Longform

Nightmare on the Net

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Lerma points out that FACTNet has assembled a diverse group of advisory boardmembers--including entertainer Steve Allen and noted psychologist and cult critic Margaret Singer--and he says the organization is actively recruiting new directors.

"You know anyone who wants to be on the board?" he asks.

FACTNet's new "dream team" of lawyers is headed by Graham Berry, a New Zealand-born, Los Angeles-based attorney who has worked with Wollersheim on other litigation against the Church of Scientology. Church attorneys fought his appearance as defense counsel in the case, contending that Berry, one of the attorneys who'd defended Steve Fishman, was the culprit who had placed Hubbard's secret writings in an open court file and thus was a "necessary witness" in the FACTNet suit. Berry denied this, and Judge Kane ruled he could represent FACTNet.

In the past Berry has proven to be no small irritant to Scientology's defenders. Recently he became involved in the case of Jason Scott, who was awarded more than $5 million in damages against the Cult Awareness Network and various individuals involved in an attempted "deprogramming" of Scott. The judgment signaled the demise of CAN, one of Scientology's sharpest critics, which filed for bankruptcy.

Scott had been represented in the case by Kendrick Moxon, an attorney who handles extensive legal work for the Church of Scientology. But after the case was over, Scott complained that he hadn't received any money from the judgment--even though another Scientology attorney acquired CAN's name, phone number and other assets in the bankruptcy. Scott has since dismissed Moxon and hired one of his most combative opponents--Graham Berry.

Berry views the FACTNet suit as a key turning point in the long, litigious struggle between Scientology and its critics. "I believe this is the mother of all Scientology cases," he says. "If Wollersheim, after fifteen years, is unable to collect a judgment against this organization, what hope is there for anyone else to obtain recompense and justice?"

Since Berry joined the FACTNet defense team, filings in the acrimonious case have become even more caustic, with both sides accusing each other of unethical conduct and threatening to seek sanctions or contempt rulings. In a letter to one of RTC's attorneys, Berry complained of investigators prying into the private lives of his clients and their circle of acquaintances and harassing FACTNet's attorneys and support staff.

"There is no way that you and various co-counsel can justify this outrageous and despicable harassment as a 'lawful investigation' of opposing counsel," he wrote. "You ignore your professional obligations in this regard at the peril of yourself and your law firm."

While denying any misconduct, Scientology's attorneys have, in turn, protested Berry's efforts to depose a long list of potential witnesses, from high-ranking church officials to Tom Cruise and John Travolta, whom Berry wants to interrogate regarding their "alleged psychotic breaks" while studying Advanced Technology materials. RTC attorney Todd Blakely has blasted Berry's insinuations about Hubbard's writings and their celebrity adherents as "hearsay, conjecture and vitriolic slanders."

Equally offensive to Scientology supporters has been the defense's assault on the legitimacy of the copyrights themselves. Wollersheim claims to have evidence that some of Hubbard's religious writings were registered improperly, were allowed to lapse into the public domain, or were actually written by others.

"They don't own many of the copyrights that they claim we are infringing," he says. "They didn't think we would dig far enough to find out what was going on. What they didn't realize is that one of their intelligence people has left the organization and has assisted us."

Wollersheim declines to identify his secret source, but FACTNet recently filed a declaration in the case from Vaughn Young, who was CSI's official spokesman for many years and left the church in 1989. Young claims there are numerous irregularities in the copyright registrations of Hubbard's work and says he was involved in an effort in the early 1980s to register works that had supposedly lapsed into the public domain years before; he also claims to have written parts of Battlefield Earth, Hubbard's sprawling ten-part series of science fiction novels.

Scientology officials have denounced Young as a bitter enemy who now makes his living as a paid consultant in litigation against the church. But this isn't the first time the authenticity of Hubbard's work has come under attack. In the early 1980s a former CSI staff member named David Mayo formed a competing organization, the Church of the New Civilization; when RTC sued him, claiming he was making unauthorized use of stolen Scientology "tech" materials, Mayo countered that he and others had actually written several key Advanced Technology documents that had been ascribed to Hubbard.

The complex case lurched through the California courts for more than eight years, swelling to encompass more than a hundred volumes of court filings. After RTC failed to comply with numerous discovery orders, a judge dismissed RTC's claims and awarded Mayo $2.9 million in attorneys' fees; that decision was upheld by a federal appeals court last year.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast