TAMPA - Two members of the Church of Scientology have filed a lawsuit against the organization in federal court, claiming the church engages in fraudulent fundraising practices.
Luis and Rocio Garcia, both of Irvine, California, said they were duped out of hundreds of thousands of dollars because their donations never went to the projects the church promised, according to the court filing. In particular, the Garcias gave money to help construct the church's Clearwater headquarters, a building that was started in 1998 but remains incomplete today.
"It's a very hard thing to confront the idea that they might be lying to you," said Luis Garcia, a Scientology member since 1982. "That you've been a subject of a con, a victim," he said.
Garcia was at the top of the Scientology spiritual ladder. A level VIII "Operating Thetan," Garcia thought his money was buying the iconic star that sits atop the church's "Super Power" building in downtown Clearwater. He said he became suspicious when, after an urgent request for money, the project kept getting delayed. Still, he remained faithful for years.
"You think these people are beyond reproach, so you believe them," Garcia said. "I would swallow anything they would tell me. Especially after you've been a member for 20 some years."
Garcia said he donated $1.3 million dollars over the last 29 years, but is suing to recover $420,000.
The couple are represented by noted plaintiff's attorney Theodore Babbitt of West Palm Beach, who said he intends to depose the head of the church, David Miscavige. Babbitt said Miscavige has misspent church funds and used phony pretenses to obtain the money.
"What was told to the people who gave the money simply wasn't true," Babbitt said. "We're alleging fraud."
Babbitt said he interviewed one Scientology member who was part of a production team that produced a video about the church's charity work with starving kids. Babbitt said there was just one problem: The video wasn't real.
"It involved hiring children, hiring actors, to be part of this film which is then used to show the people like Mr. Garcia to obtain donations," Babbitt alleged.
Babbitt said the Garcia lawsuit will be one of many. He expects several hundred current or former Scientology members could be filing suits demanding their donations back.
The Church of Scientology issued a written response about the lawsuit:
"The Church has not been served. However, we understand from the media that this has something to do with fundraising and we can unequivocally state all funds solicited are used for the charitable and religious purposes for which they were donated. To see the Church's world renowned humanitarian programs visit www.scientology.org.
"From what we do know, this frivolous suit was generated by the same group of anti-Scientology apostates who recently lost another frivolous lawsuit and were ordered by a federal court to pay the Church more than $40,000. The statements to the media made today about the Church and its ecclesiastical leader by these bitter individuals are blatantly false," said Pat Harney, Church of Scientology Public Affairs.
Luis Garcia said despite the lawsuit and his disillusionment with church leadership, he still considers himself a Scientologist.
"The church has been led astray from the principles that once governed it," Garcia said.
"It's really become a business, an enterprise. A money-making machine, really," he said.