Sunday, 25 October 2009

36 ...defending the bookshop

June 17: SEL, France's network of Scientology bookshops, is the victim of a modern witch hunt in which the trappings of the movement's beliefs have been interpreted as evidence of its guilt, said SEL's lawyer.

“In this matter, I have the feeling that the object of this trial can be summed up in one word : faith,” said Maître Louis Pamponet, representing SEL, the network of Scientology bookshops charged with organised fraud.

“But what faith are we talking about? Is it religious faith? The court has made it clear that this is not the subject, and I am happy with that.”

But the prosecutor Maud Morel-Coujard had also likened the commitment that the plaintiff Aude-Claire Malton had made to Scientology as a Faustian pact.

“What is a Faustian pact? It is a contract in which one sells one soul to the Devil,” said Maître Pamponet. “So for the prosecution, is Scientology the Devil?”

Certainly that would explain the harshness of the prosecution’s stance towards SEL, he said: two days earlier, the prosecution had called for both SEL (Scientologie Espace Librairie) and the non-profit Association spirituelle de l'Eglise de Scientologie (ASES) to be shut down.[1] Both organisations had been charged with organised fraud.

But theft regarded propery and fraud only covered contractual matters, argued Pamponet. “One of the preconditions is a contract between two parties,” he said.

There had been no lack of willingness on the part of Aude-Claire Malton at the time, he added: “She was happy: she wanted to progress.” And in the cases of both the former plaintiff Eric Aubry and of Pierre Auffret, the payments were also made willingly.

The plaintiffs got what they paid for, said Pamponet: we were talking here about a free contractual exchange. “There is nothing to show that SEL committed fraud.”

But there was also the moral element, he added. The defendants had been charged because of a belief as former member turned critic Roger Gonnet had put it, that Scientologists were liars.

But Gonnet had had his own legal brushes with Scientology, he added, “and obviously the defence cannot accept his remarks.”

Besides, he added, Gonnet had been a Scientologist 30 years ago and had run a smaller mission in the provinces (Lyon): his experience could not be compared to that of the Paris centre, whatever he might think.

“When you consider the character, the personalities of the defendants, I do not think they had any intention of defrauding Mme Malton,” said Pamponet.

“I find them extremely attached to their philosophy, their religion, their belief – whatever it is. They have the right to believe in this philosophy, these religious practices…” and they too had paid money to advance in the system to which they were so committed, he pointed out.

“Scientologists are only trying to propagate their faith – something we find in all religions.”

A modern witch hunt

The problem was however, was the indictment by investigating magistrate Jean-Christophe Hullin – and now prosecution – regarded the instruments and rituals of Scientology as nothing more than the trappings of “fraudulent manoeuvres”.

There was the electrometer used in Scientology’s auditing, or counselling for example.

One could take what one wanted from the expert reports on the device: those cited by the investigating magistrate and those commissioned by the defence. But they all seemed to agree that the e-meter measured something.

And, Pamponet added: “It doesn’t matter what the meter measures.” For Scientologists, what mattered was to follow the needle’s movements, which appeared to react to memories of negative events.

And it was worth pointing out too that a device criticised in a report drawn up by a court-appointed expert M. Ionesco in the 1990s had since been replaced by other, more accurate devices, he added.

(Ionesco had testified at the 1996 Lyon of Scientologists, questioning the device’s accuracy. Due to give evidence at the Paris trial, he had sent his apologies and said he could not attend for health reasons.)

Pamponet explained that the new models had microprocessors, which made them more precise than the device that Ionesco had examined more than 10 years ago.

And he also criticised Ionesco’s claim that the device was used to measure electrical resistance in a human being. “It is not at all used by Scientologists for that,” he said.

He described the detailed tests that Philippe Ripoche, one of the experts commissioned by Scientology for this trial, had conducted on the device. “Ionesco did not trouble to do that.” His impression was that Ionesco’s report lacked seriousness.

Scientology’s second expert, Bernard Denis-Laroque had also described it as an extremely accurate measuring device.

