‘Sore Throat,’ the Church of Scientology and the 1970s plot against the American Medical Association
In an excerpt from his book ‘Contain and Eliminate,’ former Sun-Times reporter Howard Wolinsky writes of the Chicago whistleblower who with the church went after the AMA.
In the 1970s, major institutions from the White House down were being challenged. The environmentalist known as “The Fox” exposed Chicago’s corporate polluters. “Deep Throat” helped the Washington Post expose the Watergate scandal and bring down President Richard M. Nixon.
In 1975, a Chicago whistleblower known as “Sore Throat” — a takeoff on Bob Woodward’s Deep Throat — gave reporters incriminating documents taken from the Chicago-based American Medical Association. He claimed to be a medical doctor fired from the AMA’s staff in a massive layoff known to insiders as the “May Day Massacre,” brought on by the group’s precarious finances. He turned out to be a spy for L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology, which had the AMA on its enemies list.
‘“Dr. Throat,” as he called himself, gave reporters key documents, stolen by spies who had infiltrated the AMA’s executive offices, that revealed the organization was evading millions in taxes and running a secret campaign to try to put chiropractors and other alternative healers out of business.
Former Chicago Sun-Times medical writer Howard Wolinsky tells that story in the new book “Contain and Eliminate: The American Medical Association’s Conspiracy to Destroy Chiropractic” (Louis Sportelli). The following excerpt is taken from the book, which will be available via the website Containandeliminate.com.
A cloud hung over the offices of the American Medical Association in the summer of 1975. Or, more accurately, clouds.
The nation’s largest physician group faced bankruptcy. Staff morale was at a low following the layoffs on the May Day Massacre, and membership numbers were plummeting. The AMA was not as invincible as many believed.
Then, there was “Sore Throat,” the supposed former AMA physician who claimed he had been laid off and now was leaking AMA secrets to the media and government agencies. The leaks had triggered four Congressional investigations and had exposed the AMA to more than $20 million in back taxes, just as AMA coffers were nearly empty, and its tax-free status was in jeopardy.
Dr. James Sammons, the AMA’s scrappy CEO, was trying to save the sinking ship amidst rumors that he was following orders from the prison cell of an AMA board chairman who had been convicted of bank fraud. Things were in shambles.
Soon, Sore Throat would disclose AMA documents exposing its plan to “contain and eliminate” the chiropractic profession. And Dr. Chester Wilk, the chiropractor pushed and guided by Sore Throat, would be taking on the AMA in an antitrust suit.
Who was this Sore Throat? The question ate away at the leadership of the AMA. Was he indeed a former AMA doctor gone rogue? A few doctors laid off in the May Day Massacre fit the description of Sore Throat. Or did he come from somewhere other than the ranks of the AMA?
Identifying Sore Throat became a guessing game among AMA executives, but it was a serious matter. Sammons and his executive staff needed to stop the leaks.
Sammons and his lieutenants observed that the leaked documents were, in many cases, old, dating back to the 1960s. But after the AMA dismissed them as ancient history, Sore Throat began leaking recent documents and telling reporters things only a current insider could know. He told reporters that the AMA had hired a private investigator to plug the leaky AMA and also that select staffers were undergoing polygraph tests. Sammons now thought Sore Throat came from the AMA — or had access to a current staffer.
New York Daily News reporter Judith Randal wrote that the AMA tried to have the Chicago office of the FBI investigate the leaks. “This effort was unsuccessful, however, because the FBI said that no violation of federal law was at stake,” she reported on Aug. 5, 1975.
Meanwhile, Jack Bierig, a 28-year-old attorney at Sidley Austin, the AMA’s external legal counsel, recognized that some leaked documents revealed in the press were Sidley’s confidential work relating to the AMA that somehow had been stolen from Sidley’s Chicago headquarters.
The AMA-Sidley relationship began in 1974. AMA general counsel Bernard Hirsch approached Newton Minow, a partner at the prominent Chicago-based firm, to represent the AMA against the federal government in a suit involving Medicare regulations. It was the first time the AMA sued the federal government.
Bierig said there was no formal discipline of health law in those days. But Sidley wanted to demonstrate its health expertise. Bierig was tapped to represent the AMA because he had handled food and drug cases for Sidley and also had written a pioneering paper about for-profit, health-care delivery as he finished his J.D. at Harvard Law School.
The Chicago native won the case for the AMA before Judge Julius J. Hoffman, the short, combative jurist famed for tangling with lawyers and defendants in the Chicago 7 trial in 1969-70, in which the defendants, including Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, were charged with conspiring to cross state lines to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.
Bierig didn’t know if burglars had broken into the AMA and Sidley offices or if moles had been planted in the offices to copy and steal AMA documents. He recommended that the AMA and Sidley hire a private eye.
He asked for help from his boss, Minow, the former head of the Federal Communications Commission under President John F. Kennedy who famously described commercial television as a “vast wasteland.” (The lost charter boat SS Minnow on the 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island” was a mocking tribute to Minow.)
In a 2018 interview in a conference room in Sidley’s downtown Chicago office with Lake Michigan in the distance, Bierig said he approached Minow.
