Giant ‘Super Power’ building in Clearwater takes a pause, yet millions keep flowing in
- By Joe Childs and Thomas C. Tobin, Times Staff Writers,
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Maybe they’re out of money. That speculation — irresistible to many Scientology watchers in Clearwater — never died after the church suddenly stopped construction on its massive, downtown “Super Power” building.
The church had spent five years and $45 million erecting the shell of the seven-story colossus that covers an entire city block. But in 2003 it shifted the project into idle, offering little explanation.
Always mysterious since coming to Clearwater under a fake name in 1975, the church became all the more inscrutable as its big building just sat there, finished on the outside, raw inside.
But unknown to those wondering about the delay was the whirl of activity just across the street.
In an office off the mezzanine in the church’s Fort Harrison Hotel, a savvy team of fundraisers was raking in millions.
The Super Power project has been a bonanza for the Church of Scientology. Far from a financial burden, it has been a money magnet, a powerful come-on for L. Ron Hubbard’s master vision.
Pay for a building. Save the planet.
A St. Petersburg Times analysis shows Scientology has raised at least $145 million for the project, far more than the $100 million cost consistently cited by the church’s Clearwater public affairs team through the years.
In a single week in March 2003 — the year construction stopped — fundraisers brought in $23 million in parishioner donations, according to a former member of the team.
That figure is “absurd,” the church said. It declined to provide the amount collected that week or the total raised during two decades of fundraising.
But it generally acknowledged the triumph of the Super Power fundraising campaign.
Dollars donated “under the banner of Super Power” paid not only for the skyline-altering building and its elaborate furnishings, but for a $4 million power plant and a parking garage. Still going strong, the campaign is raising the millions needed for a planned 3,500-seat auditorium, L. Ron Hubbard Hall.
“This and a number of other outstanding projects remain to accomplish the goals of Super Power,” the church said.
No law compels religious organizations to release financial information, and Scientology does not. The Times analysis of the Super Power campaign is based on interviews with former insiders and major contributors and on a review of church publications and internal memoranda.
What emerges is a detailed picture of a well-organized team of religious workers-turned-fundraisers with big-dollar appetites.
Headquartered in Clearwater and supported by satellite crews in Los Angeles and England, they studied the work of secular fundraisers. They extensively rehearsed opening and closing lines in role-playing sessions, learning how to overcome a parishioner’s resistance. And they choreographed an array of presentations that included videos, plays on emotion and other gambits.
They also had inside information, according to a former fundraiser. Cindy Bernot Plahuta, a Super Power fundraiser from 2002 to 2004, said the team got sensitive personal information about parishioners from church ministers and used it as leverage to get donations.
“We knew … their big horrible, horrible button for life,” Plahuta said. “We would push it. That’s how we got money.”
The church flatly denied that.
Scientology never announced a goal for the Super Power drive, as is customary in mainstream fundraising. Asked why, the church said the project’s cost was unknown. Work resumed in 2009 and is ongoing.
Former church members said the six-year construction delay and the open-ended fundraising campaign are revealing.
“Why stop raising money?” said Luis Garcia of Irvine, Calif., who gave Super Power $340,000 before leaving the church this year. “It’s a cash cow. It always has been.”
The church reacted strongly to any suggestion that it delayed construction to extend fundraising.
That, said church spokeswoman Karin Pouw, “is, frankly, inane.”
Hubbard described the Super Power program as one of his most important discoveries.
Scientology’s founder said in 1978 he considered civilization to be in terrible decline. He cited crime, drug abuse, TV watching, a poor educational system, a dwindling food supply.
Seeking an answer, the former science fiction writer developed a series of 12 “rundowns” that combine Scientology’s core counseling practice, called “auditing,” with drills involving elaborate machines.
The Super Power program would help develop and sharpen what Hubbard called man’s 57 “perceptics” — sight, smell, taste, touch, blood circulation, depth perception, solidity, awareness of awareness. Participants would be spun on a gyroscope-like wheel, spend time in a sound chamber, sniff vials emitting fragrances, experience changes in gravitational pull.
