Los Angeles Times: A Lawyer Learns What It's Like to Fight the Church

Source: Los Angeles Times
Date: June 29, 1990

by Joel Sappell and Robert W. Welkos

Attack the Attacker

Joseph Yanny represented the movement until a falling out. Now he says lengthy litigation and mysterious harassment indicate he's become "Public Enemy No. 1."

Los Angeles attorney Joseph Yanny was driving through rural Ohio in the pre-dawn hours in 1988 when he was pulled over by police, who had received a tip that he was carrying a cache of cocaine and guns in his rental car.

A telephone caller had supplied authorities in Ohio with Yanny's name, the car's description and license number, and the route he would be traveling to his sister's house after a rock concert by one of his clients, the Grateful Dead.

Yanny was frisked and the vehicle was searched. No drugs or firearms were found, and he was released.

Police later concluded that the tipster had given a false name, leading them to speculate that Yanny had been set up for harassment.

And Yanny, though he can't prove it, is certain he knows by whom: his former client, the Church of Scientology.

"I am," he said with some pride, "probably Public Enemy No. 1 as far as they are concerned."

Today, Yanny and Scientology are locked in bitter litigation. Their dispute illustrates how battles with the Church of Scientology often degenerate into nasty, costly wars of retribution and endurance.

Yanny worked for the church from 1983 to 1987, earning, by his estimate, $1.8 million in legal fees.

His chief job was to represent Scientology in a suit it brought against a former top church executive accused of conspiring to steal the church's secret teachings. In 1986, Yanny scored a major victory for the church during a pretrial hearing.

But then Yanny and Scientology had a falling out. He says he severed ties because he disagreed with the tactics the group uses against its critics. Scientology says Yanny was dismissed because his performance was "inadequate." They call him an "anti-church demagogue."

Scientology lawyers sued Yanny, accusing him of switching allegiances and of violating the canons of his profession. They say he fed confidential church information to former members locked in legal battles with Scientology. He denies the accusation.

They further accused him of submitting "extremely inflated" bills and of working while intoxicated, an allegation that was subsequently dropped.

Since the litigation began, Yanny says, he and his friends have been the target of harassment.

He says that his Century City law firm was burglarized four times and that Scientology-related documents turned up missing; that he has been spied upon by a church "plant" working as a secretary in his office; and that private investigators have camped outside his Hermosa Beach residence and shadowed him when he left.

Jon J. Gaw, a Riverside-area private investigator who has handled a number of Scientology-related probes in recent years, said in a deposition that he used as many as "seven or eight" investigators to conduct surveillance of Yanny between June, 1988 and March, 1989. Two of his operatives took up residence on a nearby street, Gaw said, and tailed Yanny whenever he ventured outside.

Gaw said he later learned that private detectives for another agency hired by Scientology lawyers had been spying on Yanny at the same time. That agency employed a woman to live next door to him.

The woman, Michelle Washburn, said in a deposition that she was hired by Al Bei, a former Los Angeles police officer who has worked as a private investigator on Scientology-related cases.

She said Bei instructed her to take notes on Yanny's "comings and goings." She also sat by her window photographing everyone who visited him. She said she regularly gave Bei the film and her notes. Bei declined to comment.

In Bellaire, Ohio, police who searched Yanny's rental car for drugs and guns later discovered that a team of out-of-state private investigators in four vehicles had been tailing the attorney.

Police Capt. Robert Wallace said one of the private detectives he questioned initially tried to mislead officers, claiming the detectives were there to subpoena someone in a neighboring town.

Wallace said the private detective then said he had been hired to follow Yanny by Williams & Connelly, a prominent Washington, D.C., law firm that represents Scientology on tax issues. An attorney who handles Scientology matters at the firm declined comment when questioned by The Times recently. In a published report in late 1988, however, he said he had no knowledge of the episode.

Yanny, for his part, is pursuing a strategy that is reminiscent of the take-no-prisoners tactics of the church.

He and his anti-Scientology allies have submitted sworn court declarations designed to discredit the church.

Earlier this year, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury agreed that Yanny had not submitted inflated bills to the church and awarded him $154,000 in damages. The judge who presided over the case is now weighing whether Yanny should be allowed to assist individuals in litigation against his former client, the church.

Yanny said he initially agreed to be one of Scientology's lawyers because he thought the controversial church was being denied its day in court.

"There came a point where I was rudely awakened that Scientology wanted their day in court," Yanny said, "but they wanted to assure nobody else got them."