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Church targets lawsuit attorney

Scientology tries to end a lawsuit by having the plaintiff's attorney in the case removed.

By DEBORAH O'NEIL, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2002


Scientology tries to end a lawsuit by having the plaintiff's attorney in the case removed.

CLEARWATER -- The Church of Scientology is rolling out an aggressive set of legal maneuvers aimed at wiping out one of its biggest headaches: the lawsuit blaming the church for the 1995 death of Lisa McPherson.

The church is zeroing in on Tampa attorney Ken Dandar, who in representing McPherson's family has mustered an unrelenting challenge costing the church millions and fueling unending bad publicity.

Accusing Dandar of professional misconduct and perjury, the church is taking the rare step of trying to get him removed from the case. On Tuesday, church lawyers are scheduled to return to the courtroom of Pinellas Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird to resume their effort to discredit Dandar in a related case.

But an even more important battle likely will come Thursday when the church plans to launch an offensive on the wrongful death case itself. In a hearing before Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer, the church intends to argue the whole case should be tossed because of alleged "misconduct, sham pleadings, (and) perjury" by Dandar; his client, McPherson's aunt, and millionaire Bob Minton, who spent $2-million to keep the case going.

That argument was outlined in a fiery motion filed by the church late Friday. The alleged misconduct, the church claims, "goes to the very heart of the case."

"Plaintiff herself and not merely her counsel or her financier or her consultants and witnesses chose to convert this case into a broadside attack on the church and the Scientology religion," the motion says.

Dandar called the claims "outrageous lies by Scientology."

In the no-holds-barred spirit that has marked the litigation since day one, Dandar added: "This desperate animal is lashing out because it knows it is about to be destroyed by the truth." The church's biggest fear, Dandar said, is the case will go to trial as scheduled, in June.

The wrongful death case, which has tied up courtrooms for days, exasperated judges and generated a mountain range of paperwork, erupted on April 19 when the unthinkable happened. Minton, the New England millionaire who has devoted the last half-decade to fighting Scientology, stunned all those following the case by taking the stand as a witness for Scientology and attacked Dandar, calling him a "lying thief."

Minton's surprising testimony was not a reversal of his opposition to Scientology, said his attorney Bruce Howie of St. Petersburg. Minton was facing possible jail time for contempt of court and needed to clear the record, Howie said.

"He realizes that the church will take advantage of his testimony, but in the long run it's in his own best interest to tell the truth," Howie said.

That hearing, before Judge Baird, set in motion the church's strategy to compromise Dandar.

Such a tactic is virtually unheard of in civil court, said veteran civil attorney Tom Carey of Clearwater.

"I can't recall ever seeing a civil trial lawyer removed from a case," he said.

The strategy has the potential to disable the case, maybe end it.

The lawsuit is so complex that it's unlikely another lawyer would step forward to take it, said Carey and other noted civil attorneys.

"There's a myriad of reasons, legal and business, why it would be the rare attorney who would now want to jump into this fire," said Palm Harbor attorney Wil Florin.

A "lion's den," quipped attorney John Morgan, known for his "For the People" advertising slogan.

"All of a sudden you look up and there's 20 lions looking at you, and you're standing there with a loin cloth and a stick," Morgan said.

But Dandar has a backup. Waiting in the wings is Tampa attorney Luke Lirot, famed defender of Tampa's adult entertainment industry.

"I would consider it a privilege to be involved in the case," said Lirot, who is representing Dandar. "I'm going to do whatever is necessary to assist."

Lirot said he is not fazed by the scale of the lawsuit or the Church of Scientology as a legal opponent. "I often embrace difficult issues," he said.

McPherson was a 36-year-old Scientologist who died in 1995 after a 17-day stay at Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel. The wrongful death lawsuit, filed on behalf of her estate by her aunt, Dell Liebreich of Texas, contends church staff members let McPherson become severely dehydrated and die. The church has said McPherson died unexpectedly from a blood clot in her lung.

The lawsuit has been viewed as a legitimate threat to Scientology, even after criminal charges were dropped. The burden of proof is easier to meet in civil, than in criminal, cases.

Consider O.J. Simpson. He beat murder charges in the deaths of his ex-wife and her friend, but later lost a wrongful death lawsuit and was ordered to pay $33.5-million in damages.

On the other hand, dismissal of the lawsuit would close the book on the church's long and bitter fight to clear its name in McPherson's death.

All along the church has said the lawsuit is a sham. It once leveled fraud and forgery accusations against Liebreich. It attacked the scientific evidence against the church as junk. And it claims the lawsuit was hijacked by deep-pocketed enemies of Scientology, namely Minton.

"When these people feel an injustice has been done to them, they will be very persistent in trying to right it," said Wally Pope, a Clearwater attorney representing the church. "Most people might get steamrollered. These people haven't been. They fight back, and you can't blame them."

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