The experts had agreed then that the device did what it was designed to do: detect changes in the emotional state of the subject.

And yet the prosecution had dismissed the evidence of the defence experts and persisted in regarding the e-meter as part of the bait for the alleged fraud, he said.

“If we were in a certain age, the defendants would already be on the bonfire for having used a device of this kind,” he added.

So the e-meter was not a lure being used as part of a fraudulent operation, Pamponet concluded. How could it be when all Scientologists used the device?

The prosecution had the same problem with the personality test, he argued.: “There was never any intention on the part of Scientology to deceive new recruits.”

The indictment had characterised Scientology’s personality test as a fraudulent manoeuvre, said Pamponet.

“But supposing that this ‘fraudulent manoeuvre’ is the mention that it was founded on scientific research, even here that would not make it fraud,” he added, and he cited case law to the effect that a simple lie did not of itself constitute fraud.[ii]

As his colleague, Maître Alexis Gublin, had done before him, he pointed out that the personality test was based on a recognised test, the Johnson Temperament Analysis (JTA).

So if payment had been freely made and no lies had been told then there was no fraud, said Pamponet.

And a look at the evidence compiled in the course of the investigation made one thing very clear regarding the test, he added. “It is a tiny minority of people who come to Scientology through this route.

“So when the investigating magistrate says it is the fundamental element used to defraud, I’m sorry, but that doesn’t correspond with the facts.”

And Pamponet put the same question he had posed regarding the e-meters: “If it was fraudulent, why would they use it on themselves?

“I sincerely believe that these people are acting in good faith.”

An “absurd” trial

Pamponet turned to the indictment as it affected his client, the SEL network of bookshops:

  1. Mme Malton had never bought anything from SEL through the defendant Didier Michaux, the bookshop’s star salesman, he said.
  2. Neither Michaux or the defendant Jean-François Valli, another SEL employee, had sent her a personality test.
  3. Neither of them had ever handled the tests – it was one of the staff at reception who did that.
  4. When Aude-Claire Malton met Valli, she had already been active in Scientology for two months (a point made the day before by Valli’s lawyer, Maître Virginie Benmayor).
  5. The personality tests were used by the Dianetics Centre. “They printed these tests and they interpreted them, so it was nothing to do with SEL – they never processed them.”
  6. The court had heard that Michaux had sometimes put copies on the tests in with the goods he mailed out on his own initiative: but this was hardly sufficient grounds to convict SEL of anything, Pamponet argued. In any case, he argued: “Michaux believed in these personality tests, so where is the willingness to deceive?” And if he was sending them out with books, it was because they had already been sold, he added: “How can he have defrauded people who have already bought the books?”
  7. The former plaintiff Eric Aubry never took the personality test with either Valli or Michaux, he continued: “The elements are absolutely, totally missing.”
  8. Nor had Pierre Auffret taken the tests at the time in question, though he had done so earlier. “It is absurd to say that SEL is implicated.”
The investigating magistrate had wanted to build a case for organised fraud, said Pamponet. “If there is a group, it is a disorganised group.”

For SEL had been set up in Paris in 1997 – barely three months before the first of the events set out in the indictment, he said.

And the reason it was set up was because the Church of Scientology, responding to a request from the tax authorities, had decided to create separate organisations for the commercial and the religious activities.

“It was only for this reason that SEL was created. So to say that SEL was set up to commit these acts using the personality test is absurd, it is ridiculous,” said Pamponet, referring to the wording of the charge against the company.

SEL had set up in July 1997 – just three months before the alleged events set out in the indictment, he said.

And referring to the fact that SEL was managed from abroad by Danish Scientologist Karen Hansen, he added: “It is not a crime to have a manager who manages from a distance… the staff did their business and sometimes mistake were made.”

I this should go to appeal, he warned, questions would be asked as to whether this trial was at all serious, from the legal point of view. What the prosecution had asked for two days earlier was completely detached from reality, he said.

