] The Squirrel Busters: [Goons with cameras on their heads] | [Rathbun's open letter to neighbors] | [Ingleside on the Bay, Texas rallies to Rathbun's cause] | [Squirrel Buster's claim to be making a "documentary"] | [VIDEO: "On a Boat"] | ["Anna" sent to creep out Monique Rathbun] | [Squirrel Busters go hillbilly] | [A videographer blows the whistle on the goon squad] | [Ed Bryan, OT VIII, shows the power of Scientology's highest levels]

SCIENTOLOGY SPYING AND "FAIR GAME"

[Secret Scientology documents spell out spying operation against Marc Headley] [Scientology's West U.S. spies list revealed] | [Scientology's enemies list: Are you on it?] Spy operation against Washington Post writer Richard Leiby: [Part 1] | [Part 2] [A Scientology spy comes clean: Paulien Lombard's remarkable public confession] [Scientology advertises for writers in Freedom magazine] [Accidental leak shows Scientology spy wing plans to "handle" the Voice] [Lori Hodgson and Disconnection: "No one's going to take my eternity away"]

SCIENTOLOGY AND CELEBRITIES

[Hey, Scientology Celebrity, Here's Your Media Training Checksheet!] [Tom Cruise and X Factor's Stacy Francis singing together on the Freewinds] [X Factor's Stacy Francis: Her first husband, Michael Sandlofer, answers abuse claims] [Tom Cruise and Baby Suri embarrassed by news item, so someone must pay] ["Tom Cruise told me to talk to a bottle"] | [Tom Cruise likes coconut cake] | [Tom Cruise has a sense of humor] | ["Tom Cruise not a kook!"] | [Paulette Cooper on Tom Cruise] [Paul Haggis, director of Crash, issues an ultimatum, leaves the church] [Character actor Jason Beghe defects noisily] | [Actor Michael Fairman reveals his "suppressive person" declaration] | [Michael Fairman talks to the Voice] [Giovanni Ribisi as David Koresh: Scientology-Branch Davidian link makes sense] [Russell Brand weds ex-Scientologists in wild ceremony] | [Skip Press on Haggis] [Placido Domingo Jr.: Scientology's retaliation is "scary and pathetic"] Grant Cardone, NatGeo's "Turnaround King": [Doing Scientology's dirty work?] | [Milton Katselas complained about Cardone's smear job] | [Cardone runs to Huffpo] [Philip Boyd, Saving Grace actor, rips "the business that is Scientology"]

JANET REITMAN'S INSIDE SCIENTOLOGY

[Our review of Inside Scientology] | [An interview with Janet Reitman] | [A report from Reitman's first book tour appearance] | [At the Half-King: Reitman not afraid] [Scientology doesn't like Inside Scientology] | [Q&A at Washington Post] [A roundup of Reitman's print reviews, and why isn't she on television more?]

HUGH URBAN'S THE CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY

[A review of Urban's scholarly history of the church] | [An interview with Hugh Urban]

EX-SCIENTOLOGISTS SPEAK OUT

["The Money Machine": another blockbuster St. Pete Times investigation] [Marc Headley: "Tom Cruise told me to talk to a bottle"] | [The Nancy Many interview] [Sympathy for the Devil: Tory Christman's Story] | [Jeff Hawkins' Counterfeit Dreams] [86 Million Thin Dimes: The Lawrence Wollersheim Saga] | [Mike Rinder on spying]

OVERSEAS NEWS

[Scientology in Israel: Arson, attempted murder, paranoia -- and a visit by the Voice!] [Scientology dodges a bullet in Australia] | [Scientology exec Jan Eastgate arrested] [All hell breaks loose in Israel] | [Scientology sees fundraising gold in the UK riots] [Aussie former rugby pro Chris Guider calls David Miscavige "toxic" and "violent"] [Stephen Cox, UK church newbie, pledges 20K pounds] | [Biggi Reichert: A German Lisa McPherson?] | [The Birmingham trove: 7,000 internal e-mails] [Australian farmer blamed for giving Tom Cruise a bad shrimp, loses her friends, family]

ODD VIDEOS AND ODDER NEWS

[Scientology chillin' with hip hop!] | [The curious career of Scientology rapper Chill EB] [Chill EB and me: the Voice interviews Scientology's in-house rapper] [Scientology singalong, "We Stand Tall"] | [Captain Bill Robertson and "Galactic Patrol"] [Scientology wins a major award!] | [Scientology wants your money: Meet Dede!] [Birmingham in the House! The "Ideal" dance mix] | [Scientology and the Nation of Islam] [When Scientology was hip] | [Sad: David Miscavige makes fun of his own fundraisers] [Freedom magazine parodies The New Yorker. Hilarity ensues.] [Scientology surf report: Anonymous parties outside the New York "org"]

THE VIEW INSIDE THE BUBBLE

[A scientologist's letter to the Voice and its readers] | [Scientology silent birth] [Tad Reeves: Scientology might listen to this guy] | [More Tad Reeves and family] [Scientology never forgets: A heartwarming telemarketing holiday miracle] [Desperate Scientology fundraising caught on video]


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