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Church settlement brings relief

To the disappointment of some outsiders, those mired in the Scientology case were ready for the draining episode to end.

By ROBERT FARLEY
Published June 6, 2004

CLEARWATER - The recent settlement of the 7-year-old Lisa McPherson wrongful death lawsuit against the Church of Scientology was a shocker for many, seemingly coming out of nowhere.

It wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision at all, but rather a resolution that had been simmering more than six months in quiet negotiations at the St. Petersburg law offices of mediator Michael Keane.

It was no small feat, given the acrimony marking the case. On one side of the negotiating table was Ken Dandar, lawyer for the McPherson estate, who for years had called Scientology a ruthless cult. Staring back were church officials who had branded Dandar a liar and bigot.

All that angry talk stopped abruptly with the settlement. Now, neither side will hint at its terms, sticking faithfully to a confidentiality agreement. But legal experts and court documents shed light on developments that likely helped end one of the most intriguing cases in Pinellas court history.

Some view the settlement as the latest example of the Church of Scientology wearing down a legal opponent with a barrage of litigation. Others see it as the church buying its way out of an embarrassing trial sure to be documented by international media.

Court transcripts also show a judge bent on resolving a case that had taxed the Pinellas judiciary.

Through the repeated negotiations, mediator Michael Keane said he never lost faith. When the two sides came together shortly before Memorial Day, Keane had a sense the end was near.

"You had parties that were deeply, deeply passionate about their positions," Keane said last week. "They both worked really hard and found a place where they could reach a settlement, but not without a lot of pain. There was a lot of pain."

Neither side said they celebrated when they walked out. It simply was time to move on, they said.

"The church bought silence," said California attorney Ford Greene.

In 2002, Greene helped a former Scientologist who accused the church of mental abuse collect an $8.6-million settlement. A trial would have been a vehicle, he said, for the public to get "a copious education on what Scientology is and how it operates."

Even with a large payout, the Scientologists come out victorious, Greene said. "The millions of dollars that go out aren't nearly as much as the millions that don't come in if they get bad press."

Clearwater attorney Denis deVlaming, who once represented a former-church-member-turned-critic who claimed the church set him up for a marijuana possession charge, said he is disappointed the case isn't going to trial. He planned to take off time from work to attend.

"I just wanted to see the exposure of the doctrine of the church," he said. "I wanted the public of our town . . . to see what the church is all about. But we won't see it . . . In a sense, Scientology was going to be on trial."

He thinks the settlement was several million dollars, and money well spent by the church for a "monumental" public relations victory.

Those opinions are off base, said Monique Yingling, a Washington attorney for Scientology.

First, she said, both sides fought vigorously.

"The case was not over-litigated by the church," she said. "The church responds appropriately when the religion is attacked."

And the prospect of a trial getting intense media attention did not drive the church to settle, she said.

"There has already been mountains of publicity about that case," said Yingling, who participated in the final mediation sessions. "From the church's perspective, it couldn't have gotten any worse."

In the final hours, she said, it came down to this: "Everybody wanted to move on."

Those sentiments were echoed by attorney Luke Lirot, who assisted Dandar in the negotiations and in numerous other connected cases.

"Everyone is able to get beyond this and focus on things that are perhaps more mundane and appropriate and are able to go on with their life," Lirot said.

"The McPherson family can now honor her memory in dignity and peace," he said.

The court file, however, reveals some clues of the pressure mounting on Dandar.

Retired Senior Pinellas Circuit Judge Robert Beach, who was assigned the case last year, aggressively pushed both sides to end the grueling legal wrangling. He wouldn't talk of the case last week, but he was clear in remarks made in hearings at the end of last year.

"Now, everybody that has had any contact in this case from the judicial standpoint would like to see it go away, so there is no question about that," Beach said.

"This case has affected a lot of people along the way, a lot of people, laypeople and lawyers and judges. And if it doesn't go away, it's going to affect a lot more people. And it's not going to get concluded next year. Oh yes, we might try the case next year. But then the appeal comes. And more appeals. And more cases. And this thing has taken on a life of its own, really.

"I think it really begs for some resolution, which will be fair to both sides," he said.

Beach took the unusual step of replacing Dandar with Lirot as lead attorney. Dandar's "feelings have crossed the border of professionalism," Beach said. "He's gotten so personally involved in this matter that he stepped outside the role as lawyer and has taken on this as a personal cause, which I think, in turn, has obscured some of the decisions he made in this case."

Dandar declined interview requests last week, but left a telephone message saying of the settlement: "Things are not always what they appear to be."

Beach also said Scientology attorney Samuel Rosen suggested a settlement might not be possible as long as Dandar was involved because the church distrusted him.

With Lirot as lead counsel, Beach said, "we have a better shot of concluding this case."

Lirot insisted last week that becoming lead counsel was of little consequence. He also scoffed at a Florida Bar complaint filed by church attorneys against Dandar.

In January, a grievance committee of the Florida Bar found probable cause to move forward with church allegations that Dandar commingled for personal use some $2-million given to him by a wealthy church critic. The complaint also alleges Dandar misrepresented some facts to a judge in the case.

Lirot said he believes the complaint will go Dandar's way once his side is presented.

It's the only remaining legal issue left from the death of McPherson, a 36-year-old church member who died in 1995 after 17 days in the care of Scientologists in Clearwater.

Her aunt, Dell Liebreich, who represents her estate and filed the lawsuit, lives in Texas. She, too, was present for the settlement talks. She is refusing interview requests.

But Lirot, asked last week to describe her mood, said, "I don't think it was jubilant. There was certainly a sense of relief and a sense that now she could honor Lisa's memory in privacy and peace."

There was jubilation among many in the judicial community.

"I am, of course, delighted," said Pinellas Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird, who presided over one of a handful of offshoot cases. "Any time a case like that gets resolved, it's good for the system. Litigation like that ties up an inordinate amount of the judicial system."

The case was so unusual, Baird said, because it "became very personal for everyone involved" and involved two sides that seemed not to care much about the expense of fighting every legal point "tooth and nail."

That it is over is a huge relief, Baird said. "This is always what should have happened."

[Last modified June 5, 2004, 23:51:22]


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