I just got off the phone with Steve Whitmore, Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca's spokesman, who tells me that an official inquiry has been opened in the matter of an LA sheriff's deputy named Benjamin Ring. The deputy appeared in a Scientology mailer that encourages church members to spend money on expensive services rather than invest in real estate or put it away in a 401K.
Images of the mailer first showed up about a week ago on the Internet, but the message on it, accompanied by an image of Deputy Ring in his full police gear, was so outlandish, we suspected a hoax. Only after we'd received a physical copy of the mailer and verified with the Church of Scientology Los Angeles that it had put out the document did we contact the LA Sheriff's Department for comment.
"Your concerns about the text are our concern. We're going to get to the bottom of it," Whitmore told me this afternoon as he let me know that an official inquiry -- which may lead to an internal affairs investigation -- was already underway.
Whitmore says that some executives at the Sheriff's Department had been aware of the mailer when it first went out and began in inquiry, but Whitmore knew nothing about it until the Voice sent over images of it by e-mail earlier today. (Whitmore says he was not called earlier about the matter, despite an Internet report that Whitmore had told a member of Anonymous that there was no problem with a deputy appearing in an advertisement in his uniform. Update: It was Garry Scarff who earlier posted that he'd talked to Whitmore about deputies endorsing products in uniform, but he says he may not have mentioned the flier, which Whitmore told me he had not learned about until earlier today.)
In fact, Whitmore says it's against Department policy for deputies to endorse products while appearing in uniform.
"We are not in the business of endorsing any particular anything, if you know what I mean," he told me. "People in their off-duty hours in their regular street clothes can do whatever they want, but when they don Sheriff's Department gear it's another matter."
Sheriff Lee Baca himself can do what he wants as an elected official, and Whitmore acknowledged that Baca had made supportive statements about Scientology in the past.
"The Sheriff believes that everybody deserves a seat at the table. There are certain things with Scientology he thinks are good. He likes that they're trying to get people off of alcohol and drugs," Whitmore said. "That's an overall philosophical statement. He's an elected official and has every right to do that."
But deputies are another matter, he pointed out. "We're looking at this very seriously."
I called the Church of Scientology Los Angeles -- the "LA Org" -- to ask about the mailer. After acknowledging that they had put out the mailer, the person who answered my call told me someone else would call me back. They never did. I also did not get a call back from Karin Pouw, church spokeswoman.
The person who sent us a copy of the mailer received a copy of it in the mail on July 26. It's a single glossy sheet, and on one side, Deputy Ring can be seen endorsing "co-auditing to clear at LA Org."
As has been voluminously documented here at the Voice and in many court cases and by other news organizations, one of the realities of life in Scientology is for members to be continuously hit up for increasingly expensive services by church "registrars" as they move up "the Bridge" of spiritual advancement. Founder L. Ron Hubbard claimed that dedicated adherence to his "technology" would lead a parishioner to became a "clear," a person who is so unencumbered by life's traumas, he or she would be clairvoyant, have total recall, and master other seemingly superhuman qualities.
In the mailer, Deputy Ring seems to acknowledge that advancing up the Bridge could lead to financial difficulty: "I kept talking to the Registrars and I thought if I'm going to co-audit, I might as well keep co-auditing up the Bridge and it's a way to do it and not have money be a problem."
Reaching "clear" is only one stop on the Bridge -- even higher levels call for even higher prices. An individual step on the Bridge might cost $7,000 or $8,000, and call for many additional services and remedial steps before moving on to a higher station on the process.
"I was saving all this money to do the Bridge later," Ring goes on, "instead of just taking the money I did have to invest in my spiritual freedom."
Ring -- again, while appearing as an authority figure in his sheriff's deputy uniform -- now attempts to convince his reader that there are few better ways to invest large amounts of money than in Scientology training:
What's the point of having a condo in Burbank or going to Europe instead of investing in myself. Instead of flowing money to my IRA or 401K, why don't I just flow money toward my Bridge?
"In other words, he's saying that to go clear, it would cost you about what it would cost to buy a condo," says Jason Beghe, an actor and former Scientology celebrity who left the church in 2007 after, by his estimate, spending about a million dollars on Scientology services over a 13-year period.
"It's the safest investment there is, because it's kind of magical," he added, sarcastically.
A Malibu resident, Beghe says that the particular Scientology outfit that created the mailer, the "LA org," is "kind of a joke." There are much more prestigious Scientology facilities in the area, which is one of the religion's main hubs.
As for the mailer's aggressive approach, asking for large sums, Beghe says "That's what Scientology does."
"That's all the time. I remember there was a guy who was trying to get me -- he was an IAS [International Association of Scientologists] registrar, those guys are crazy -- he was saying that he had a contracting business and had a $600,000 windfall, and he said he gave it all to the IAS, and then tripled his income. So when you get a windfall, the best thing for you financially, they'll tell you, is to give the whole thing to them. I kid you not. And people believe it," he says.
"A working person, to co-audit the Bridge, would take going to the org every night. You'd be there from 6 to 10, and it would still take you many years to go clear," Beghe says. "He'll wake up when he can't pay for his kids' school."
UPDATE: Just talked to Brian Culkin for another perspective on the amounts of money we're dealing with in Scientology. Although Culkin, a yoga instructor, was only in Scientology for a short time -- from January 2009 to February 2010 -- in that time, as he worked to "go clear," he gave Scientology $350,000. And then "blew" -- Scientology jargon for leaving the church.
Imagine the sort of condo you could buy with that kind of deposit money.
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Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief of The Village Voice. Since 1995, he's been writing about Scientology at several publications.