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.

@VoiceTonyO | Facebook: Tony Ortega


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