The Church of Scientology may soon have a new ally in the U.S. Senate.
Republican congressman and 2016 Senate candidate David Jolly’s district includes the town of Clearwater, Florida, which is home to the Flag Service Organization, the “spiritual headquarters of Scientologists planetwide” and the organization’s “Mecca.” It is Scientology’s largest church, situated in a complex spread out over a “nine-mile grid” in the heart of downtown Clearwater.
Given the large footprint of the church in his district, Jolly’s ties with Scientologists may have paid dividends on the local level—but now that he’s running to represent the entire state of Florida, his connections with the controversial church may prove to be a liability. He’s received numerous donations from an infamous Scientologist doctor, attended rallies and fundraisers thrown by the church, and steadfastly refuses to distance himself from the group.
Scientology is a relatively new religion created by American sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard in the mid-1950s. The church has gained much attention and media coverage in recent years for, among other things, opposing psychiatric medications and recruiting a wide variety of celebrities such as entertainer (and former Republican congressman) Sonny Bono and Tom Cruise.
Critics of the church frequently accuse the religious organization of being at best a scam and at worst a cult that engages in criminal activity, abuse, campaigns of intimidation, and slave labor.
Former high-ranking members have alleged that Scientology’s leader, David Miscavige, uses “terroristic” techniques to silence those critical of the church—charges Scientology denies. The church also allegedly used spies and operatives to try to frame its most famous critic for sending threats to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
And if that wasn’t enough, the Church of Scientology was behind one of the largest infiltrations of the U.S. government in history, a vast operation that included bugging offices and breaking into IRS headquarters. (On a lesser note, a documentary about the church alleged that it employed a number of intimidation tactics to make Tom Cruise break up with Nicole Kidman.)
In 1976, the Church of Scientology decided to set up shop in Clearwater and promptly tried to take over the town, an operation detailed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning St. Petersberg Times series in 1980 (PDF). The mayor at the time even referred to Scientology’s activities in the city as “the occupation of Clearwater.” It is now considered the “biggest concentration of Scientologists in the world” and a frequent destination for some of the church’s most famous adherents, such as Cruise and John Travolta.
Despite the criticisms that have engulfed the Church of Scientology, Jolly has made no evident effort to distance himself from the group—and in several cases has embraced events organized or sponsored by Scientologists.
He was also featured as the “guest of honor” at the Church of Scientology’s concert celebrating the centennial of Clearwater, Florida. The latter event was held at the Fort Harrison Hotel, which is owned by the church and used for “religious retreats,” and featured appearances by prominent Scientologists like actress Anne Archer.
Jolly’s wife was scheduled to be a model for a Church of Scientology charity fashion show benefiting chronically hungry children in September, but “sent her regrets and was not able to attend,” Church of Scientology spokesperson Pat Harney told The Daily Beast.
And there are other links to Scientology in Jolly’s political orbit: The treasurer of his Leadership Political Action Committee, Nancy Watkins, is on the advisory board of Florida Citizens for Social Reform. The organization, according to the Tampa Bay Times, was “formed by local Scientologists [and] promotes drug treatment and education programs based on the teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.” In a statement to The Daily Beast, Watkins denied being a Scientologist.
“I am a CPA whose client base is public policy and political tax exempt entities and I serve as an advisor in that capacity of expertise. I have a very broad base of clients representing many varied professions, ideologies and public policy concerns,” Watkins said. “One client does not cause a connection to another client by any stretch.”
Jolly has also accepted several donations from Dr. David Minkoff, a doctor who was entangled in a Scientology scandal that involved the death of a 36-year-old woman.
According to the St. Petersburg Times, Minkoff prescribed Valium and another muscle relaxant at the urging of Church of Scientology staffers who were unlicensed to practice medicine. The staffers were trying to treat fellow church member Lisa McPherson, who was going through a mental breakdown, and Minkoff agreed to make the prescription without having ever seen her.
Minkoff pronounced her dead. The state filed two charges against the Church of Scientology over the incident, but dropped them after the medical examiner changed the manner of McPherson’s death from “undetermined” to “accident.” McPherson’s estate would later reach a confidential settlement with the church.
Minkoff is not a frequent donor to political campaigns—his only other contribution is $250 to the Romney 2012 campaign—but he was inspired to give to Jolly on five occasions since February 2014, totaling $3,000. Minkoff declined a request for an interview.
Jolly is unwilling to publicly embrace or distance himself from the church. Asked for Jolly’s views on the Church of Scientology, his Senate campaign spokesperson, Sarah Bascom, declined to address the question except in vaguest terms—or even to use the term “Scientology.”
“Congressman Jolly takes seriously his responsibility to represent all 700,000 of his constituents,” Bascom told The Daily Beast. “As for who chooses to support his campaign, that information is readily available on our campaign reports.”
A spokesperson for the Church of Scientology said that the organization’s “longstanding policy” was to avoid participating in politics, and does not support or oppose political candidates. The events that Jolly attended at the “spiritual headquarters” were to support the community, she argued.
“The church and its members are very active in community groups, charities, and efforts aimed at making Clearwater a better place to live for everyone. In this regard, Congressman Jolly has attended two events held at the Church of Scientology,” said church spokesperson Karin Pouw.
“We consider Congressman Jolly’s attendance at these events as showing his support for the specific beneficiaries of the events and for the Clearwater community in general, not as a ‘show of support’ for the Church of Scientology.”
—with additional reporting by Asawin Suebsaeng