Norcross drug facility under new scrutiny

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Norcross drug facility under new scrutiny

Patrick Desmond was running out of second chances.

About a year after being arrested for cocaine possession, the garrulous ex-Marine was pulled over for drunken driving. Taking his military service into account, a Florida judge agreed to allow Desmond to enter a residential drug treatment program in lieu of jail.

Enter Narconon of Georgia, where his parents say they paid $30,000 to get their son the round-the-clock supervision he needed and Florida’s drug court required.

Less than a year later, while in the Narconon program and living in a Sandy Springs apartment complex that housed fellow addicts, Desmond, 28, hopped into a car with two former Narconon clients in search of heroin. He ended up overdosing from a combination of alcohol and drugs.

“You send your child for help,” Patrick’s mother, Colleen Desmond, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “You think he’s going to be cared for. But he wasn’t cared for. He was left to his own devices.”

Desmond’s death four years ago has focused attention on a decade’s worth of state investigations of the Norcross-based drug treatment program. Repeatedly, the state fielded complaints that Narconon, while licensed only for outpatient care, was illegally operating a residential facility.

Testimony in a wrongful-death lawsuit by Desmond’s parents accuses Narconon of Georgia of duping out-of-state courts and parents into believing it provided the kind of supervision expected from residential drug treatment facilities. As part of the ruse, they say, Narconon steered clients to housing leased by employees, ex-employees and fellow members of the Church of Scientology, which Mary Rieser, the clinic’s director, attends. That has made the case a cause celebre nationally for Scientology critics.

The state says it never had enough evidence to prove that Narconon of Georgia was operating a residential facility, although a number of its inspectors suspected that to be the case.

“We didn’t have subpoena powers at the time, and we relied on their truthfulness in their application,” said Nina Edidin, who from 2005-2008 was manager of the legal unit for the Office of Regulatory Services for the Department of Human Resources, now the Department of Community Health.

But information obtained in the Desmond lawsuit has led the state to reopen an investigation. Some evidence, the family says, was right under the state’s nose. Until a few days ago, the official website of Narconon International described the Georgia program as a “long-term residential facility with comfortable accommodations…”

UNCONVENTIONAL TREATMENT

“I came to Narconon, and it really did save my life,” said Ji Johnson, a former client who now works at the Norcross clinic. “I know for a fact that I would be dead had I not come to Narconon.”

There are many similar accounts of ex-addicts who credit Narconon’s unorthodox techniques with their triumph over drugs and alcohol.

The treatment is informed by the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, who founded Scientology, though Rieser says Narconon has no affiliation with the church.

From the start, clients are given an extraordinary intake of vitamins – so many that the state requires they be informed of possible risks and sign a consent form. Clients also receive sauna treatments intended to cleanse the body of drugs.

Rieser claims a “70 to 80 percent” recovery rate, though the program’s own medical expert questioned that figure under oath.

When the Desmonds were looking for a treatment program, they didn’t have time to scrutinize claims. The court gave them 72 hours to find a facility. Patrick Desmond had to stay six months in an inpatient program with around-the-clock monitoring.

Rieser said “she had everything that met the criteria,” Desmond’s father, Rick Desmond, said in an interview.

Lisa Mooty, manager of Florida’s 18th Circuit drug court, testified that she also talked with Rieser, who assured her Narconon provided “24-hour-a-day coverage.”

Randy Taylor, whose son Brad was sentenced to one year in a residential drug-treatment facility by a Tennessee drug court, told a similar story when deposed by the Desmonds’ attorneys.

“When I told [Rieser] what the requirement was, she said, ‘That’s not a problem,’ ” Taylor testified. “She said, ‘That’s what we do here.’ ”

Rieser, Narconon of Georgia’s executive director, insists she’s never portrayed Narconon as something it’s not.

“I will never knowingly accept somebody here, if I know they’ve been ordered inpatient, because we’re not,” Rieser told the AJC. “If anybody’s in here, they sign three or four times that they know this is an outpatient center… I don’t know what else I can do.”

CLOSE TIES

However, testimony and other evidence in the case point to blurry lines between Narconon and housing where almost all of its clients stayed.

In a 2008 email obtained in evidence for the lawsuit, Rieser wrote to a Scientology-sponsored organization that Narconon representatives “sell the program and housing too.”

Former Narconon of Georgia legal liaison Allison Riepe said in her deposition that, at Rieser’s instructions, she doctored letterheads to remove mention of “outpatient drug treatment program” in correspondence with drug courts and probation officers.

When Patrick Desmond died, he and other Narconon clients were living in a complex where Scientologist Maria Delgado leased housing. She testified that she leased a dozen apartments for $850 to $950 a month each, then housed four addicts to an apartment at a charge to each of $1,500 to $1,700 a month. The upcharges included money for their meals and utilities, she testified.

Other testimony shows some Narconon employees also worked and lived at the apartment complex, and Narconon provided the van to transport clients from the housing to wherever they needed to go.

State records also show that in March, 21 of 28 Narconon clients told a state investigator they believed they enrolled in residential care.

In an interview, Rieser said not to trust the addicts’ statements. “These are not the most truthful people here,” she said.

As for Riepe’s comments, Rieser said, “sometimes when you have a disgruntled employee who was an ex-drug addict themselves, lord knows from what frame of mind they’re speaking.”

NEW PROBE

Following the state inquiry last spring, Narconon barely escaped serious sanctions, said David Cook, director of the Department of Community Health.

“This was a close call,” he said.

But, he said, the state can’t act against Narconon solely on the basis that it may have made false claims about providing residential care.

“There’s a distinction between running a residential treatment facility and holding oneself out as a residential treatment facility,” Cook told the AJC. “The violation would be actually running a residential treatment facility.”

Former federal prosecutor Brian McEvoy, who specialized in health-care fraud for the U.S. attorney’s office in Savannah, said the state’s inaction is puzzling.

“This warrants further investigation,” he said.

Cook said that state will look again at Narconon. “I can say that there seems to be much more evidence that has come to light in the last few days and we will certainly take that much more seriously,” he said.

NATIONAL ATTENTION

Scientology’s critics have been closely following the Desmond lawsuit, set for trial in February. They have obtained depositions and posted them online, trying to link the case to problems at Narconon’s flagship facility in Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is probing Narconon Arrowhead after a client was found dead in July – the third death there in nine months, according to news accounts.

Critics contend Narconon facilities are arms of Scientology. Luke Catton, formerly president of Narconon Arrowhead and an ex-Scientologist, said Narconon International brings in roughly $1 million a week from a dozen facilities and funnels 10 percent to the Association for Better Living and Education, a Scientology-sponsored organization.

Rieser’s 2008 email to the association detailed issues with the Delgado housing, including drug and alcohol use there, and complained that an association official had taken Delgado’s side.

Rieser disputes any ties to her church and said Narconon will continue to reach out to addicts. “I have been here for 11 years, and I think if the state thought I were running an inpatient [facility], they would say something about it,” she said.

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