The Voice has learned that Debbie Cook filed a counterclaim against the Church of Scientology Monday afternoon, the first significant development since her stunning victory against the church in a Texas courtroom on February 10.
In her counterclaim, Cook is aiming directly at Scientology’s ultimate leader, David Miscavige, by attempting to add two of the church’s most powerful entities to the lawsuit that was filed against her by Scientology’s Flag Service Organization, her former employer.
Besides Cook’s filing, we also have several other documents sent back and forth between the opposing parties which provide a revealing look at how this case is being litigated behind the scenes.
This new information emerges as, this morning, the church’s lawsuit against Cook finally hits America’s major national mainstream media — she appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America this morning and will on Nightline tonight.
A quick review for those just coming to the story after seeing what was shown on ABC…
Cook was a “Sea Org” official who ran Scientology’s spiritual Mecca in Clearwater, Florida, known to Scientologists as “Flag Land Base” or “Flag.” As captain of the Flag Service Organization for 17 years, Cook oversaw the delivery of Scientology’s secret upper-level teachings to church members who made pilgrimages to the Clearwater complex.
In 2007, however, she and her husband, Wayne Baumgarten, left the Sea Org and moved to the San Antonio area, where they knew no one. Still a member of the church but no longer an employee, Cook remained in contact with many other church members through Facebook and e-mail. Then, this past New Year’s Eve, she sent out a remarkable e-mail to thousands of her fellow Scientologists, complaining about the way the church had become obsessed with “extreme fundraising” under Miscavige’s leadership.
The church then filed its lawsuit against Cook and Baumgarten, saying that the e-mail disparaged the church, and violated the terms of non-disclosure agreements that the couple signed when they left the Sea Org (they were each also paid $50,000 for signing the agreements).
In court, Cook countered that she had signed the agreement under duress, making it invalid. In remarkable testimony at the Bexar County Courthouse on February 9, Cook described how she took Scientology’s money and signed the agreement only after she had been held against her will in a bizarre office-prison, known as “the Hole,” at the church’s international base east of Los Angeles. During her seven weeks in the Hole, Cook testified, she was forced to take part in mass confessions, was fed a disgusting slop for meals, and had to sleep on a floor infested with ants and in temperatures that climbed past 100 degrees. After later finding herself under guard at a hotel in Clearwater and forced to participate in more confessions, she testified that she was willing to sign anything to leave.
During her testimony, as we blogged the hearing live from the courtroom, we noted that Scientology’s local attorney, George Spencer, objected to Cook and her lawyer, Ray Jeffrey, repeatedly blaming David Miscavige for Cook’s degrading treatment.
Spencer told Judge Martha Tanner that Miscavige was not an employee of the Flag Service Organization — the church entity that brought the lawsuit — and so he was irrelevant to the case.
Miscavige is chairman of the board of the Religious Technology Center, one of the many entities that were created during a 1980s reorganization of Scientology. Ex-Scientologists say that from his position at RTC, Miscavige actually wields ultimate power over all of the many individual organizations under the church’s umbrella, including the Church of Scientology International (CSI) and the Flag Service Organization.
As you’ll see in this counterclaim, Cook asks for unspecified damages. But the real importance of her filing is to have CSI and RTC added to the case, so that there will be no question that David Miscavige is relevant to the lawsuit (click to enlarge)…
Cook also submitted a request for a jury trial at the earliest date, which, without Scientology’s cooperation, is November 13 (if Scientology agrees, an earlier date could be set, perhaps as soon as September).
Cook and Baumgarten also sent to Scientology’s attorneys dozens of “interrogatories” to answer as the lawsuit moves into the discovery process. They also sent requests for “admissions” — under Texas law, these questions are designed to get the church to put on the record such things as whether the way Cook was treated at the “Hole” was something Scientology considers part of its religious practice.
