Scientology Uses Its Movie Stars to Woo Politicians, Says Former Top Exec (OR: Tom Cruise Loves Coconut Cake!)


Another revelation this afternoon from Marty Rathbun, formerly one of the highest executives in Scientology who defected in 2004 and since 2009 has been criticizing church leader David Miscavige at his blog, “Moving On Up a Little Higher.”

Rathbun once worked very closely with Miscavige, who today he describes as a man who sees everything as a game, and one that he wants to win at any cost. (Miscavige himself has not given a press interview in many years.)

In particular, Rathbun mentioned a concerted campaign by Scientology, as it was suffering one of its worst public relations disasters after the death of parishioner Lisa McPherson, to go on a charm campaign to woo and influence Florida public officials.

How did the church intend to loosen up Florida’s pols? By setting up lunches and dinners with its stable of celebrities.

This is very relevant today, when in Los Angeles, Scientology’s influence over Sheriff Lee Baca has suddenly become a news item.

But in the period of 1999 to 2003, Scientology’s need for damage control was particularly critical. McPherson had died in 1995, but it wasn’t until a year later that the public started to become aware of her unusual death at the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, Florida — one of Scientology’s most important landmarks. (For the best write-up of McPherson’s entire history, make sure you pick up a copy of Janet Reitman’s compelling history, Inside Scientology, which we reviewed in June.)

The Church of Scientology was indicted on two felony counts in 1998 over the death of McPherson. Through the next year, press attention on the church was unsparingly negative. Rathbun says it was the third worst tidal wave of bad press in Scientology’s history, after the 1977 FBI raids following Scientology’s widespread infiltration of government offices, and the 1982 lawsuit filed by Ron DeWolf (formerly L. Ron Hubbard, Jr.) for control of his father’s estate.

As the criminal case and a civil wrongful death suit made their way through the courts, Rathbun says the church hit on the idea of trying to influence Florida’s opinion leaders.

“The point was to win these people over to Scientology, and support it politically and get the word back down to the courts,” he says. (The state dropped its criminal case in 2000, but negative publicity over McPherson was still a problem for several years as the civil case continued.)

The best way to counter the negative press, he adds, was with Scientology celebrities like Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Greta Van Susteren, and soap star Michelle Stafford.

But Rathbun says the church needed help bringing together its stars with Florida’s political influencers. For that help, Scientology turned to Republican operative Mary Repper.

In 2003, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Repper had held a dinner at her house that brought together Tampa’s mayor at the time, Pam Iorio, and Scientology’s biggest star, Tom Cruise:

Repper met Cruise about a year ago at a political function sponsored by the Church of Scientology at the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater. Cruise is one of Scientology’s most famous believers, and Repper has helped the church build political contacts.

Repper denied then to the St. Pete Times that the church had anything to do with setting up the dinner, and she told me that as well, this morning, by telephone from her Florida home.

She told me she was embarrassed that the St. Pete Times story reported the dinner, and denied that the church had anything to do with it.

“That isn’t true. I wasn’t working for them. That’s a lie,” she told me. “How it happened was, I had met Tom Cruise and some discussion ensued about a coconut cake. Jeez, I said, I make a great coconut cake. He said, ‘That’s my favorite cake in the world.’ About two months later he was in town. He called me. I can’t tell you how excited I was getting a call from Tom Cruise. He said he wanted the coconut cake. I intended to bring it down to the Fort Harrison Hotel, but he said he’d come over. While he was there at the house, my son said, ‘If you love her cake, you’d love her dinners.’ He said, ‘But I’ve never been invited.’ And that’s how it happened. It was certainly nothing about the church.”

“So if that’s true, how did [Tampa mayor] Pam Iorio show up?” Rathbun counters with a laugh after hearing Repper’s version of events.

Iorio herself, now a few months out of office after eight years as Tampa’s mayor, says she doesn’t remember Rathbun being at the dinner. She remembers Tom Lee, a Florida state Senator, attending with his girlfriend, and Iorio was there with her husband, and Tom Cruise. (The St. Pete Times story also indicates that an attorney named Stephen Mitchell attended.) I didn’t get a chance to ask Repper if Rathbun was present, and she didn’t answer a second phone call.

“Mary Repper is a political consultant. She called me up one day and said she was having Tom Cruise to dinner and invited me and my husband,” Iorio told me. Repper never worked for her, and Iorio says she never had a relationship with the Church of Scientology during her eight years as mayor. During the dinner Cruise did mention Scientology, she says, but what she remembered most was his talk about movies.

“He had just filmed The Last Samurai. He had brought some footage and was showing it to us. That’s what I remember more than anything,” Iorio says.

I also asked Repper if she was involved in bringing together Florida politicians with Greta Van Susteren, John Travolta, and Michelle Stafford.

She denied that she had Travolta to dinner at her house. (Rathbun, however, says she did have him over for an afternoon lunch. “She didn’t have him for dinner. She had him for an afternoon with about 30 women politicians,” Rathbun told me. I asked him if he attended the lunch. “Absolutely.”)

Rathbun says Greta Van Susteren sailed a boat down to Clearwater and then hosted dinners on the craft. Among the people Rathbun says she was asked to sway was Barry A. Cohen, a larger-than-life defense attorney in Tampa. (I put in a call to Cohen and am waiting for a reply.)