“Out-of-this-world machines that would make any science fiction buff marvel,” said fundraising team leader Lauri Webster, speaking to Scientologists in August in Clearwater.
Hubbard said his program would awaken spiritual beings occupying human forms by empowering them to “clear the planet” of its many perils. “Super Power is the answer to a sick, a dying and dead society,” he said.
“With it, we literally revive the dead. With it, we have the means to put Scientologists into a new realm of ability enabling them to create a new world.”
The church has kept the program under wraps since Hubbard developed it 33 years ago, saying it needed to build an appropriate facility and recruit 300 counselors, called auditors, needed for the 12 rundowns. The auditors would be required to join Scientology’s religious order, the Sea Org, a dedicated workforce of 6,000 worldwide who give up mainstream life to work long hours for $50 a week.
In her speech in August, Webster said auditors were “urgently needed.”
High energy, fast talking and all business, longtime Sea Org member Charmaine Roger was Super Power’s chief fundraiser.
“A building must be built, and built rapidly,” she wrote to parishioners in 1992, six years before the foundation was poured.
“Your contributions are vitally needed now to make the dream of a new world a reality.”
The church rolled out incentives. Donors of $35,000 — Cornerstone Club status — were promised a 40 percent discount on the cost of their Super Power program. Their names would be engraved on a plaque inside the building.
Gifts of $100,000 fetched a 50 percent discount and priority scheduling when doing the Super Power program.
Thirty-four parishioners became Cornerstone contributors that year. Fifteen more contributed larger, unspecified amounts, according to a church newsletter.
Roger was an experienced church fundraiser. She had asked parishioners for years to contribute to the International Association of Scientologists, which funds the church’s social betterment programs, its expansion, and its defense against lawsuits and hostile governments.
For the elite Super Power project, the church paired her with Webster, also a veteran of the Sea Org.
Roger and Webster worked out of Scientology’s global spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, also known as the Flag Land Base, or Flag. They met with parishioners coming in for services. They phoned church members, wrote them, and mailed out an avalanche of information packets and solicitations.
They often traveled to meet parishioners, especially wealthy ones, making their pitches over multicourse meals in fancy restaurants.
The Sea Org’s maritime dress uniforms — double-breasted blue jackets with brass buttons — wouldn’t do there. Webster and Roger wore designer outfits, purchased in New York.
They were going after big money.
And they got it.
• Bob Duggan, of Santa Barbara, Calif., a developer of robotic surgery and a venture capitalist: $12 million.
• Bryan Zwan, founder of Digital Lightwave of Clearwater, maker of products for fiber optic networks: $7.5 million.
• Ron Pollack, of Clearwater, hedge fund manager and real estate investor/developer: $5 million.
• Kurt Listug, co-founder and CEO of Taylor Guitars, El Cajon, Calif.: at least $1.5 million.
Listug and his wife, Jenny, pushed their donations to that level in 2001. “We are not doing what is comfortable for us to do. We are giving until it hurts,” they wrote in a testimonial sent to fellow Scientologists.
“We urge you to join us in winning this game through the release of Super Power. … Go ahead and give until it hurts. Then give some more.”
At the time, fundraisers were asking for money for the project’s freestanding power plant. Two blocks from the building, the $4 million plant, finished in 2003, will heat and cool Super Power.
A church newsletter published this year lists donors by category of contribution from the start of the campaign.
In addition to the Listugs, 28 other Scientologists have given between $1 million and $5 million, earning Legion of Honor status.
Eleven more donated at least $500,000 each.
Fifty-nine contributed at least $250,000.
More than 300 are Key Contributors, donating at least $100,000.
And nearly 1,200 Scientologists are listed in the Cornerstone Club, each having donated at least $35,000.
Considering the minimum thresholds for these contribution categories, the list puts Super Power’s collections at upward of $145 million.