He recalled: “I’ll never forget this. Minow says, ‘OK, hire a detective.’
“And I said, ‘Newt, what am I supposed to do, look in the Yellow Pages under detectives? I have no idea who would be appropriate.’
“He said, ‘It was your idea. Carry it out.’ ”
Perry Mason, the pop fiction attorney of Erle Stanley Gardner’s books, radio, TV and movies, always had his PI. “Perry Mason had Paul Drake,” Bierig said, adding he had never encountered a PI at Sidley.
Sidley, founded in Chicago in 1866 with Mary Todd Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s widow, among its first clients, is a white-shoe law firm with a blue-chip clientele. It didn’t handle the likes of Perry Mason’s clientele, who typically were being defended for murder with PI Drake coming through for Mason at the last minute.
Was Sore Throat a one-person operation as he told the press? Or was he a part of something bigger? Bierig wanted to know and wanted to stop the leaks, but didn’t know which way to turn.
He finally sought advice from Marlin Johnson, head of security of one of his clients, Canteen Corporation. Johnson had firsthand experience with counterintelligence, planting spies and even taking on the Mafia. Johnson had been head of the FBI’s Chicago field office. Johnson had deep expertise in this shadowy world and seemed like a good resource in the search for Sore Throat.
In the tumultuous late 1960s, J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime director of the FBI, had asked Johnson to “neutralize” what he saw as threats to the country. One was the Black Panther Party, a black revolutionary group. The FBI operation resulted in a 1969 raid by Chicago police and the FBI on the Panthers’ shabby headquarters on Chicago’s West Side. Ninety rounds were emptied into the building. Two Panthers died in a blaze of gunfire. The FBI had an informant inside the Panthers.
Hoover also asked Johnson to enlist the help of the Mafia to “neutralize” Dick Gregory, the Chicago comedian and presidential candidate for the Peace Party in 1968. Hoover didn’t understand Gregory’s jokes, especially about the FBI chief, and saw him as a genuine threat. The affable and discreet Johnson told Hoover that he would do what he could, but wisely Johnson did nothing.
Bierig described Johnson as a “very nice man. I called Marlin up, and I said, ‘Marlin, you’ve got to help me. I need to hire a detective. I have no idea what to do. Got any ideas?’ ”
Johnson referred Bierig to two detective agencies, one of which was the Pinkerton detective agency, which provided security to Lincoln during the Civil War, and also made its name by infiltrating unions on behalf of America’s biggest corporations. But both Pinkerton and the other agency took a pass on the AMA-Sidley job, saying it wasn’t the sort of thing they did anymore, said Bierig.
One of the companies referred him to Thomas Spinelle, 36, a hungry private eye. Bierig called Spinelle and described the issue. “And Spinelle said, ‘I’d be happy to handle this. This would be great,’ ” Bierig recalled.
Before pulling the trigger on the job, Bierig called “a big meeting” at the AMA’s Chicago headquarters that included Minow, AMA executive vice president James Sammons, general counsel Hirsch and some Sidley honchos. The group decided to hire Spinelle to plug the leaks at the AMA and Sidley.
Spinelle ordered lie-detector tests starting at the AMA’s Washington office and used other counterintelligence tools to try to unearth Sore Throat and boost security.
The AMA did not make the investigation public. But Sore Throat knew about it and tipped William Hines, science and health reporter in the Washington bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Hines had a field day with Spinelle, who he revealed had flunked his Illinois licensing exam as a private investigator twice in 1975, in February and May, the latest just months before he had been hired for the AMA job. The Secret Service confirmed Spinelle had worked for the agency for three years ending in 1973, but wouldn’t say why Spinelle had left, Hines reported. Spinelle came off like a bumbling gumshoe.
AMA spokesman David Baldwin confirmed that Spinelle had interviewed AMA employees and used lie-detector tests. The PR guy said that he himself had taken and passed a polygraph. Randal reported that at least 20 top AMA executives and staff had undergone lie-detector tests.
Sore Throat taunted the AMA when he told Hines in a phone interview: “They’re looking in the wrong place. I have no direct contacts here [in Washington]. My principal contact is in Chicago and passed the test with flying colors.”
Sore Throat, in part, was telling the truth — the part about his Washington contacts inside the AMA having passed their polygraph exams. But he was trying to misdirect the investigation with claims about Spinelle looking in the wrong place.
Two years later, Los Angeles Times reporters Robert Rawitch and Robert Gillette, who had been following Scientology closely, reported on Aug. 27, 1977, that Spinelle found the AMA had hired three secretaries who were Church of Scientology moles, one in Chicago and two in Washington.
Despite how he was portrayed, Spinelle was the real deal. He was the one who picked up the first solid clues that the Church of Scientology appeared to be behind Sore Throat and the leaks, driven by founder L. Ron Hubbard’s conviction that the AMA had an ongoing plan to destroy his contentious church. Hubbard and his goons didn’t expect to find that the AMA was gunning for chiropractic rather than Scientology.