Repper denied that she had anything to do with arranging Van Susteren’s events. “They invited me to come to dinner. That happened a couple of times,” she says.

As for Michelle Stafford, the soap star? “I had a brunch for her with all my sisters, who were all big fans. I met her at an event. I asked her. I was never affiliated with the church at that point,” Repper says.

“She’s such a liar. We hired her in, it must have been 1999,” Rathbun says.

That’s also the recollection of Mike Rinder, who was Scientology’s chief spokesman until he left the church in 2007.

“I introduced Mary Repper to Michelle Stafford at a Hollywood Celebrity Centre event, and it was the biggest day of her life,” Rinder told me by telephone today. “She was flown to Los Angeles for a gala event. I was her host…I’d been to her house a few times, too, when I was the chief spokesman for the church. I actually took Tom deVocht to dinner at her house one day. Anyway, that’s an absolute — I’m not sure what the correct word for it is. It’s just lying, that’s the correct word,” he says, about her claim that she wasn’t “affiliated” with Scientology when the politician charm campaign was happening in 2003.

“I remember hiring her in 1998 or 1999. Marty is absolutely right. He was there and so was [church leader David] Miscavige. There was a lunch in the Hibiscus room in the Fort Harrison Hotel. It was Miscavige, Marty and, me, and that was her first time at the hotel,” Rinder says.

Choosing Repper to help them with Lisa McPherson damage control was no accident, Rinder says. “She was the campaign manager that ran Bernie McCabe’s election campaign. He was the state’s attorney bringing the state’s case against the church at the time…There needed to be influence, there needed to be ways of controlling the process. The police department was going after the church, the FDLE was going after the church, the state’s attorney was going after the church, Ken Dandar in the civil case was going after the church. It’s true probably anywhere, but particularly in a community that has an old boys’ network, if you’re not in the ‘in crowd,’ you’re a nobody. If you’re in the ‘in crowd,’ you get a lot more leeway and respect.”

Rathbun and Rinder both say Repper was hired to help the church influence political leaders in 1998 or 1999, and the state eventually dropped its criminal case in 2000.

“Honestly, I don’t think she had any influence [on the state dropping the case],” Rinder adds — the state’s case fell apart when medical examiner Joan Wood changed the cause of death to an “accident.”

Still, Repper was something of a “kingmaker” in Pinellas County, Rinder says, and the church found her useful. He didn’t think much of her story of how Tom Cruise and major local pols ended up in her dining room:

“Tom Cruise just happened to hear about her coconut cake, and then he called her up and asked to be invited over. Nothing to do with Scientology whatsoever,” he says sarcastically.

Repper denied that she was affiliated with Scientology at the time of the dinners, but she says she is working for Scientology today. “I do work for them now, yes. After I retired, I moved up here to Hernando County. I do whatever I can to help them because I believe in them. I think they’re good people. The people in that church, I’m proud to know them. I used to be proud of Marty.”

@VoiceTonyO | Facebook: Tony Ortega

See all of our recent Scientology coverage at the Voice

Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he’s been writing about Scientology at several publications. Among his other stories about L. Ron Hubbard’s organization:

The Larry Wollersheim Saga — Scientology Finally Pays For Its Fraud
The Tory Bezazian (Christman) Story — How the Internet Saved A Scientologist From Herself
The Jason Beghe Defection — A Scientology Celebrity Goes Rogue
The Paul Haggis Ultimatum — The ‘Crash’ Director Tells Scientology to Shove It
The Marc Headley Escape — ‘Tom Cruise Told Me to Talk to a Bottle’
The Jefferson Hawkins Stipulation — Scientology’s former PR genius comes clean
The Daniel Montalvo Double-Cross — Scientology lures a young defector into a trap
A Church Myth Debunked — Scientology and Proposition 8
Daniel Montalvo Strikes Back — Scientology Hit with Stunning Child-Labor Lawsuits
When Scientologists Attack — The Marty Rathbun Intimidation
A Scientologist Excommunicated — The Michael Fairman SP Declaration
The Richard Leiby Operation — Investigating a reporter’s divorce to shut him up
The Hugh Urban Investigation — An academic takes a harsh look at Scientology’s past
Giovanni Ribisi as David Koresh — A precedent for a Scientology-Branch Davidian link
Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology — A masterful telling of Scientology’s history
The Western Spy Network Revealed? — Marty Rathbun ups the ante on David Miscavige
Scientology’s Enemies List — Are You On It?
Inside Inside Scientology — An interview with author Janet Reitman
Scientology and the Nation of Islam — Holy Doctrinal Mashup, Batman!
Scientologists — How Many of Them Are There, Anyway?
Roger Weller’s Wild Ride — Scientology When it was Hip
The Marc Headley Infiltration — A Scientology Spying Operation Revealed
Placido Domingo Jr: Scientology’s Retaliation is “Scary and Pathetic”
An Interview with Nancy Many, Former Scientology Spy
The Paulien Lombard Confession — A Scientology Spy Comes Clean
The Deputy Benjamin Ring Hard Sell — Scientology wants your 401K