Former employees of ESTfounder Werner Erhard say they were forced to obey the pop psychology guru in a manner ''akin to God'' and to submit themselves to ''numerous instances of verbally and physically abusive behavior.''
In sworn statements, the ex-employees also charge that they were required to worship Erhard as ''the Source'' and were controlled with exhausting work schedules, loyalty oaths, threats and emotional abuse.
The allegations -- by five former staff members of est, of the Forum and of Werner Erhard and Associates -- were filed last week in San Francisco Superior Court in support of a wrongful termination lawsuit against Erhard by Charlene Afremow, a longt ime associate of the human potential movement czar.
Vincent Drucker of San Anselmo, the former chief financial officer of est, said in one of the affidavits that a program begun in the late 1970s ''put great pressure on the executives, including myself, to surrender to 'Source.' ''
Erhard often compared the relationship between himself and his trainers ''to the bond between a samurai lord and the samurai vassals,'' Drucker said. ''Mr. Erhard threatened me with death on two occasions,'' he said, by citing ''certain people in the Mafia.''
In a statement released yesterday, Erhard denied all the allegations, calling them ''ridiculous fabrications from a few disgruntled former employees.''
''Responding publicly to these unsupportable accusations point by point would only further the malicious intent of the individuals in question,'' he said.
Erhard's weekend est trainings -- launched in 1971 and repackaged as the Forum in 1984 for a more corporate clientele -- are among the most financially successful human potential movement seminars. Nearly half a million people took the est training, and 500,000 have participated in the Forum, an Erhard spokesman said.
Werner Erhard and Associates, which runs the Forum and several other consulting businesses, last year took in $ 45 million in U.S. revenues, the spokesman said.
Born in 1935 as Jack Rosenberg, Erhard created his ''personal transformation'' empire by combining ideas from Zen Buddhism, Scientology and some of the alternative psychotherapy and self-motivation techniques developed in the 1950s and 1960s.
Today, initiates to the Forum pay $ 595 for two consecutive weekends designed to inspire ''a breakthrough in personal effectiveness'' and produce ''a new experience of vitality and aliveness'' through a ''challenging, rigorous inquiry . . . into the profound possibility of being.'' Groups of 100 to 250 people participate in the workshops.
Range Of Opinions
Opinions vary as to whether Erhard is a leading-edge thinker or slick purveyor of meaningless psychobabble, but the accusations in the court documents paint one of the darkest pictures yet of his San Francisco-based organization.
Former est trainer Irving Bernstein of Mill Valley, who quit in 1985, said in one affidavit that ''the Source'' was understood ''to mean that Erhard was akin to God.''
''Leaving WEA ( Werner Erhard and Associates) was looked upon as an act of heresy,'' stated Bernstein, who said employees ''essentially committed their souls forever to do the Work and do what Erhard asked.''
Michael Breard of Corte Madera said in his court declaration that his ''interview process'' for becoming a personal aide to Erhard involved spending two days ''cleaning the bilge of the boat on which Mr. Erhard was living with a toothbrush and Q-tip.' Breard, who said he was hired on Erhard's staff in 1984, stated that he was told by Erhard's brother, Harry Rosenberg, that he would be harmed if confidential information about Erhard's posh lifestyle were ever revealed.
Breard said he was told that ''Mr. Erhard had a friend in the Mafia'' who would ''take care'' of anyone who leaked information.
He said one of his duties was to wake Erhard up every morning by ''kneeling at the foot of the bed, putting my hands under the covers and massaging his feet and calves in a particular manner.'' Breard also was supposed to make sure that Erhard's toiletries were lined up in an exact row each morning. ''Mr. Erhard was an incredible perfectionist and was extremely verbally abusive if tasks were not performed according to his exact specifications,'' he said.
Breard said that he was physically struck on one occasion but that Erhard's usual way to ''berate me would be to scream obscenities at me in a voice which is louder than I can describe.''
At the request of Erhard's attorneys, the affidavits were put under court seal last week by Superior Court Judge Ira Brown. For a short time, however, they were open for public viewing and photocopying. The suit is set for trial April 16.
In previously filed court documents, Erhard's attorneys have denied Afremow's allegations of age discrimination, sex discrimination, defamation and the intentional infliction of emotional distress.''
Based in San Francisco, the Forum is offered through 35 Werner Erhard and Associates offices in the United States and 14 other offices around the world. Erhard has also expanded into the corporate consulting and personnel management business in recent years through a network of franchise businesses sold under the name Transformational Technologies, Inc.