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Founder of est Targeted in Campaign by Scientologists : Religion: Competition for customers is said to be the motive behind effort to discredit Werner Erhard.

December 29, 1991|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In October of 1989, a private detective was called into the Church of Scientology's offices in Los Angeles and asked to conduct an investigation in Northern California.

Ted Heisig, a non-Scientologist based in Orange County, said he was led into a room and shown five file cabinets filled with documents Scientology had been collecting for years. The subject: Werner Erhard, founder of the worldwide self-awareness movement known as est.

"They had contacts (in the file cabinets) dating back to his childhood days," Heisig recalled.

Many of the documents were written by former est members who had joined Scientology and were then asked to write down anything they knew about Erhard and his organization. Some accused him of having links to neo-Nazis, of possessing bizarre personality disorders, of being a scoundrel posing as a messiah, according to a sworn statement.

Heisig said it was clear from the documents that Scientology was preparing a "media blitz" against Erhard--and that he was going to be a key player, spreading and collecting information that could be used to discredit the est founder.

"The reason, I think it comes down to, is competition," Heisig said. "Since Werner started his est program, he took potential customers . . . away from the church."

The secret campaign against Erhard would span more than a year and become one of the Church of Scientology's top priorities. In Sausalito, where Erhard then lived on a yacht, private detectives spied on him and interviewed scores of disgruntled followers. They dug deeply into records of his personal and financial affairs.

In the end, Erhard received so much notoriety--including a scathing segment on "60 Minutes" last March--that he sold his business and now lives in Costa Rica. Although he blames Scientology for his troubles, it is hard to gauge what the organization actually accomplished behind the scenes because those who know most are not saying.

As Scientology's chief lawyer, Earle C. Cooley, put it: "I'm not going to comment in any way on the use of material that was obtained as a result of the investigation."

One thing, however, is clear: according to Heisig, the Church of Scientology was pleased with the outcome. And no one would have been happier than Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, whose hatred of Erhard was passed along to his followers after his 1986 death.

Hubbard had long held that Erhard, who had dabbled in Scientology, had incorporated some of its teachings into est, making a fortune in the process. Heisig said he was told by Scientology officials that the church had lost millions of dollars because Erhard had lured away potential customers.

Scientology's latest campaign against Erhard was one in a series of efforts by church members to undermine his reputation and movement.

Vicki Aznaran, the top ecclesiastical official in Scientology from 1984 until she left in 1987, said she saw secret files that showed Scientologists were instructed to enroll in est seminars and "act crazy" and "heckle" the program leaders to cause disruption of the seminars.

She said they were also told to get materials from est to cause loss of business for Erhard.

Aznaran, who has sued Scientology for alleged fraud and false imprisonment, said Hubbard once devised a plan in which his followers were told to try to duplicate Erhard's sales success.

The plan was run by one of Hubbard's daughters, Aznaran recalled, and involved sending "lots of people into est and copying it." But, she said, for one reason or another, the Scientologists could never make it work as well as Erhard had.

"Hubbard was very angry at Erhard's success," Aznaran said. "Nothing got under his skin worse than someone taking one or two of his courses and then running off and making some money off it and him not getting a slice of it."

In the early 1980s, Aznaran said, she received orders to draw up a copyright or trademark infringement suit against Erhard. To assist in the lawsuit, she said, Scientology planted an agent in est who stole documents. But Aznaran said a lawsuit was never filed.

In 1977, the FBI raided Scientology headquarters in Los Angeles and Washington. Eleven top church officials, including Hubbard's wife, subsequently received prison terms for burglarizing and bugging government offices.

Sprinkled throughout some of the seized documents were references to est. In one, dated April, 1976, it read: "EST: IRS hasn't busted EST, with a little help they might." Another read: "EST Cld I have the SFO repts re plants."

Erhard had begun his own movement in the fall of 1971. He called it Erhard Seminars Training--est--and in the years that followed, the organization expanded rapidly as thousands flocked to his sessions. In fact, it was est's success that caught the attention of Scientology's founder.

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