Not listed are current and former Scientologists who contributed less than $35,000. Church defectors said there are thousands of those.
Also missing from the list: Many former church members who gave, some generously.
Luis Garcia and his wife, Rocio, were listed in previous Cornerstone newsletters as “Founding Members,” having surpassed that category’s $250,000 threshold with their gift of a third of a million dollars.
But when they left Scientology, concerned that appeals for money took priority over providing services, they disappeared from the newsletter.
Numerous other former church members interviewed by the Times also have been dropped, each having contributed at least five figures.
Cindy Bernot Plahuta, a Scientologist for 14 years, was in the middle of a divorce and needed a job when Super Power’s chief fundraiser in Los Angeles asked her to join the team. She would be a “field fundraiser,” earning 10 percent on the donations she brought in.
Plahuta, formerly of Clearwater, had no experience, but thought: Why not?
It was 2002. She joined Sea Org member David Light and two others in an office at the church’s busy “Pacific Base” on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
She made $60,000 to $70,000 a year, working 10- and 12-hour days, often seven days a week, contacting parishioners by phone or in person, arranging lunches, dinners, home visits, office visits — any opportunity for her and Light to make their pitch for Super Power.
The two were in a parishioner’s living room or hosting a dinner “every single day,” Plahuta said.
Light — a 60ish sales veteran known as “The Surgeon” for his ability to extract money from people — almost always handled “the close.”
In her two years on the team, Plahuta, 54, spent part of almost every day canvassing the base’s waiting areas, looking for a target she could take in to Light. She looked for people who seemed “nice” — cooperative and agreeable when she introduced herself.
It worked beautifully one of the first times she tried it.
Smiling brightly, Plahuta approached a woman who seemed to be killing time. Could she answer a few survey questions?
Cathy Mullins said sure.
She lived in San Diego, a housewife who was returning to Scientology after 30 years away.
And, yes, she was concerned that society was in decline.
Plahuta ushered Mullins to an office, where Light joined them. He flicked on a video.
Opening scene: big banquet. Three men take turns announcing whopper donations to the Super Power building fund.
Ending scene: One says he’s pushing his total contributions to $5 million.
Light opened a binder. He flipped through pages of photos, newspaper stories and statistics. They told a frightening story: war, crime, drugs, insanity.
L. Ron Hubbard created a solution for this madness, Light said, extolling Super Power’s potential to save the world.
He told Mullins: Help make it happen.
He explained the church was building a fabulous Super Power delivery center in Clearwater.
Help us finish it.
Make a gift — $35,000.
He quoted Hubbard talking about man needing to take responsibility for his actions.
Mullins teared up. “That’s a major thing for me,” she recalled recently. “People should be held accountable. When they mess up, they should have to fix it.”
Mullins wrote a check for $25 but said she would do more.
It was Plahuta’s first or second day on the job. After watching Light work and hearing Mullins’ heartfelt reaction and her vow to donate, Plahuta told herself: “This is not going to be that difficult of a gig … Cathy is going to donate money … A lot of money.”
Mullins and her husband, Kim Hawkins, applied for an $82,000 second mortgage on the home they had bought four years earlier for $150,000.
A few weeks later, the Surgeon and his new field fundraiser drove to San Diego to pick up a check elevating Mullins and Hawkins into the Cornerstone Club — $35,000.
It was a Sunday. Mullins fixed brunch.
Compared with the take-no-prisoners approach of other Scientology fundraisers, Lauri Webster’s Super Power team was in many ways genteel.
Poised, articulate and quick with praise, Webster had earned “altitude” among Sea Org members because of the vaunted accomplishments of her team — five fundraising staffers based in Clearwater, four in Los Angeles and one in England.
Demanding of herself — she never snacked between meals — Webster insisted they follow the Golden Rules of Fundraising, 26 aphorisms they grew to know by heart.
Learn everything you can about the prospects you’ll be calling.
Practice, practice, practice. Write out what you’re going to say.
