Details of church's IRS battle emerge

By DOUGLAS FRANTZ New York Times

ęSt. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 1997

On Oct. 8, 1993, 10,000 cheering Scientologists thronged the Los Angeles Sports Arena to celebrate the most important milestone in the church's recent history: victory in its all-out war against the Internal Revenue Service.

For 25 years, IRS agents had branded Scientology a commercial enterprise and refused to give it the tax exemption granted to churches. The refusals had been upheld in every court. But that night the crowd learned of an astonishing turnaround. The IRS had granted exemptions to every Scientology entity in the United States.

"The war is over," David Miscavige, the church's leader, declared to wild applause.

The landmark reversal shocked tax experts and saved the church tens of millions of dollars in taxes. More significantly, the decision was an invaluable public relations tool in Scientology's worldwide campaign for acceptance as a mainstream religion.

The full story of the turnabout by the IRS has remained hidden behind taxpayer privacy laws for nearly four years. But an examination by the New York Times found that the exemption followed a series of unusual internal IRS actions that came after an extraordinary campaign orchestrated by Scientology against the agency and people who work there. Among the findings of the review by the New York Times, based on more than 30 interviews and thousands of pages of public and internal church records, were these:

Scientology's attorneys hired private investigators to dig into the private lives of IRS officials and to conduct surveillance operations to uncover potential vulnerabilities, according to interviews and documents. One investigator said he had interviewed tenants in buildings owned by three IRS officials, looking for housing code violations. He also said he had taken documents from an IRS conference and sent them to church officials and created a phony news bureau in Washington to gather information on church critics. The church also financed an organization of IRS whistle-blowers that attacked the agency publicly.

The decision to negotiate with the church came after Fred T. Goldberg Jr., the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service at the time, had an unusual meeting with Miscavige in 1991. Scientology's own version of what occurred offers a remarkable account of how the church leader walked into IRS headquarters without an appointment and got in to see Goldberg, the nation's top tax official. Miscavige offered to call a halt to Scientology's lawsuits against the IRS in exchange for tax exemptions. After that meeting, Goldberg created a special committee to negotiate a settlement with Scientology outside normal agency procedures. When the committee determined that all Scientology entities should be exempt from taxes, IRS tax analysts were ordered to ignore the substantive issues in reviewing the decision, according to IRS memorandums and court files.

The IRS refused to disclose any terms of the agreement, including whether the church was required to pay back taxes, contending that it was confidential taxpayer information. The agency has maintained that position in a lengthy court fight, and in rejecting a request for access by the Times under the Freedom of Information Act. But the position is in stark contrast to the agency's handling of some other church organizations. Both the Jimmy Swaggart Ministries and an affiliate of the Rev. Jerry Falwell were required by the IRS to disclose that they had paid back taxes in settling disputes in recent years.

In interviews, senior Scientology officials and the IRS denied that the church's aggressive tactics had any effect on the agency's decision.

They said the ruling was based on a two-year inquiry and voluminous documents that showed the church qualified for exemptions.

Goldberg, who left as IRS commissioner in January 1992 to become an assistant secretary at the Treasury Department, said privacy laws prohibited him from discussing Scientology or his impromptu meeting with Miscavige.

The meeting was not listed on Goldberg's appointment calendar, which was obtained by the Times through the Freedom of Information Act.

The IRS reversal on Scientology was nearly as unprecedented as the long and bitter war between the organizations. Over the years, the IRS had steadfastly refused exemptions to most Scientology entities, and its agents had targeted the church for numerous investigations and audits.

Throughout the battle, the agency's view was supported by the courts. Indeed, just a year before the agency reversal, the U.S. Claims Court had upheld the IRS denial of an exemption to Scientology's Church of Spiritual Technology, which had been created to safeguard the writings and lectures of L. Ron Hubbard, the late science fiction writer whose preachings form the church's scripture.

Among the reasons listed by the court for denying the exemption were "the commercial character of much of Scientology," its "virtually incomprehensible financial procedures" and its "scripturally based hostility to taxation."

Small wonder that the world of tax lawyers and experts was surprised in October 1993 when the IRS announced that it was issuing 30 exemption letters covering about 150 Scientology churches, missions and corporations. Among them was the Church of Spiritual Technology.

"It was a very surprising decision," said Lawrence B. Gibbs, the IRS commissioner from 1986 to 1989 and Goldberg's predecessor. "When you have as much litigation over as much time, with the general uniformity of results that the service had with Scientology, it is surprising to have the ultimate decision be favorable. It was even more surprising that the service made the decision without full disclosure, in light of the prior background."

While IRS officials insisted that Scientology's tactics did not affect the decision, some officials acknowledged that ruling against the church would have prolonged a fight that had consumed extensive government resources and exposed individual officials to personal lawsuits. At one time, the church and its members had more than 50 lawsuits pending against the IRS and its officials.

"Ultimately the decision was made on a legal basis," said a senior IRS official who was involved in the case and spoke on the condition that he not be identified. "I'm not saying Scientology wasn't taking up a lot of resources, but the decision was made on a legal basis."

The church's tactics appeared to violate no laws, and its officials and lawyers argued strenuously in a three-hour interview at church offices in Los Angeles last month that the exemptions were decided solely on the merits. They said the church had been the victim of a campaign of harassment and discrimination by "rogue agents" within the IRS. Once the agency agreed to review the record fairly, they said, it was inevitable that the church would be granted its exemptions.

