by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:
A local drug rehabilitation facility that's been the subject of a series of Channel 2 Action News investigations is facing new legal trouble.
Five families filed a class action lawsuit Tuesday, calling the entire Narconon of Georgia program a fraud.
"The main thing is to stop them from preying on other families in our situation. If we get any reimbursement back, that would be wonderful also," said Rhonda Burgess, who enrolled her son, Blaze, in the program in 2011.
The teen was a gifted musician, a star football player, friendly and popular. His parents felt blindsided when he told them he was addicted to pain pills.
"We were at the bottom. We didn't know how to deal with it. We were desperate, we wanted to help him," said Burgess.
They found Narconon of Georgia on the Internet and called to check it out.
"He said we've got over a 90 percent success rate," said Blaze's father, Ben Burgess, of his conversation with a Narconon intake counselor. "Well hey, I'm sold."
His wife thought the program was the answer the family needed.
"They said it was one of the best programs in the world on their website," Rhonda Burgess said.
That website also advertised the Norcross facility as a residential treatment program, but as Channel 2 investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer exposed in a series of reports last fall, Narconon of Georgia is only licensed for outpatient care.
"They were residential to us the whole time we were talking to them. We never heard anything about an outpatient, we wouldn't have had a conversation with them probably," said Ben Burgess.
The family later learned their $2,000 each month was paying for Blaze to share a regular apartment with three or four other addicts. The alleged drug treatment included written courses in Scientology, spending five hours a day in a sauna, and megadoses of the vitamin niacin.
"There's nothing but fraud happening there. It's all about making money it's not about helping anyone," said Ben Burgess.
The family is still paying for it.
The parents say Narconon fraudulently opened several credit cards in each of their names without authorization, and billed roughly $19,000 on those cards.
"Naturally it destroyed us, because I don't make that kind of money to be able to afford that," said Ben Burgess, who works as an Athens-Clarke County firefighter.
Rhonda Burgess works as a school bus driver. The couple was forced to sell the family home to make the payments.
"We're just now starting to feel like we can breathe, and we still have all this debt to pay back," said Rhonda Burgess. Fleischer first exposed that part of the investigation after hearing the same thing from three other families earlier this year.
In the class action complaint, the Burgesses and four other families say Narconon committed fraud by misrepresenting the program as a 'complete cure' for drug addiction. The suit also claims staff members were not certified, and that the facility misrepresented to patients that it was properly licensed as a residential treatment program.
"They outright lie about it," said attorney Jeff Harris, who represents the families. "They promise families that if you go through Narconon you'll be cured, and that's just nonsense."
Harris says every current and former Narconon of Georgia patient should be reimbursed, and then some.
"I think there are a number of families out there who may not know that they've been defrauded," said Harris. "We hope this lawsuit gives them the vehicle to at least obtain some measure of justice for what happened to them."
He said one of the biggest misrepresentations is the false success rate the program claims, upwards of 70 percent. The suit includes a copy of an internal email from a Narconon attorney which reads in part, "Do not say that we have 70% success (we do not have scientific evidence of it)."
"I think they have a negative success rate, because my son went in bad off and was worse when he got out," said Ben Burgess.
He said Blaze actually tried stronger, illegal drugs while at Narconon.
"There's nothing drug or alcohol rehabilitative about it. It was written by a guy who was a science fiction writer, so that's probably the biggest fraud of all," Ben Burgess said.
The suit also includes an arm of the Church of Scientology called the Religious Technology Center, which licenses the program's teachings, as a co-defendant. The suit claims Narconon funneled money to its parent entities including Narconon International and the Association for Better Living and Education.
"This thing makes hundreds of millions of dollars and that's one of the other things about the scam that's so disturbing. This money is coming off the backs of families who work hard to earn the money, and it's going into the coffers of the church," said Harris.
Harris has launched a website to inform current and former patients and their families about the case. It also includes an application to sign up as a plaintiff in the class action. He expects to see similar class action cases form in other states.
"I do believe that it will go beyond Georgia because there are a number of Narconon centers across the country that are doing the exact same thing. They make the exact same misrepresentations about the sauna and the success rate and really about the program itself," said Harris.
The former executive director of Georgia's program resigned in January. The center is currently awaiting a hearing after appealing a state effort to revoke its license.
Last month, state insurance fraud investigators executed search warrants at Narconon and hauled away two dozen computers and hard drives, and boxes of financial and medical records. They're working with Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter to see if criminal charges are warranted.
The class action lawsuit alleges racketeering, theft by deception, mail and wire fraud, false statements, credit card fraud and identity fraud.
Rhonda Burgess said she's glad her family could be a part of it, and hopes the program shuts down.
"I feel like they're vultures, they're predators that are sucking the life out of people by doing this. They're taking advantage of a tragic situation."
Click here to read the statement from Narconon Georgia.
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