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Grand jury once more probes alleged Scientology plots

Title: Grand jury once more probes alleged Scientology plots
Date: Thursday, 11 June 1981
Publisher: St. Petersburg Times (Florida)
Author: Craig Roberton
Main source:

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TAMPA — A federal grand jury in Tampa is once again investigating alleged plots by the Church of Scientology to discredit former Clearwater Mayor Gabriel Cazares.

Three members of the Church of Scientology testified for an hour and a half at the secret grand jury session in the federal courthouse in Tampa Wednesday afternoon.

Cazares himself testified before the grand jury for more than an hour on Tuesday.

Asked about his testimony, Cazares said he told the grand jurors about the church's hidden entry into Clearwater in late 1975, about its attempts to "occupy" the city and some of the things they've done to gain control of the city and some of the things they tried to do to their critics."

Cazares declined to comment about the specifics of his testimony.

But Assistant US. Attorney Terry Bostick told attorneys for the three Scientologists that prosecutors are interested in "Operation Speedy Gonzales." Church documents identify the operation as one of several aimed at ruining Cazares' political career.

BOSTICK ALSO told the attorneys in a hallway of the federal courthouse that prosecutors want to know about alleged infiltration of Cazares' 1976 congressional campaign by a Scientologist posing as a campaign volunteer.

That volunteer — Francine Vannier — was one of the three Scientologists subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury Wednesday. The other two were:

* Sharon Thomas, the alleged central figure in a plot to involve Cazares in a sex smear in 1976 and one of 11 church operatives sentenced to jail terms in connection with an extensive conspiracy to steal documents from the federal government.

* Mitchell Hermann, a high-ranking church official who was sentenced to four years in prison for his part in the conspiracy.

The three Scientologists were accompanied by three attorneys — Bennie Lazzara of Tampa, Barrett S. Litt of Los Angeles and Jim Rief of New York.

PRIOR TO THE 3 p.m. start of Wednesday's testimony, the three attorneys, their clients and Bostick attended a closed hearing before U.S. District Judge Ben Krentzman.

Although none of the participants would cornment on the nature of the hearing, Lazzara and Litt have tried before to have the grand jury probe halted on the basis of extensive adverse publicity about the church.

Lazzara said Wednesday that his clients may challenge the constitutionality of the new investigation.

During the conspiracy case in Washington in 1979, Assistant U.S Attorney Raymond Banoun said in a sentencing memorandum that Hermann directed — and Ms. Thomas carried out — a fake hit-and-run accident involving Cazares during a mayor's conference in Washington in March 1976.

Soon afterward, letters signed by "Sharon T." were sent to local news media. The letters stated that "Sharon T." had met Cazares in a restaurant and was driving him around town when their car struck a pedestrian but they did not stop to help.

Internal church documents about the incident say the plot was intended to implicate Cazares, who was running for Congress, in a "Washington sex scandal."

AT ABOUT the same time, Mrs. Vannier was functioning as "a spy" while working on Cazares' campaign staff, Cazares' attorney Walt Logan said Wednesday.

And during that time, Mrs. Vannier's husband, former Clearwater attorney Merrell Vannier — also a Scientologist — was hired by Cazares to represent the former mayor in litigation with the church. Vannier is now a defendant in a $1.5-million damage suit by Cazares against the church. The suit alleges in part that Vannier was also a church spy.

Vannier did not testify Wednesday, and Lazzara said that to his knowledge no other Scientologists have been subpoenaed.