Florida AG Pam Bondi raising money from wealthy Scientologists in Clearwater today

By Tony Ortega
Tuesday, July 1, 2014 13:51 EDT
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Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is running for re-election this year, and she’s looking for help in an unusual place — the Church of Scientology.

Bondi is a Republican and former prosecutor who was endorsed by Sarah Palin when she ran for election and won in 2010. Most recently, she’s been in the news for announcing that she would be vigorously defending Florida’s ban on gay marriage in the federal courts.

And on Tuesday evening, she’s having a campaign fundraiser at the home of Michael and Liz Baybak, wealthy longtime Scientologists who are known for donating large sums to the church and also for making donations to political campaigns.

The event is being organized by Brett Miller, another longtime church member, as well as three other Scientologists, and attendance requires a donation of at least $1,000 per person.

We left a message for Miller to ask about how many people would be attending and if all of the attendees would be Scientologists, but we didn’t get a response.

News of the unusual fundraiser broke on Sunday at the Scientology watchdog website tonyortega.org, where a flier for the Bondi event was posted. The flier — which wasn’t meant to be distributed outside of wealthy Scientology members — indicated that the event would take place in the Baybaks’ 23rd-floor condominium in Clearwater, which is a town that houses one of Scientology’s most important international headquarters, the “Flag Land Base.”

Yesterday, the Tampa Bay Times reached Bondi’s campaign spokeswoman, who acknowledged that Bondi was aware the fundraiser is being sponsored by Scientologists, and also revealed that Bondi made a previous visit to the church’s Clearwater location last year…

Bondi is aware Scientologists are staging the event, said campaign spokeswoman Christina Johnson. She said Bondi first connected with Scientologists in 2012 when she and other elected officials toured some of the church’s Clearwater facilities. Bondi spoke then to a group of Scientologists about human trafficking and the evils of pill mills, a topic that resonated because Scientologists sponsor what they tout as the largest anti-drug program in the world.

At Tuesday’s fundraiser, she will return to those themes, Johnson said. “It’s like-minded folks sharing the same goals: Protecting children against drug overdoses and human trafficking,” Johnson said.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Joe Childs pointed out the irony that Scientology itself was investigated by the FBI for human trafficking from 2009 to 2011, but no charges were filed. That probe focused on Scientology’s secretive International Base, east of Los Angeles, one of the locations where the church’s “Sea Org” workers sign billion-year contracts, work 100-plus hours a week, and are paid pennies an hour.

Several former Scientologists worked closely with the FBI agents who, they say, were planning a raid of the base in the summer of 2010. Former base worker Marc Headley says the FBI had obtained hi-resolution images of the base, and another former employee says he was asked to ride in a van with FBI agents as they raided the facility. That raid didn’t happen, and by 2011 the investigation was over.

A decade earlier, Scientology was charged criminally by the state of Florida in regards to the 1995 death of church member Lisa McPherson, who died after 17 days of isolation at the Fort Harrison Hotel, the centerpiece of the Clearwater headquarters.

Former Scientology official Marty Rathbun testified in 2012 that the church spent about $30 million trying to influence prosecutors, judges, and other officials in order to derail that prosecution. (The state ultimately dropped charges in 2000 after a county medical officer changed McPherson’s manner of death under intense pressure.)

“Scientology has never endorsed anybody where there wasn’t a clear self-interest,” says Rathbun, who now lives in Texas after leaving the church in 2004. “They’ve never supported a candidate or an issue for the good of the country. It’s all self-interest, and they’ll make sure Bondi knows that this is the church and these are Scientologists. Otherwise they wouldn’t do it.”

Tony Ortega
Tony Ortega
Tony Ortega is Raw Story's executive editor. From 2007 to 2012 , he was editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. He also worked at Voice Media Group's other newspapers in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Fort Lauderdale. He lives in New York City and is originally from Los Angeles.
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