Don’t let objections rattle you.
Get a commitment to something before leaving.
They practiced for hours on each other, polishing comeback lines and posing the Four Magic Questions: Is it the institution? Is it the project? Is it the amount? Is it the timing?
They often didn’t meet strong resistance. The promise of Super Power — that “world clearing” is in reach — is a stirring message for Scientologists. They commit themselves and their money to spreading the religion so the planet can be saved. Super Power would accelerate that.
Team members graphed their collections each week, posting stat sheets so teammates could see. Plahuta’s line graph spiked up and down: $14,600 one week, $33,900 the next.
They sent Webster weekly “lineups,” lists of parishioners who had agreed to meet with them or had promised to donate once they sold property or got a new credit card.
The field fundraisers in Los Angeles and Clearwater staged a monthslong competition that ended each year on Hubbard’s birthday, March 13. They earned points for bringing in new donors or pushing existing donors up in status. The winner could gain free entry to the Cornerstone Club. Plahuta never made it, but three colleagues did.
But one of the team’s tactics didn’t come from a best practices list.
The Los Angeles fundraisers routinely asked ethics officers, directors of processing and church registrars to divulge parishioners’ personal secrets, Plahuta said.
“We would find out what trouble they had been in, what their buttons are, how much money they had … We had the skinny on everybody,” she said.
In Scientology, directors of processing make sure parishioners are progressing in their auditing sessions. They often hear church members’ most intimate thoughts.
“You spiel your guts out at a DOP,” Plahuta said. “You tell him everything that’s upsetting you, everything you want to handle.”
She added: “It was not confidential by any means. I could tell you who the child molesters are. … The guy naked under the raincoat, exposing himself, the people who have had affairs.”
Parishioners had no idea their secrets were out, and fundraisers were careful not to let on, Plahuta said. But they made clear in their presentations that Super Power would address the issues they knew were troubling their targets.
“They are there because they know there is something wrong with them,” Plahuta said. The fundraisers talked generally about that specific “aberration” and how ruinous it was for society.
Often, the parishioners opened up about their problems, Plahuta said.
“We’d say, ‘Listen, it’s good that you are here to fix it. The way you can also fix it is you can help us fix society. And the way you can do that is to contribute to Super Power. Let us show you what it is.”’
Then came the video, the binder, the scary statistics and headlines. The kicker: Super Power is the solution.
The man with the habit of exposing himself responded with a $1,000 donation and later increased it to $5,000, Plahuta said.
The church said that none of its staffers who minister to parishioners ever disclosed a confidence. The suggestion “any priest-penitent information was ‘shared’ … is false and insulting,” Pouw said.
The fundraisers also played on emotion and vulnerabilities, Plahuta said.
She and Light visited a woman two months after her 12-year-old son was struck by a car and killed. The woman knew the fundraisers were coming. Her other child answered the door as she watched a video of her son.
Plahuta and Light told her Super Power would pull society out of its tailspin.
They discussed how perilous the world had become for children and explained Super Power would remedy that.
“We pushed the button with kids,” Plahuta said.
The woman was expecting an insurance settlement. She donated $5,000.
Church spokeswoman Pouw said Plahuta lacks credibility and is speaking out in hopes of driving a wedge between the church and her 34-year-old daughter, a part-time Scientology staffer in Foothills Ranch, Calif.
Plahuta — who left the church in 2009 partly because she grew weary of its focus on money — acknowledged that she wants her daughter to leave the church staff. But she insisted she’s not exaggerating anything.
“I wanted to stand up and tell the truth. People in Clearwater and elsewhere need to know about this.”
Webster set multimillion-dollar weekly targets for the Super Power team, relaying them to Los Angeles fundraisers in telephone calls. Because Plahuta was not a Sea Org member, she wasn’t patched in every time.
“I heard them maybe one out of every four,” she said. “But usually it (the weekly target) was between $20 (million) and $28 million. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I just don’t ever remember hearing anything any lower.”