"The facts speak for themselves," said Monique E. Yingling, a Washington lawyer who represented the church in the tax case. "The decision was made based on the information that the church provided in response to the inquiry by the Internal Revenue Service."

Church officials and lawyers acknowledged that Scientology had used private investigators to look into their opponents, including IRS officials, but they said the practice had nothing to do with the IRS decision.

"This is a church organization that has been subjected to more harassment and more attacks certainly than any religion in this century and probably any religion ever, and they have had to perhaps take unusual steps in order to survive," Ms. Yingling said.

Since its founding in 1950, Scientology has grown into a worldwide movement that boasts 8-million members, although defectors say the actual number is much smaller. The church, which has vast real estate holdings around the world, including its spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, describes itself as the only major new religion to have emerged in the 20th century.

The original mother church, the Church of Scientology of California, was established by Hubbard in Los Angeles in 1954. Three years later, it was recognized as tax exempt by the IRS. But in 1967, the agency stripped the church of its exemption, and a fierce struggle broke out between the agency and the church.

Interviews and an examination of court files across the country show that after a criminal conspiracy by Scientology to infiltrate the IRS was broken up in 1977, the church's battle against the agency continued in a covert manner.

While there have been previous articles about the church's use of private investigators, the full extent of its effort against the IRS is only now coming to light.

Octavio Pena, a private investigator in Fort Lee, N.J., achieved a measure of reknown in the late 1980s when he helped expose problems within the Internal Revenue Service while working on a case for Jordache Enterprises, the jeans manufacturer.

In the summer of 1989, Pena disclosed in an interview, a man who identified himself as Ben Shaw came to his office. Shaw, who said he was a Scientologist, explained that the church was concerned about IRS corruption and would pay $1-million for Pena to investigate IRS officials, Pena said.

"I had had an early experience with the Scientologists, and I told him that I didn't feel comfortable with him, even though he was willing to pay me $1-million," Pena said.

Scientology officials acknowledged that Shaw worked for the church at the time, but they scoffed at the notion that he had tried to hire Pena. "The Martians were offered $2-million; that's our answer," said Kendrick L. Moxon, a longtime church attorney whose firm often hired private investigators for the church.

Michael L. Shomers, another private investigator, said he shared none of Pena's qualms, at least initially.

Describing his work on behalf of Scientology in a series of interviews, Shomers said he and his boss, Thomas J. Krywucki, worked for the church for at least 18 months in 1990 and 1991.

Working from his Maryland office, he said, he set up a phony operation, the Washington News Bureau, to pose as a reporter and gather information about church critics. He also said he had infiltrated IRS conferences to gather information about officials who might be skipping meetings, drinking too much or having affairs.

"I was looking for vulnerabilities," Shomers said.

Shomers said he had turned over information to his Scientology contact about officials who seemed to drink too much. He also said he once spent several hours wooing a female IRS official in a bar at a conference, then provided her name and personal information about her to Scientology.

In one instance, information that Shomers said he had gathered at an IRS conference in the Pocono Mountains was turned over to an associate of Jack Anderson, the columnist, and appeared in one of Anderson's columns criticizing top IRS managers for high living at taxpayer expense.

Shomers said he had received his instructions in meetings with a man who identified himself as Jake Thorn and said he was connected with the church. Shomers said he believed the name was a pseudonym.

Shomers said he had looked into several apartment buildings in Pennsylvania owned by three IRS officials. He obtained public files to determine whether the buildings had violated housing codes, he said, and interviewed residents looking for complaints but found none.

At one point, Shomers said, he slipped into a meeting room at the Embassy Suites, where the conference was held, and took a stack of internal IRS documents. He said he mailed the material to an address provided by his church contact.

Krywucki acknowledged that he had worked for Scientology's lawyers in 1990 and 1991, though he declined to discuss what he did. He said he would ask the lawyers for permission to speak about the inquiry, but he failed to return telephone calls after that conversation.

It is impossible to verify all of Shomers' statements or determine whether his actions were based on specific instructions from church representatives. He said he had often been paid in cash and sometimes by checks from Bowles & Moxon, a Los Angeles law firm that served as the church's lead counsel. He said he had not retained any of the paychecks.

Shomers provided the Times with copies of records that he said he had obtained for the church as well as copies of hotel receipts showing that he had stayed at hotels where the IRS held three conferences, in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and California. He also provided copies of business cards, with fake names, that he said had been created for the phony news bureau in Washington and copies of photographs taken as part of his surveillance work.

One of the IRS officials investigated by Shomers recalled that a private investigator had been snooping around properties he managed on behalf of himself and two other mid-level agency officials.

The official, Arthur C. Scholz, who has since left the IRS, said he was alerted by tenants that a man who identified himself as a private investigator had questioned tenants about him and the other landlords.

Moxon, the Scientology lawyer, said the IRS was well aware of the church's use of private investigators to expose agency abuses when it granted the exemptions. Moxon did not deny hiring Shomers, but he said the activities described by Shomers to the Times were legal and proper. Moxon and other church lawyers said the church needed to use private investigators to counter lies spread by rogue government agents.

"The IRS uses investigators, too," said a church lawyer, Gerald A. Feffer, a former deputy assistant attorney general now with Williams & Connolly, one of Washington's most influential law firms. "They're called CID agents" - for Criminal Investigation Division - "and the CID agents put this church under intense scrutiny for years with a mission to destroy the church."

 

 

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