Sun Staff Writer
The Church of Scientology plotted to purchase or otherwise "control" the Clearwater Sun by
attempting to cut the paper's advertising revenue, discredit reporters and editors and rally readers against it,
according to sect documents released Friday. -
High-level Scientology "Guardians," carrying out
plans to "take control" of the city of Clearwater in November 1975, planted spies in the Sun's news and advertising departments to gather information that might be incriminating to the paper's finances and employes.
The Scientologists also collected data on Clearwater residents whose letters to the Sun were critical of the sect. The names, addresses and phone numbers of about 50 readers were compiled in April 1976, and documents show' cult leaders believe the writers' backgrounds should be investigated.
Hundreds of pages of secret correspondence on the plot --- termed "China Shop" --- were released by a U.S. District Court Judge who presided at a trial of nine Scientology leaders found guilty last month of conspiring to
steal federal documents. The three-inch-thick file on schemes against the Sun also contained reports about
activities against former Clearwater mayor Gabriel Cazares and radio broadcaster Bob Snyder.
A document dated Nov. 14, 1975 --- about the time United Churches, the Scientology front group, created its Clearwater base --- states the goal of the "China Shop" scheme:
"Our target on this, very confidentially, is ownership
or control of the paper. So, as you know, the finance
information on the paper, its debts, its income --- and how
it could be cut, are prime information needs."
The correspondence was between Guardian Henning Heldt and a top Scientology operative, Dick Weigand. Both were convicted last month of conspiracy against the federal government.
The documents, seized in an FBI raid on the cult's Los Angeles headquarters in 1977, show Heldt also ordered "detailed" information be collected on Sun Publisher John Ricketson, former editor Al Hutchison and then managing editor Ron Stuart. Heldt said the espionage was necessary because "somewhere in the editorial structure they have an institutional case (with) a characteristic of insanity."
Ricketson said Friday "The documents prove that our editorial board has been correct in its position that the cult is not the type of organization we want, in our city. It
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is unfortunate that they have chosen Clearwater - or
would choose any city - to teach their philosophies which involve espionage and smear tactics.
These new documents prove what we always have known.... that their true character is devious. But we will not let their methods or plots intimidate us into not carrying out our duties to the people of Clearwater.
"Those duties include .maintaining a high degree of
professionalism in producing our local newspaper, even
when that professionalism is not respected by this so-called religion."
Scientology spies working at the newspaper or or collecting data from the former Fort Harrison hotel filed almost daily reports on the Sun between January and October 1976, The reports include apparently stolen files on advertising lineage and finances, story outlines and legal correspondence.
One report from a sect operative shows the Scientologists collected data indicating they could purchase the newspaper for about $2.5 million. Ricketson said the Sun has not been for sale, "Certainly not for that price and certainly not to that organization -- at any price."
A 100 - page computer printout on Sun advertisers was obtained, as well as records about the paper's credit union.
The voluminous files included schemes to attempt to
convince advertisers to stop purchasing space in the
paper because of allegedly inflated circulation figures. A
specific plot was considered to convince Maas Brothers
department store executives to pull ads from the Sun
because a Sun reporter "is looking into their back-grounds to print something sordid on them."
"I understand that Maas Brothers is the largest account in the Clearwater Sun and that they put about $400,000 into the Sun annually," one unidentified sect member reported. "If they were to pull out, the Sun may have to fold."
The documents reveal the Scientologists, while investigating several newspaper officials, decided that now-editor Stuart was their prime enemy. They therefore sought to smear his reputation through allegations of
sexual misconduct and drug abuse.
One sect spy, identified in the documents as Molly Gilliam, who used the Sun's library for a period under the guise of scholastic research, filed numerous reports on conversations among reporters and the stories on which they were working. Reporters Mark Sableman and Steven Advokat, who revealed the Scientology link to United Churches, were reported about daily for several months.
The Scientologists also boasted of obtaining i list of
1,000 Clearwater residents "openly antagonistic to the
Clearwater Sun," a May 1976 memo shows. The letter from a Scientology official named "Randy" to sect spokesman Arthur Maren says the list would make a "wonderful" public relations tool against the Sun. It is suggested that a questionnaire about the paper be sent to the residents noting , "Many of these persons have declared that their friends also wouldn't buy the Sun.
The file on the Sun frequently includes mention of Cazares, who was the target of an election smear campaign. Snyder was targeted for sect probes into his alleged Mafia connections and purported financial difficulties. Both were considered "enemies" who had to be removed to the sect could "take control" of the city.
The documents show sect leaders considered the best
way to handle critics was "exposing their crimes" even
if no wrongdoings existed. "For instance, one document,
questions the "moral fiber" of the Sun's news employes, claiming that Stuart and others had dated a "nymphomaniac." An investigation was also ordered into the nature of Stuart's divorce.
One document notes that because Stuart "spends very little money--- eats at McDonald's-- (it) seems that Stuart may have some large undisclosed crime that he needs extra money for."
Stuart responded to the latest revelations by saying. "After more that four years of being a target of the Scientologists and their tactics, nothing surprises me. I sincerely hope none of their smear campaigns has done
any real damage to the personal and professional integrity of any of the fine journalists who work, or have
worked, for the Sun."
Referring to the cult's file on the Sun letter-writers, Stuart, said, "I am shocked at such a form of intimidation.
Those persons who write letters to the editor are exercising basic freedoms of this country - freedom of speech
and press. I also hope these latest reports will spur many
more people to let the cult know the community's true
feeling. Write to us, and we'll publish your letters."
Another memo links Stuart and Sun staffers to alleged drug abuse at an editorial staff party in October 1976.
The documents also contain copies of confidential
correspondence from Sun attorneys concerning litigation
with the sect. A letter dated March 18, 1976, addressed to
Ricketson and Hutchison from attorney N. David
Korones, was part of a file on the sect's threatened litigation against the Sun, which was then planning to print a booklet about the paper's reporting on Scientologists.
While the letter contained no reference to Sun legal strategy, other documents have disclosed that the sect obtained St. Petersburg Times legal files for the purpose of preparing lawsuits.
In Washington, Church of Scientology president Kenneth Whitman issued a statement declaring the release of confidential sect correspondence "a relief .... Now perhaps we will see how far (government) agencies' secret and covert activities and false reports corrupted the First Amendment."
Church spokesman contend that the espionage by their Guardians was a "mild" response to government attacks on their sect since it was founded in 1950.
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