As he campaigns for governor on an independent ticket, Lawton "Bud" Chiles III likes to trumpet his decade running HOPE Worldwide, a health-care charity. "We did immunization and health outreach for thousands of kids," Chiles says.
But Chiles -- who's threatening to torpedo Democrat Alex Sink by nicking thousands of moderates -- neglects to mention a key tidbit about HOPE: It's the nonprofit wing of the International Churches of Christ (ICOC), a denomination many believe is a cult.
"This cult has destroyed so many people's lives -- financially, emotionally, and spiritually," says Jenny Hunter, a former ICOC true believer who left the church and now helps counsel other members trying to escape. "People have committed suicide."
Chiles, son of the popular Democratic governor who shares his name, sent New Times a brief email response denying knowledge of "cult-like" activities in the church.
A charismatic preacher named Kip McKean founded the ICOC in the late 1980s in Boston, drawing thousands to his sermons and quickly spreading his ministry nationally.
Critics, though, charged that the growth was fueled by a cultish, discipline-heavy regime.
Hunter, for instance, joined the church while at Georgetown University. Like all new members, she says, she was forced to admit all of her sins to another "disciple" and then was blackmailed and brainwashed into complete devotion. She broke off almost all contact with family and friends.
It's not clear when Chiles joined, but he says he's still a member of the Tallahassee Chuch of Christ. In the early 1990s, he accepted a job as vice president of HOPE. The nonprofit earned recognition for its work increasing immunizations.
But critics also wrote to New York commissioners that its "volunteers" were actually church members forced into working, says Carol Giambalvo, a cult expert who wrote a book on the ICOC.
Chiles refutes those claims. "I certainly am not aware of any coercion among the volunteers I worked with," Chiles says in his email.
Chiles also says he doesn't know enough about the church to deny cult accusations. "I wasn't in a position to know a lot about the daily operation of the church except as it related to my own spiritual journey," he says.
No way, Hunter says. In his role at the head of HOPE, Chiles worked with McKean and knew directly about abuses, she says.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"Bud will be great at deflecting everything, but there's no way he didn't know what he was a part of," she says.
Chiles is polling a respectable 20 percent today in a theoretical matchup with Sink and Republican Bill McCollum. (Polls suggest he'll pick up about 16 percent if Rick Scott wins the GOP primary).
Hunter says she'd be thrilled if he won -- but only if he used the platform to refute the ICOC.
"I know so many human beings whose lives are still a wreck because of this church," she says. "The fact that he's skirting around his role in what this church has done, it's just sad and it's irresponsible."