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Commission rejects Scientology settlement

The deal to destroy police files on Scientology fell apart over a provision requiring the church to be notified when someone asks to see the records.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 4, 1998


CLEARWATER -- City commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to reject a settlement that would have ended a four-year legal battle with the Church of Scientology.

The deal concerned a federal lawsuit between the city and the church over the future of 40 boxes of intelligence files on Scientology gathered by Clearwater police for 13 years in the 1980s and 1990s. It would have required police to conduct a "good faith" search of the files and destroy any records it deemed unnecessary. But the deal fell apart over an unusual provision that would have required the police to notify the church's lawyers immediately by phone or fax when anyone requested the records that remained.

According to both sides, the provision was inserted so the church might have the chance to take legal action when anyone asked for the records. Church officials insist the records violate the privacy rights of Scientologists under the U.S. and Florida constitutions.

After 13 years of monitoring Scientology's activities, Clearwater police never were able to mount a prosecution.

City Attorney Pam Akin told commissioners that notifying the church when someone sought the records was "something that we would not otherwise do."

That's why Commissioner J.B. Johnson objected. He said it sounded like the church was being given an unfair advantage that the city would not grant to any other entity.

Commissioner Bob Clark said the provision "could be perceived as an avenue of intimidation" by the church and an unnecessary burden on the city.

The church has a long history of taking aggressive action when it feels its interests are threatened.

But church spokesman Brian Anderson said the fears of intimidation by the church were unwarranted. If the church or an individual took legal action to stop a public record from being seen, "that person has a right to protect his privacy," he said.

Anderson said commissioners were influenced by a recent Times editorial that railed against the provision to notify the church.

"It's unfortunate that the St. Pete Times doesn't want to resolve the case," Anderson said. "We worked hard to negotiate a settlement that was acceptable to all sides, including the city attorney and the chief of police. The only side it wasn't acceptable to was the St. Pete Times."

Although they rejected the settlement, commissioners did vote unanimously to approve it if the church would agree to take the notification provision out.

Asked whether that was possible, Anderson said, "We'll have to see if we can work something out. But we think it's unfortunate that the commission wanted to read something into the settlement that wasn't there."

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