She isn’t sure whether the lofty targets reflected the bosses’ expectations or were just meant to motivate. The church said the figures cited by Plahuta are incorrect “in every instance.”
After the team’s $23 million week in 2003, Webster commended the fundraisers, sending out mementos. She gave Plahuta a Waterman Paris fountain pen.
Collections surged to record levels that year. Webster told Plahuta in a year-end letter that the team had brought in more Cornerstone members than ever. She indicated the end was in sight.
“For 2004, the full funding will be completed with all of your continued help.”
But fundraising didn’t stop. Plahuta said Webster told her the church needed money to buy equipment for the perceptics rundown.
When Webster’s team got big money, one person usually was responsible — Charmaine Roger.
“She made millions every single week,” Plahuta said.
Plahuta remembered introducing Roger to a man waiting for counseling at the Clearwater church.
“She asked him what he knew about Super Power and he said, ‘Well, it’s going to clear the planet.’ ”
Roger: How much have you donated?
Not much, maybe $100.
Roger burrowed in, Plahuta said.
“You need to be a Cornerstone member. Cindy tells me you can become one.”
The man tried to resist, but Roger didn’t back off.
“She was just in this guy’s face,” Plahuta said. “‘I need you to do the cycle (make the donation). I need you to do the cycle. How can you do it? How can you do the cycle — $35,000. Can you do it on a credit card?'”
He could, and did.
It was 10 minutes’ work for Roger.
A building project that goes on and on
Thirteen years ago today, 6,000 Scientologists cheered as church leader David Miscavige thrust a gold-bladed shovel into the ground across the street from the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater.
The Super Power project was under way.
Nine days earlier, Pinellas prosecutors had filed two criminal charges against the church in the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson, who had suffered a psychotic breakdown and died while in the care of church staffers. (The charges were later dropped.)
Now the church was making a statement: Scientology would flourish.
“When you consider the great religions of the world and look at the Vatican or Mecca, and what their construction so many centuries ago meant to their faithful, therein lies a little of what this day means to a Scientologist,” Miscavige said.
Construction abruptly stopped in 2003. After three years, Clearwater imposed a fine of $250 a day for code violations.
Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw said construction was halted because church leaders needed to replan the interior. They had underestimated how much Scientology would expand worldwide, she said.
Special equipment unique to the Super Power program also required two years of planning and engineering, Pouw said.
Work resumed in 2009. Last month, the church paid the code violation fines — $413,500. Pouw said the building will open soon, but she provided no date.
Super Power’s new home “is a monument to our religion, and its construction time is short compared to the world’s religious cathedrals,” she said.
Specially designed equipment for L. Ron Hubbard’s Super Power program is being installed on the fifth floor of the Super Power building. The machines help a person enhance 57 “perceptics,” which heighten sensory perceptions, the church says. Hubbard created the Super Power program in 1978, but the church has kept it highly classified. This feature is from a 2007 edition of the church’s Source magazine.
‘Big beings’ and a big donation
Luis and Rocio Garcia were resting in their hotel room at Scientology’s Sandcastle complex in Clearwater in August 2005 when Super Power fundraiser Charmaine Roger knocked on their door.
The church wanted to place a large bronze Scientology cross atop the unfinished Super Power building four blocks away.
A contractor was standing by. How much could they give? The Garcias looked at each other. They didn’t want to donate.
Roger said the cross would be visible for miles. She dropped to her knees, Rocio remembered, her hands pressed together and pointing upward, as if in prayer. Please help us. I know you have big hearts. I know you are big beings. “I felt so bad,” Rocio said. “I mean, you cannot say no to a person when you see that.” They donated $65,000.
The cross wasn’t mounted for five years — not until September 2010. “I felt pretty cheated about that,” Luis said.
The church said it couldn’t verify the Garcias’ story. Were other parishioners asked to donate for the cross? Spokeswoman Karin Pouw said it’s common practice to ask parishioners to donate for specific features such as a stained-glass window or a cross.