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A judge decides that a jury needs to examine the circumstances of Lisa McPherson's death.
By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 14, 2003
ST. PETERSBURG -- Ending months of speculation, a circuit judge ruled Monday that the wrongful death lawsuit against the Church of Scientology should continue.
Judge Susan Schaeffer also ruled that Tampa attorney Ken Dandar should remain the attorney for the estate of Lisa McPherson, which filed the lawsuit.
The cause and manner of McPherson's death, Schaeffer ruled, "is legitimately an issue that needs to be decided by a jury."
The rulings came in response to claims by the church that the lawsuit should be dismissed because of professional misconduct by Dandar.
In the end, Schaeffer said she had to decide who was lying.
Was it Robert Minton, the millionaire and onetime vocal Scientology critic who gave Tampa attorney Kenneth Dandar as much as $2-million over a five-year period to fund the case against the church?
Or was it Dandar, who Minton testified had urged him to lie under oath about the source of funding and the influence he exercised over the case?
"The answer is Robert Minton," Schaeffer concluded.
The motive for his lies can be summed up in two words: "income taxes," Schaeffer said.
Minton testified during a 35-day hearing that ended in mid June that he was the source of a $500,000 check written to Dandar, but that Dandar had urged him to say instead the money was from anonymous Europeans who oppose the church.
Schaeffer said that didn't make any sense, and in a 67-page order dated Jan. 12 she said that while Dandar may have been naive about the source of the money, she did not believe he lied. Rather, Schaeffer said, she believes Minton did not want to disclose a foreign bank account for tax reasons.
"Robert Minton, without doubt, will lie and cheat when it comes to his money. What is clear to anyone who attended the . . . hearing is that Minton has cheated the United States government in the amount of income taxes he has paid them," Schaeffer said.
Schaeffer stopped short of endorsing Dandar's claim that the church found out about Minton's foreign bank account and used that to extort his testimony.
In other significant findings, Schaeffer's order stated:
-- There was no proof to support the estate's earlier allegation that Scientology's worldwide leader, David Miscavige, decided to let McPherson die.
-- She will turn over her order to the state attorney to investigate perjury by Minton.
-- One of the estate's key witnesses, Jesse Prince, has extreme bias and, in her opinion, lacks credibility.
-- She chastised the church for "far too many cases" in which they have tried to disqualify the opposing attorney.
In a separate ruling Monday, in a case involving a countersuit by the church against the estate, Judge W. Douglas Baird filed an order in which he states that he plans to refer to the Florida Bar allegations that Dandar inappropriately co-mingled funds Minton gave him.
Baird stated that there appear to have been "serious violations" of the Florida Rules of Professional Conduct because some of Minton's funds were deposited into Dandar's personal accounts or investments.
Dandar said the money was a loan to do with as he wished.
"I'm willing to go to the Bar to explain what happened," Dandar said.
"The significance of the co-mingling of funding establishes that the estate and Mr. Dandar have been hiding assets from creditors, and now we'll be able to bring that to a halt," said church spokesman Ben Shaw.
Minton could not be reached for comment.
Both sides claimed victory Monday.
"The most significant thing about the order of Judge Schaeffer was that we were completely vindicated of the false and scurrilous allegation that church leaders intended harm to Lisa McPherson," Shaw said. "Mr. Dandar made those false allegations the central point of this case for over three years."
Dandar called Schaeffer's ruling a major victory for the estate.
"Scientology now has Minton as a puppet, holding him out for the world to see what happens if you have the guts to go against Scientology," Dandar said. "I am evidence that good people with nothing to hide can stand up against Scientology successfully."
Although the trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 21, Dandar said he believes it will be delayed.
"Everything they do is to try to delay the trial," Dandar said. "Why? Because they're afraid of the truth."
McPherson died in 1995 after 18 days in the care of the church.
The estate claims McPherson died from severe dehydration. The church contends she died of a pulmonary embolism brought on by a bruise from a minor traffic accident she had the day she was brought to the church. Criminal charges filed against the church were later dropped.