Mark Bunker on Scientology’s sneaky plan for Clearwater: It’s dead in the water now
After the new blockbuster from Tracey McManus about Scientology’s sneaky plans in Clearwater dropped Sunday morning at the Tampa Bay Times, we’ve been itching to find out what Clearwater City Councilman Mark Bunker made of it.
Last night, we caught up with him to talk over what came out in Tracey’s story.
A quick recap: The Tampa Bay Times had obtained an email showing that Scientologists had brought in an outside developer as a “white knight” to mask their involvement in a $350 million plan for the North Marina district. The outsider, Rodney Riley, would make the project “legit” by masking the actual real players involved, including OT 8 Scientologist Stephen Epstein of Nashville, and wealthy top Scientology donor Trish Duggan.
Thanks to Tracey’s previous investigations, we knew that Scientologists had gone on a buying spree after 2017, more than doubling the footprint of Scientology- or Scientologist-owned parcels and buildings in the city. But now, here was a smoking gun, an email that not only revealed that Riley was being brought in to front the North Marina project, but also that it would be done with the guidance of Church of Scientology flack Ben Shaw (and ultimately, with the direction of Scientology leader David Miscavige.)
All of them — Riley, Epstein, and Shaw — deny what the email suggests, and deny that the Church of Scientology itself has anything to do with what Riley is trying to do in the North Marina district.
So we asked Bunker, now that he’d had more than a day to absorb the story, what did he think?
“In my mind, the key aspect of the story is deception. And if the city and Scientology want to have a partnership, this is no way to go about it,” he said.
Bunker told us he first heard from Rodney Riley several months ago, when the developer invited him to meet at a restaurant to go over his plans for the North Marina area, which included parcels that had been purchased by Scientologists.
“He said he’d been getting some pushback from the city over details. They wanted changes from him about parking and density. And I started off by saying, if there are Scientologists who want to do a project I have no problem with it.” Bunker said he cited developer Moises Agami, for example, a wealthy Scientologist from Mexico City who had rehabbed a vacant former bank building into a new condo tower downtown. “That’s great. That’s fine. So if there are more Scientologists who want to do something with the buildings they purchased, I’m OK with it.”
Bunker says Riley’s reaction immediately struck him as disingenuous.
“He said, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that. There are no Scientologists involved in this.’ So of course I knew he was blowing smoke at that point. And I asked him, ‘Listen, I went online and I couldn’t find any major projects you’ve been behind.’ I expected some developments he could brag about. He said he didn’t like to toot his own horn. I thought, sure, you’re coming in to take over this massive development, and you can’t say, here’s a big success I’ve had in the past? Something didn’t add up,” Bunker said.
And again, Bunker reiterated that he’d have no problem with Scientologists developing the properties they’re holding onto. It was better than simply using empty buildings as leverage against the city’s plans to revive the downtown.
“So I’ve talked to Tracey a few times over the months about this. And I had a general idea of what she was looking into, but then she sent in two emails to Ben Shaw, which laid out the extent of the deception. So I had a couple of weeks to adjust to this before the article was published. And I’m anxious to see what comes of this,” he said.
As for Riley’s project and the variances he wants from the city, Bunker is skeptical about its success after the article appeared.
“I think it’s dead in the water. Which is unfortunate in some respects. But I think the people of Clearwater wouldn’t stand for it now, that Scientology is tricking us into approving their projects,” he concluded.
“If they had just come to us and said, all those buildings we purchased, here’s our plans. OK, fine, we want you to meet code. We don’t want to disrupt the feeling of the neighborhood we want to create. But instead, deception,” he said.
We asked Bunker about something Mike Rinder posted at his blog yesterday: Rinder suggested that Scientology leader David Miscavige’s overall plan was to use Riley to develop the North Marina project but then sell it to Scientology to use as a new extension of the Flag Land Base, and farther away from the bustling commotion of a revived downtown.
“I could definitely see Miscavige trying to get away from the noise, and if they want to move to another area, that’s fine with me. They can move to Largo. It’s nice and quiet there,” Bunker quipped.
We also pointed out that according to Tracey’s article, Riley is living in a condo unit owned by Epstein’s company in a tower built by Snow White Program unindicted co-conspirator and former Guardian’s Office spy Brian Andrus. Does that tend to undercut Riley’s assertion that he’s not in Clearwater to do the church’s bidding?
“Well, it was just the most convenient place to live, according to what he said,” Bunker said sarcastically. “Here we have this guy with no connection to Scientology, and he has a connection to an unindicted co-conspirator in crimes against the US government? That’s just a fine, wonderful partner.”
Another thing that concerned us was that Tracey reported that Riley’s land use attorney, Brian Aungst Jr, had assured the city manager that Riley was just an independent businessman with no connection to the church. That not only isn’t true, but Brian’s father, former Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst Sr, was selected unanimously by the city council recently to be acting mayor for the next eleven months after Mayor Frank Hibbard suddenly and unexpectedly resigned in the middle of a council meeting, and with nearly a year left on his term.
Does it concern him, we asked Bunker, that the son of the new interim mayor, who is scheduled to be sworn in today, was running interference for a developer acting as Scientology’s shill in Clearwater?
“I find it hard to believe that Brian Aungst Jr does not understand what’s going on here. It sounds like to me like an attorney who doesn’t want to dig any deeper, just taking his client’s word for it,” he said.
Bunker also wanted us to know that although the vote for Brian Aungst Sr was unanimous, he had concerns about bringing back the former mayor, even temporarily, because of his son’s involvement with a Scientology project.
“I had put forward Kathleen Beckman. Everyone else wanted Brian Aungst Sr. There was this massive lobbying campaign for him, and from some people I really respected. They said this is the guy who can come in and steady the ship for a year,” Bunker said. But Bunker said he asked the new mayor to recuse himself regarding any project that involved his son.
“Any project your son is representing, the mayor would have to guarantee that he would put no pressure on the city manager or staff, or do anything to push those projects along. You have to step back completely. And he put that in writing, apparently,” he said.
Bunker said he was looking forward to meeting Aungst Sr as the interim mayor was sworn in later today.
And Bunker is also looking forward to it for another reason: He’s scheduled to be sworn in as Clearwater’s vice mayor.
Chris Shelton is Straight Up and Vertical
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