Attorneys in Danny Masterson rape case sanctioned for giving discovery to Scientology

LOS ANGELES — Two of Danny Masterson’s former attorneys were hit with financial sanctions Wednesday after a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled they improperly shared information about the actor’s victims with the Church of Scientology, which has long been accused of harassing and stalking the women.

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Judge Charlaine Olmedo ruled that famed celebrity defense attorney Thomas Mesereau and his co-counsel, Sharon Applebaum, knowingly violated a court order when they gave discovery materials from the criminal case — including confidential police reports and the addresses of the women Masterson was convicted of raping — to the church and its attorney, Vicki Podberesky.

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Mesereau and Applebaum represented Masterson until May 2022, but they were removed from the case before trial. Masterson, a practicing Scientologist, was convicted of two counts of rape last week after his second trial on allegations that he assaulted three fellow church members in the early 2000s.

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Prosecutors alleged the victims, all of whom were church members whose families also belonged to Scientology, were discouraged from reporting the rapes to police because of church doctrines. In a separate civil case, the women accused Masterson and church officials of harassing them for years and even poisoning a dog as part of a widespread intimidation campaign.

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The church has denied all wrongdoing, and its chief spokeswoman, Karin Pouw, has repeatedly noted that Scientology is not a party to Masterson’s case. But the controversial faith has been inseparable from the proceedings, especially after Deputy District Attorney Reinhold Mueller received an email last month from Podberesky that he said contained a “large quantity of the people’s discovery.”

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Although the message was intended to be a complaint against Mueller and Deputy District Attorney Ariel Anson, prosecutors said Podberesky added a link to 12 documents on church letterhead addressed to Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore. The letters had attachments that amounted to about “570 pages” of the “people’s discovery,” Mueller said Wednesday.

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Olmedo made a log of the materials public when she released her ruling Wednesday afternoon. The documents that fell into the church’s hands included text messages and emails between the victims and Los Angeles police investigators and police reports on incidents at the victims’ homes that included identifying and banking information.

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In court Wednesday, Mueller questioned why defense attorneys would ever turn over “these documents to the very people who defense counsel was fully aware had certain tactics these victims were worried about,” referring to the alleged harassment.

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Edith Matthai, an attorney representing Mesereau, told Olmedo on Wednesday she had not placed a protective order on the materials in question and argued neither lawyer had done anything wrong.

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But Olmedo ruled that her directives throughout the trial were tantamount to an order that the defense team should not disseminate discovery to litigants in a parallel civil case. She also said the disclosure violated Marsy’s Law protections against the sharing of crime victims’ personal information.

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No direct evidence was presented showing Mesereau or Applebaum specifically provided documents to Podberesky or the church. But Olmedo noted in her ruling that Mueller had turned over the discovery in question when the two attorneys were on the case in 2021.

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“Discovery” can refer to certain information prosecutors are required to turn over to defendants in criminal trials, including materials that could aid in the defendant’s case. That information is usually provided for the purpose of aiding in the defense’s cause, but in Masterson’s case, a chunk of those materials wound up in the hands of Scientology.

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Mesereau — who famously successfully defended Michael Jackson and Mike Tyson in criminal cases — and Applebaum declined to comment through their attorneys after court. They will have to pay $950 in fines, according to Olmedo’s order. Podberesky told the Los Angeles Times last month that she legally obtained the materials, but declined to say how.

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Scientology spokeswoman Pouw reiterated her stance that the church was not a party to the case and said she was “unaware” of Olmedo’s order Wednesday.

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“There is not a scintilla of evidence supporting the scandalous allegations that the Church harassed the accusers,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Times. “Every single instance of supposed harassment by the Church is FALSE, and has been debunked.”

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No court or law enforcement agency has made any finding that the harassment allegations were debunked.

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In her ruling, Olmedo found it was actually the church that made false and improper accusations against Mueller, Anson and the LAPD detectives on the case during the retrial. In addition, Olmedo ruled Wednesday that, despite the church’s repeated protests to being referenced at trial, the church, through Podberesky, “has attempted to involve itself” in the legal proceedings.

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Mueller said last month that one LAPD detective, Esther Myape, grew concerned about testifying at trial after Podberesky made a complaint to Moore during an April meeting. The complaint resulted in the opening of an internal affairs investigation against the detective.

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Olmedo noted in her ruling that Podberesky made the allegation shortly before Myape was to testify, a move the judge described as “calculating.”

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“There’s an attempt to intimidate the law enforcement officers,” Mueller said Wednesday. “There’s an attempt to intimidate the complaining victims in this case.”

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Mueller revealed last month that Moore had met with Podberesky in April, around the time that Masterson’s second trial began. Neither Moore nor the LAPD has offered an explanation as to why the police chief took the meeting during a criminal trial involving the church that resulted from an LAPD investigation.

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The department has also failed to comply with public records requests from multiple news organizations to provide a copy of Moore’s schedule for the day of the meeting.

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Masterson’s conviction last week was the end of a decadeslong journey for his victims, some of whom waited until 2016 to report their assaults to police out of fear of church reprisals. Each woman described violent outbursts by Masterson and recounted incidents in which they grew weak and unable to fight him off after he served them a drink.

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The actor is best known for his role as Steven Hyde on the popular sitcom “That ’70s Show.” He was charged with rape in 2020, but a jury hung on all counts against him late last year.

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Now, he faces 30 years to life in prison at an August sentencing hearing.

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this story was originally published June 7, 2023, 6:53 PM.