Hush-Hush Money

An anti-Scientology activist claims that the church made him an offer he had to refuse: $12 million.

After more than seventeen years of litigation, Lawrence Wollersheim knows that talk isn't cheap--not when you're talking to lawyers and your life's work happens to involve badmouthing the Church of Scientology. But the price of silence is even higher. Too high, in Wollersheim's estimation, which is why he says he walked away from an alleged settlement offer by the church that would have netted him and a few colleagues $12 million in exchange for abandoning their crusade against Scientology.

Wollersheim is one of the founders of the Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network (FACTNet), a Boulder-based computer archive that's been embroiled in a copyright dispute with Scientology organizations in a federal courtroom in Denver for the past two years. The lawsuit was triggered by a FACTNet boardmember's efforts to publicize Scientology's secret, upper-level scriptures by distributing excerpts on the Internet ("Nightmare on the Net," March 6). Wollersheim recently went public with his version of the church's efforts to settle the case, posting a ten-page account of the negotiations on FACTNet's Web page. The manifesto has provoked widespread discussion of the supposed $12 million offer in the electronic newsgroup alt.religion.scientology, a cyberspace forum for Scientology dissidents.

"Because of the bad faith involved, I cannot hold back what went on," Wollersheim says. "The general public and people who may be considering other Scientology settlement offers need to know what is going on behind closed doors."

Church officials, though, have another word for what happened in their out-of-court discussions with FACTNet: extortion. "The church absolutely denies making any $12 million offer," says Michael Rinder, a member of the board of directors of the Church of Scientology International. "That's a total and utter lie."

Rinder, whom Wollersheim says he met with several weeks ago in Los Angeles at the start of the negotiations, likens Wollersheim's tactics to those of Autumn Jackson, the woman recently convicted of trying to extort millions from entertainer Bill Cosby. "We believe Mr. Wollersheim has been engaged for some time in an attempt to extort the church," he says. "We have an ongoing complaint with federal authorities about the matter."

Wollersheim, though, insists that the church's representatives had agreed to a figure of $12 million at the start of settlement discussions two months ago. The negotiations broke down over the next six weeks, he says, as his adversaries sought to impose increasingly restrictive conditions on the settlement, including a requirement that the FACTNet litigants--Wollersheim, boardmember Arnie Lerma and ex-boardmember Robert Penney--no longer speak out against the church or assist in any anti-Scientology litigation.

At present, Wollersheim is the only participant commenting on the supposed details of the offer. Settlement negotiations are usually deemed confidential; even one of Wollersheim's own attorneys, who was supposedly present for the talks, says he "can't confirm or deny" that any discussions took place. (Lerma, who wasn't present for the discussions, says that he can't confirm the amount offered but that he has seen documents from the church specifying the conditions Wollersheim describes.) Although the details are very much in dispute, such a hush-hush deal wouldn't be unheard of in the annals of Scientology, the controversial, far-flung religious empire founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1954.

Over the years the church has quietly purchased the silence of several of its most ardent critics, for sums reportedly stretching into six and seven figures. Several years ago Boston attorney Michael Flynn, who'd represented a number of dissidents in their cases against Scientology, entered into a "global settlement" with the church on behalf of himself and his clients; Flynn no longer litigates against the church or publicly comments on its operations. Other opponents, such as the Cult Awareness Network, have been driven into bankruptcy by lawsuits filed by the church or its members and have seen their assets acquired by Scientology supporters.

Wollersheim's legal battles with Scientology began in 1980, shortly after he left the church. He filed suit in California, claiming the group used coercive methods to keep him in the fold and harassed him after he left. During the years the case dragged through the courts, he says, Scientology's attorneys approached his side with various offers of settlement.

"The first offer they made me, back around 1983, was $500,000," he says. "All I had to do was admit that everything they did to me was religious. My attorney said, 'We will never call what you did to another human being legitimate religious practices.'"

In 1986 a jury awarded Wollersheim $30 million in damages against Scientology's California organization. The award was reduced to $2.5 million on appeal; he has yet to collect. Church entities have since sued him three times. All three cases were dismissed, and in one the judge awarded Wollersheim's side nearly half a million dollars in attorney's fees and costs. (That award was abruptly paid a few months ago, much to Wollersheim's surprise.)

The FACTNet case dates back to the summer of 1995, when church officials obtained federal search warrants and seized computers and documents from the homes of boardmembers Wollersheim, Lerma and Penney, charging that the three were engaged in the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials and had violated the church's "trade secrets" by posting Hubbard's closely guarded "Advanced Technology" writings on the Internet. In the past two years the case has piled up thousands of pages of motions and pleadings and dozens of boxes of exhibits while exhausting $2 million in insurance coverage that FACTNet had obtained shortly before the raids.

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