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Maybe it was "Defy Evil Bushism" or "Christmas Is No Fun in Fallujah." Or it may have been one of the other not-so-subtle references to President George W. Bush posted on the sign next to his law office; perhaps "Vote the Thug Out." Or was it the sight of the American flag suspended upside down from that same sign, in protest of the outcome of last November's election?
Ford Greene isn't quite sure what sent his opponents over the edge with respect to the giant marquee that hangs from the side of his two-story combination law office and residence along busy Sir Frances Drake Boulevard in San Anselmo. His "Freedom Sign," as he refers to it, has been there for more than a year. Every few weeks, or whenever the spirit moves him, Greene rearranges the moveable lettering to vent his liberal spleen.
Who knew that a few conservative zealots would take offense? Or that the town's elected officials, citing an obscure law, would move to power down the attorney and self-proclaimed anti-cult crusader's public musings? A showdown looms later this month, with Greene, who has already gone to court to protect the sign, threatening to do so again.
It's a minor brouhaha that wouldn't ordinarily garner attention beyond the borders of the affluent Marin County community in which it's playing out. Except that, in their campaign against the controversial cult-busting lawyer's Freedom Sign, Greene's opponents appear to have received some unsolicited help from someone who seems to have some kind of connection to the Church of Scientology.
An outspoken ex-Moonie-turned-cult-deprogrammer-turned-lawyer, Ford Greene has cultivated a reputation that has earned him the ire of Scientologists (who follow the teachings of the late science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard), the Unification Church (founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who claims to have met Jesus on a Korean mountainside in 1935), and other so-called new religious movements.
To the dozens of people he has helped "deprogram" from supposed indoctrination they received in these so-called cults, Greene's a bona fide hero, unafraid to stand up to threats and harassment. Others, including one of his own sisters -- whom he once helped to kidnap in a failed attempt to bring her out of the Unification Church -- view him as a misguided soul who lacks respect for religious freedom. "There's no middle ground when it comes to Ford," says longtime friend and attorney Ed Caldwell. "Having enemies is a natural consequence of the mission he's chosen for himself."
Perhaps chief among those enemies is the Church of Scientology, which over the years has gained a reputation for relentless litigation and other tactics -- including picketing the homes and workplaces of detractors -- aimed at thwarting its critics. That reputation stems, in part, from a 1960s Hubbard edict proclaiming that persons interfering with Scientology were "fair game" for church efforts to discredit them.
Greene believes that he became fair game in 1989 after signing on to represent the church's former head of worldwide security and his wife, who at the time were the highest-ranking officials ever to bolt the Los Angeles-based organization, which is perhaps best known for its celebrity adherents, including Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Since then, he claims, he's been spied on, his home and office have been broken into, and he's been the subject of smear campaigns targeting his neighbors, clients, and associates.
Greene isn't the only person who has made such claims.
In a 1992 deposition taken in a Scientology lawsuit against two former church members -- a lawsuit in which Greene was not involved -- former Scientologist Gary Scarff related how he posed as a friend to infiltrate Greene's office and rifle through Greene's Rolodex and confidential legal records. Among the more extreme measures that Scarff claimed Scientology officials had discussed in his presence -- and that church officials later denied -- were the possibility of having Greene arrested on drug charges, spreading a rumor that he had AIDS, or tampering with the brakes on his car.
Now Greene is convinced that the church is at it again.
After the tiff over the anti-Bush postings on his office sign erupted last year, a site with anonymous sponsors who bill themselves as the "Friends of San Anselmo" suddenly appeared on the Internet. It delves into Greene's private life in excruciating detail.
It quickly created a buzz in San Anselmo, with whoever is behind the site even leafleting the town to make sure residents saw it.
The Web site reads like a private investigator's dossier. It lists Greene's shoplifting conviction as a young college student; his hit-and-run conviction; his physical altercation with a traffic cop; and his dispute with an old girlfriend who called the police and had him arrested for trespassing after an unpleasant breakup. There are even links to a sex scandal involving Greene's long-dead father. "It's a really cheap smear job," says Greene attorney and friend Larry Bragman. "Who else but Ford Greene could attract that kind of nastiness, all because of a sign dispute?"
For the record, a Scientology official denies that the church had anything to do with the Friends of San Anselmo project. "I don't want to puncture his paranoia balloon, but the poor guy has lots of enemies, any number of whom could have put up that Web site," says Jeff Quiros, head of the Church of Scientology's San Francisco office. In the course of a brief interview, Quiros referred to Greene as a "mosquito," a "pig," and a "pathetic individual." He insisted that he wasn't aware of the Web site until a reporter brought it to his attention.