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Dispute over Scientology records nearing end

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 1998


CLEARWATER -- The Police Department tentatively has agreed to destroy any "unnecessary" records in the 40 boxes of documents accumulated during its 13-year investigation into the Church of Scientology, which ended in 1994.

The agreement, if approved, would settle a four-year federal court fight between the city and the church.

The church argues the intelligence files include false information and that their release to the media violated privacy rights.

City Commissioners heard details of the proposed settlement in a closed meeting Thursday and are scheduled to consider final approval at their next meeting, Sept. 3.

The settlement would not pertain to current investigations involving Scientology, said City Attorney Pam Akin, including the ongoing inquiry into the unexplained death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson in 1995.

No charges were ever filed as a result of the 13-year investigation, which was revealed in 1994 after the St. Petersburg Times requested the records and sent three reporters to examine them.

The most controversial document in the files is a 10-volume report authored in the mid-1980s by Lt. Ray Emmons, now retired. Emmons alleged Scientology was a criminal, money-making scheme, but could not convince the state attorney's office to prosecute.

The police files also include other documents, including complaints by disaffected Scientologists who told police they'd been ripped off by Scientology and complaints of harassment against uniformed members of the Scientology staff in downtown Clearwater.

The settlement calls for the police department to "conduct a good faith review of the Scientology records to determine which of those documents they can destroy as unnecessary."

Police would have four months to accomplish the task.

After that, police would agree to destroy more records as needed.

The review would be done by police personnel only, with no input from other city departments or the church.

"It's purely at their discretion," Akin said. "It's up to them."

The settlement document concludes with two additional provisions.

One is that the police department may never speak publicly about the settlement.

The other is that church attorneys are to be notified immediately when the public or media seek access to the documents.

Akin said the latter provision was "a little unusual," but is allowed under state records law as long as it doesn't delay anyone from receiving the documents they request.

The proposed settlement would not require the city do anything outside its normal practice, said Akin.

Many documents collected in the 40 boxes "are not things that are of much interest to the police department," Akin said.

"Sooner or later, those documents are gotten rid of . . . What we're agreeing to do is nothing other than what we would otherwise do."

Akin said police usually dispose of such records in two to four years.

City Commissioners appear ready to approve the settlement. Commissioner Ed Hooper said that the document "wasn't anything earth-shattering" and that Police Chief Sid Klein was comfortable with it.

At last week's closed commission meeting, Hooper said, "the consensus was if that makes everybody happy, then so be it."

Klein would not comment Monday.

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