For having looked at the case documents, he could see nothing that would allow the court to bring in a guilty verdict he said, which was “…nothing more than asking for the death sentence for my client.”

Nothing concrete against SEL

Pamponet turned again to the case of Pierre Auffret, the executive who had milked his own company’s coffers to pay for his auditing. “I don’t believe Valli manipulated Auffret,” he said. “I think it was rather Auffret who manipulated Valli.”

It was Auffret who had come to Valli to say he had forgotten to tell him that he had paid for the courses using his business bank card, not his personal one – and could he please rewrite the receipts?

And he reminded the court: “Auffret could have filed a complaint: but he didn’t.”

SEL’s employees, who at worst lacked training, had no intent to do any wrong, said Pamponet. And in any case, the real head of SEL was Hansen in Copenhagen.

For it was not because Michaux was a co-signatory on the bank accounts that he had any real powers: it certainly had not authorised him to send out the personality tests.

“For SEL to be responsible, we would need to a letter from the manager [Hansen] saying, ‘Please distribute these tests’,” he said.

As for Malton’s personality tests, he added, there was nothing in the case files to link them to SEL.

The paper trail showing direct participation in the alleged offences – the sine qua non in such a case – was totally lacking, said Pamponet. SEL’s moral responsibility could not be established and so the company should be cleared.

Nor had Aude-Claire Malton herself made it clear in what way SEL had defrauded her.

“Michaux never had anything to do with Malton, so it can only be Valli – but Valli never had any powers at SEL, and he was in no way competent to handle or analyse personality tests. So I can’t see how SEL can be implicated.”

And in any case, he added, Valli had always acted in good faith in his dealings with Mme Malton. He had never acted with the intention of hurting her.

As some of his colleagues on the defence side had already done, Pamponet pointed to the different language Malton had used in the later stages of the trial. “Now she talks of harassment whereas before she talked of pressure,” he noted.

So should we believe her most recent statements in court, or what she had told investigators years earlier, and closer to the events in question, he asked?

And Michaux, in his dealings with Eric Aubry, had never acted with malice. “They had a good rapport,” said Pamponet. “I feel he wanted to help M. Aubry with good communication. And [co-defendant] Mme Jacquart said M. Aubry only wanted to deal with Michaux.”

Neither Pierre Auffret, not his company, whose his accounts he plundered to pay for his Scientology training, had ever sued Scientology, Pamponet noted – and Auffret had assumed responsibility for his own acts.

He reminded the court that Mme Malton had been refunded, and that SEL had even had to go to court to get the goods that she had bought returned to them – so there was no longer any question of material prejudice.

In her final testimony to the court the previous week, Mme Malton had spoken of prejudice morale, saying she felt that she had been abused by Scientology.

But that was last week, said Pamponet: “At the time, this woman couldn’t stop saying what a marvellous time she was having.”

The court-appointed psychiatric expert Daniel Zagury had said that she had found the book Dianetics – to the point that she sent her ex-boyfriend a copy. And even during the trial she had spoken of the “positive atmosphere” at the centre.

“But she could not stand the pressure of her family,” said Pamponet. “She was enlisted by UNADFI, [the French federation of counter-cult groups] – yet when she was in Scientology she was happy. Certainly she spent a lot of money.

“Happiness has no price for Zagury: she had found happiness – and that is her right.”

And Eric Aubry too seemed happy, he added: he had after all written more than 50 success stories.

“I have seen no evidence that Michaux or Valli were motivated by personal interest,” he continued. “They believe that Scientology is the right path.

To call for a death sentence for the personne morale (SEL) was unacceptable he said – especially given that he had not heard a single word of evidence that would supply the necessary proofs.

And with that, Pamponet was done, leaving the field clear for Maître Patrick Maisonneuve, who not only represented the Celebrity Centre but had been Scientology’s most prominent spokesman throughout the trial.
[1] It subsequently emerged that this law had been eliminated from the law books just weeks earlier.
[2] Cour de Cassation, October 29, 1988.

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