THE RELIABLE SOURCE
By Lloyd Grove
The Church of Scientology insists that more than 14,000 of its faithful packed the Los Angeles Sports Arena for a millennial celebration of Scientology's first 50 years and the "triumph of spirituality over materialism." To bolster that claim, the church's PR operation posted four panoramic color photographs of the Dec. 28 event--for use by the news media--on the Scientology Web site. But then Arlington resident Arnaldo Lerma entered the picture, reports The Post's Richard Leiby.
The 49-year-old Lerma--an ex-Scientologist who has tangled repeatedly with church officials since he quit 23 years ago, and today owns an audio-video and computer business--immediately thought he spotted something fishy: He says the crowd scenes were doctored extensively. In one shot he found repeated images of some attendees--apparently added to fill empty seats. The touch-up work left one doppelganger parishioner with no head. In another shot, a bald man who had been replicated magically grew hair.
On Friday, Lerma shared his discovery with the media and posted his findings on an online Scientology discussion group, and on New Year's Day the church removed two photos altogether and considerably cropped the remaining two. Yesterday, when Leiby asked church spokeswoman Janet Weiland for an explanation, she said there was no intent to inflate the head count. "That was just a goof when they put it up on the Web," she said. "It was later corrected." She maintained that the celebration was "absolutely packed . . . there wasn't an empty seat."
Lerma--who left the church after what he describes as an unsanctioned romantic involvement with one of church founder L. Ron Hubbard's daughters--vehemently disagreed. "It wasn't a mistake--we think it took many hours of work," he said. "They didn't just clone people; they squished their heads and drew hair on them. It's only a goof because we noticed it." Later, Scientology's Weiland phoned Leiby back to offer further explanation. "Someone made an independent decision over the holidays to fill in a hole around the camera crew for aesthetic reasons, and when we found out about this, the photos were pulled," Weiland said. "That wasn't okay." (Lerma's analysis of the offending photos, complete with helpful diagrams, can be found at www.lermanet.com)
Church PR operatives also said in a press release that President Clinton was "among those sending congratulations" on the church's "half-century of spiritual leadership." That much is true. In a Dec. 22 letter of "warm greetings," Clinton expressed gratitude to the Scientologists for "all your efforts to promote [religious freedom] and to build just communities united in understanding, compassion and mutual respect."
THIS JUST IN . . .
* Power crunch? Redskins President Stephen T. Baldacci smacked his 1996 Mercedes-Benz into Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt's 1999 Honda Odyssey van last Thursday evening on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, and now faces misdemeanor charges of fleeing the scene of an accident and illegally crossing a median, reports The Post's Patricia Davis. After the rush-hour collision, which caused no injuries, Baldacci drove away without exchanging information with Hiatt, according to the U.S. Park Police, who traced Baldacci to his home in Potomac. Insurance adjusters estimated Hiatt's damage at $2,200. "The police report sounds accurate," Hiatt said. Baldacci--who must answer the charges Jan. 18 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria--declined to comment.
* Welsh-born media mogul Howard Stringer, who used to run CBS News and now is chairman of Sony Corp. of America, was kvelling yesterday (not a Welsh expression) over his new knighthood, which was announced on New Year's Eve by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "You don't have to call me 'sir,' " Stringer instructed. "Call me whatever you want, which is what you always do anyway."
"I saw how politically deft she was, and I was not completely seduced by that. . . . She always appears to be doing what's politically expedient in the most transparent way. That whole thing about the clemency with the Puerto Rican terrorists and how she claimed that she hadn't spoken to him about it--that was an example to me of just how you feel like there's prevaricating, there's lying. You just don't trust them."
-- Annette Bening, wife of Warren Beatty, opining to Vanity Fair about Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and her spouse, President Clinton. No comment from Hillaryland.
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