The Tampa Bay Times has done it again with another explosive report on the Church of Scientology. Drew Harwell’s thorough report shows an alarming partnership between Scientology and the Nation of Islam that has drained dry a troubled charter school in Dunedin, Florida.
We also have a startling report out of Israel, where a new court pleading has Scientology’s own attorneys accusing church leader David Miscavige of lying in order to drum up donations.
With reports like that coming in, we couldn’t wait for our usual Thursday worldwide roundup. So hold on to your hat as we summarize this Sunday’s bombshells.
First, today’s Tampa Bay Times features Harwell’s story on its front page, and it’s a densely packed and shocking look at Life Force Arts and Technology Academy, a struggling charter school in the town of Dunedin.
Harwell reports that Life Force receives about $800,000 a year in public money, but after opening in 2007, by 2009 it was on the ropes financially. That’s when “Dr.” Hanan Islam, of California’s World Literacy Crusade, stepped in with another one of her businesses, the Art of Management, saying that she was going to save the place.
Parents and former teachers, however, charge that Islam instead led a covert takeover of the school by the Church of Scientology.
Islam’s World Literacy Crusade promotes L. Ron Hubbard’s “study tech,” which it argues is a secular set of study materials. But as Harwell points out, Hubbard’s materials — which place an oddly single-minded focus on the use of dictionaries for nearly all educational problems — has been rejected by school boards around the country as a covert way of getting Scientology’s ideas into schools. [For a thorough expose on Hubbard’s “study tech” and how it attempts to wedge Scientology into the schools, see this series of essays by Carnegie Mellon professor Dave Touretzky.]
Even stranger, the takeover of Life Force appeared to be a joint effort between Scientology and the Nation of Islam. We’ve written previously about the strange relationship that has been growing between Scientology and Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader.
At the center of that odd pairing is a man named Alfreddie Johnson.
That’s Alfreddie in the photo behind Farrakhan and former X-Factor contestant Stacy Francis at a Scientology Celebrity Centre event from a few years ago.
It’s Johnson who reached out to Farrakhan and got him interested in Dianetics about six years ago. And Harwell reports that Johnson was on the scene as a Nation of Islam “brother,” Louis Muhammad, was made board chair of the charter school. Johnson himself showed up at fundraisers for Life Force.
But that fundraising didn’t seem to get Life Force out of its struggles. Harwell reports that parents were concerned about the meager resources at the school. But while the school struggled, it “funneled tens of thousands of dollars more to Islam’s business interests than she told the bankruptcy court she would charge.”
At the same time it was funneling money to Islam’s Scientology front group, the school was so poor, it argued to the local sheriff’s station that it authorized a parent to rip out the copper wiring and other fixtures of a closed nearby hotel as a way to raise money. (The hotel denied that it gave the school permission to do so, Hartwell writes.)
Hartwell even shows that Islam’s “doctorate” is from a diploma mill.
With the school such a train wreck, Pinellas County would like to close it, but it can’t do so because Life Force is currently in bankruptcy court.
Perhaps the most troubling detail: once Scientology took over the school, it seems to have installed its own version of elementary school RPF.
Rehabilitation Project Force is the name for Scientology’s prison detail for its Sea Org members who run afoul of rules or otherwise disappoint their leaders. It can take years of working at menial labor and shunned by other church members for parishioners in the RPF to restore themselves to good standing. In the case of Life Force, the Pinellas County school district found that children needing discipline were assigned to work with janitors. “Islam defended the practice,” Hartwell writes.
For now, the school is trying to change its name, and Islam’s group is still aggressively marketing it to locals.
One parent objected that his 11-year-old daughter was sent home from the Christmas Party with a book by L. Ron Hubbard with the title The Carnival of Death. He burned it.
Hartwell’s story is packed with amazing detail. Please give it a look, and we’ll hope the Times keeps us updated as the school moves through bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, in Israel, a new court document has Scientology arguing that its leader spoke lies to thousands of assembled church members.
For some time now, we’ve been covering developments in the case of the new Ideal Org in Jaffa/Tel Aviv. As we reported earlier, Scientology surreptitiously took over a Jaffa landmark — the Alhambra cinema building — with the use of a front, an attorney, who then went berserk and is accused of trying to have a lot of people killed and of twice trying to burn down the building. The Arab Muslim man who was hired to renovate the building, Naif Salati, later filed a foreclosure order on the building and sued Scientology, saying that it shorted him on what he was contracted to be paid.
Scientology sued him back, claiming that Salati never finished the building’s renovation.
As we reported in November, after visiting the building ourselves, the place looked pretty finished to us. But more importantly, in December, we were smuggled a video of church leader David Miscavige making a presentation to thousands of church members at a gala in the UK, saying that the Jaffa org was finished, staffed, and was open for business.
As he said these things, images were shown of the gleaming new facility…
Although we published that video excerpt on December 12, Miscavige’s presentation was made at an event held in October, and the footage of the org was filmed some time earlier.
Salati’s attorney, seeing our item in December, filed with the court a copy of that video segment, saying that it proved that Salati had finished his work, contrary to what the church was saying in court.
However, now Scientology’s attorneys have filed their answer, and they say the video isn’t proof that Salati had finished his work. How do they know that? They admit that the images in the video were faked, and that the faked footage was used for the purpose of “donors.”
“We are not dealing with a documentary as to whether the works in the building were completed or not completed. The clip was filmed for the purposes of being shown to the audience of donors and members and it is only natural that the shortcomings of the applicant’s work were not shown,” the court document reads (our translation is from the Hebrew). “In the course of the filming, areas of the building that were not completed were not filmed and the clip focuses on the areas which show the building in a flattering light. In addition, filters and lighting that improved the appearance of the building were used.”
So, Scientology’s attorneys now admit that the footage was faked, and that the building was not completed, nor was it open for business. But let’s look again at what Miscavige said about it in October…
After taking us through several gleaming rooms, he concludes, as we see hundreds of staff members standing in front of the building…
“With more than 200 staff now manning our ramparts in this Holy Land, our new Church of Scientology of Israel.”
Well, for the purposes of his lawsuit, that’s no longer quite so true.
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, 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.