In Chicago, AMA officials acknowledged administering lie-detector tests to four employees thought to have had access to the documents Sore Throat had made public. Among those tested was a secretary named Sherry Canavarro, who had joined the AMA four months earlier to work in the executive offices, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Confidential minutes from meetings of the AMA board of trustees were found in Canavarro’s desk in the AMA’s executive offices in Chicago, and it was determined that she had spent four or five weekends at work with no specifically assigned task, the sources said.
The AMA refused to discuss the polygraph results beyond a statement in which the association confirmed everyone passed. However, Canavarro’s duties were later reduced, and subsequently she resigned. Canavarro was a Scientology plant. Her experience with Scientology’s E-meter, an electronic device similar to a polygraph, used in Scientology’s auditing procedure, might have helped her pass the polygraph test by Spinelle.
In a July 1977 affidavit, the FBI said Canavarro also used the names “Sherry Hermann” and “Sandy Cooper” and described her as the Pacific secretary of the church’s Guardians office in the United States. The Guardians were the espionage and dirty tricks arm of the Church of Scientology.
Canavarro later owned a PI agency, a common profession for those who had worked in the Guardians office.
On her job application to the AMA, sources said, she listed her husband Mitchell Hermann, who was a Scientology operative, and a local Chicago reference, the mother of the man who would later be revealed to be Sore Throat.
Sore Throat and the rest of his crew were tied to the Guardians office. None of this was known in 1975 when Spinelle conducted his investigation.
Hermann, who the FBI had said worked for Sore Throat and ran the spies in Scientology’s covert operation in Washington, D.C., from Jan. 1, 1974, through March 1, 1975, was among the 11 persons indicted by a federal grand jury Aug. 15, 1975, on charges of burglarizing government offices.
Church spokesmen told the Los Angeles Times they thought Canavarro was “on leave” from their staff and that she was “not interested” in discussing these allegations with reporters. Canavarro was not charged in the matter.
A federal grand jury indictment charged that Hermann, also known as “Mike Cooper,” and two other “Scientology agents” bugged a high-level meeting of the IRS in Washington Nov. 1, 1974, in which the church’s tax-exempt status was being reviewed by the IRS general counsel.
The church responded to Spinelle’s findings with tongue-in-cheek. “Whoever ‘Sore Throat’ is should get a medal,” Jeffrey Dubron, a church spokesman, said. He added, “I don’t know who that person was. . . . If this person went in and lied to get a job in the AMA and exposed crimes and created change, should that person be prosecuted for his or her actions?”
Scientologist or not, Sore Throat’s AMA disclosures prompted investigations by Congressional committees, the post office, the Federal Election Commission and the IRS but resulted in no convictions against the AMA. The AMA eventually paid some back taxes, but the negative headlines tarnished the AMA’s image.
Before her employment at the AMA, Canavarro worked from 1972 through 1974 for the Washington-based Council of Better Business Bureaus’ philanthropic advisory section, dealing with tax-exempt organizations. Local bureaus had, in the past, questioned Scientology’s recruitment approaches and its frequent lawsuits against critics and people seeking refunds. Sources in the council said that in 1974 Canavarro persuaded officials to open their files on Scientology to her husband, Mitchell. The sources said she identified him as a freelance writer preparing a story critical of the church.
Canavarro resigned from the council on Dec. 31, 1974, and moved on to the AMA. Canavarro did not respond to several calls and emails requesting interviews.
Spinelle may have flunked his PI test, but the former Secret Service agent quickly sleuthed what turned out to be a campaign against the AMA perpetuated by a spy ring whose members managed to be hired for clerical jobs at the AMA and Sidley, including a secretary to a top AMA executive. A former AMA staffer said the spy worked for Waylon Strobhar, a senior AMA executive.
Bierig said the PI checked phone calls made to and from the AMA and Sidley and found that they led to a phone for the Church of Scientology. Scientology plants had been going through and copying confidential AMA files for about 18 months before Sore Throat began making the findings public in June 1975.
In response to its discovery, the AMA launched its own media campaign against Scientology. In August 1975, Stuart Auerbach of the Washington Post reported that AMA officials “privately” accused the Church of Scientology of planting its spies in AMA offices.
Both Sore Throat and the Church of Scientology denied that Sore Throat represented Scientology. “While the AMA officials have refused to make these charges publicly, their views became so widely known that the Scientologists have issued an official denial through their Ministry of Public Relations,” Auerbach reported. “The anonymous man who has been passing on the AMA documents nicknamed ‘Sore Throat’ by reporters called the Washington Post to deny that he is a plant of the Scientologists and to insist that he will continue to make AMA documents public.”
Chris Volz of Scientology’s Ministry of Public Relations wrote in a letter to the Washington Post: “The covert allegations by AMA officials Joe Brue and Frank Campion [the AMA’s chief public relations men] are illustrative of an incredibly corrupt organization grasping in the dark to cover their crimes.
“The Church of Scientology does not foster or house this ‘Sore Throat,’ ” Volz said.
It was a lie, one of many. Ironically, it took these lies for the truth to become known about the AMA’s campaign to contain and eliminate chiropractic.