There are three sets of these questions. We’ll reproduce them here, and we expect they’ll generate a lot of discussion from our deeply knowledgeable commenting community…
Another important development: On February 20, Cook and Baumgarten offered to pay back the $100,000 that they took when they signed their non-disclosure agreements in 2007, in return for the church voiding the agreements they signed…
Four days later, church attorney Gary Soter (who was present at the February 9-10 hearings, but who did not speak during the proceedings) sent this letter to Cook’s attorney, Ray Jeffrey, complaining about Cook talking to Nightline, and saying that if Jeffrey was serious about a settlement, he’d have Cook call ABC and cancel the show…
Jeffrey didn’t like Soter’s letter, and sent back this note to him the next day:
“Dear Mr. Soter,
My professionalism detector goes off when a lawyer sends me a letter purporting to quote my remarks from a long, informal telephone conversation with a colleague about privileged settlement matters. The only purpose for the quotation marks is to serve as a “gotcha”. I am not familiar with you, but I didn’t take Mr. Spencer for that sort of lawyer. I reject your misuse of my discussion with Mr. Spencer. In the future, I will refrain from chatting with Mr. Spencer. I don’t want to have to waste my time responding to quotation marks assigned to me. Also, I do not engage in correspondence wars with opposing counsel. So, if you do not hear back from me on some such matter, you may assume that I disagree with your position.
I hope you both have a nice weekend.
That same day, the 25th, Scientology’s local attorney, George Spencer, rejected Cook’s offer to pay back the church and reiterated what he had said in court, that the church would be moving for a summary judgment…
Spencer sent at least three additional letters to Jeffrey on the 25th. In one, he asks that Jeffrey preserve all pertinent e-mails and other documents that might show that Cook and Baumgarten had violated the terms of their agreements with the church: “We ask you to preserve these records so that we can calculate damages on how many violations and breaches there have been,” Spencer writes.
In another letter on the 25th, Spencer complains about Debbie Cook posting a letter thanking her supporters at Marty Rathbun’s blog (which we wrote about earlier)…
In the next letter, Spencer refers to the defense funds that have been set up to help Debbie Cook pay for Jeffrey’s services. (One she set up on her own website, another one was started by Rathbun at his blog.) Rathbun wrote about this letter at his blog yesterday, saying that he would never reveal who had donated to the fund he set up.
And finally, we’ve saved one of the most interesting documents for last. On Monday, Spencer sent this letter, raising issues with Cook and Baumgarten interacting with two other former, high-ranking Scientology officials, Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun. (Both had been announced as witnesses for Cook in the February 9-10 hearing, but were never called.)…
Rinder and Rathbun under non-disclosure agreements? They don’t act like it. I’ll ask them each about that claim later today.
For now, this is a lot of new information to absorb as this case moves forward. Scientology’s attorneys are sending out a lot of strongly-worded letters, but as to their plan to ask for summary judgment, Jeffrey talked about that during the press conference he held on February 10: no Texas judge, he says, would say that there wasn’t a major disagreement on the facts in this case (Cook says she was tortured, Scientology says she’s lying, for example). Jeffrey is confident that a judge won’t grant a summary judgment, and has said that he wants a trial — he wants a Texas jury to hear Debbie Cook’s testimony about the way she was treated in “the Hole.”
UPDATE: I’ve just seen ABC’s segment about Debbie Cook on Good Morning America. While it’s good to see this story on the national news, and Dan Harris in general does a good job explaining the background to the story, ABC commits one glaring, heinous act of typical mainstream lily-livered reporting.
Harris makes it sound as if Debbie Cook’s testimony about “the Hole” is all alone against the denials of the church. I understand that ABC must put in the church’s denials — but how can the network not also mention that other former executives have been going public about “the Hole” for several years!
It was nearly three years ago that the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) thoroughly described the bizarre office-prison in their blockbuster series, “The Truth Rundown.”
And Monique Rathbun pointed out to me at my Facebook page that ABC’s own program Nightline has previously aired an interview with Marty Rathbun talking about the Hole!
How difficult would it have been for ABC to include these words: “Debbie Cook is only the latest former church official to come forward with harrowing stories of Scientology’s strange office prison.”
Well, we’ll see on tonight’s lengthier Nightline version of Dan Harris’s piece if they manage to include that, and at least give Cook some credit that she’s not the only person saying that she went through David Miscavige’s degrading treatment.
UPDATE 2: Another letter! George Spencer sent over yet another stern letter today, this time about an Australian interview with Debbie Cook from Monday night…
Letter from Spencer about Good Morning America coming in 4…3…2…
UPDATE 3: As predicted!
Now, is Nightline past bedtime at the Spencer household? I guess we’ll find out tomorrow…
Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can 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.