Saturday, April 18, 2009

Melvin Sembler, CEO of Straight Inc.: Child Torture Money for the GOP

REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Among President Bush's appointments of GOP activists to
important posts, we've done worse than Melvin Sembler,
the Ambassador to Italy who couldn't speak Italian.
Unlike the FEMA chief, who had real responsibilities,
Sembler sometimes found himself a fifth wheel around
his own embassy. As the Washington Monthly has
reported, the scandal that claimed Scooter Libby's job
last month may have sprung from secret Rome meetings
between neocons, an Iran-Contra figure and an Italian
intelligence boss who later pushed phony WMD documents
-- all behind Sembler's back.

But where Melvin Sembler, 74, demands attention is as
an object lesson in how cruelty can be redeemed by the
transformative power of political donations. For 16
years, Sembler, with his wife Betty, directed the
leading juvenile rehab business in America, STRAIGHT,
Inc., before seeing it dismantled by a breathtaking
array of institutional abuse claims by mid-1993. Just
one of many survivors is Samantha Monroe, now a travel
agent in Pennsylvania, who told The Montel Williams
show this year about overcoming beatings, rape by a
counselor, forced hunger, and the confinement to a
janitor's closet in "humble pants" -- which contained
weeks of her own urine, feces and menstrual blood.
During this "timeout," she gnawed her cheek and spat
blood at her overseers. "I refused to let them take my
mind," she says of the program. The abuse took years
to overcome.

"It sticks inside you," she told Williams, "it eats at
your soul." She told AlterNet that she was committed
at 12, in 1980, for nothing more than being caught
with a mini-bar-sized liquor bottle, handed out by a
classmate whose mother was a flight attendant.
Samantha's mother suspected more, and a STRAIGHT
expert reassured her fears. The small blonde junior
high-schooler was tricked into being taken to the
warehouse-like STRAIGHT building. Her mother, told by
counselors that her daughter was a liar, was
encouraged to trick the girl for her own good.

Overcome by dread in the lobby, Samantha tried to run
but was hauled into the back by older girls. Inside,
as was standard operating procedure, she began the
atonement process that cost over $12,000 a year:
all-day re-education rituals in which flapping the
arms ("motivating") and chanting signaled submission
to "staying straight." She was coerced, she says, into
confessing to being a "druggie whore" who went down on
truckers for drugs. "You're forced to confess crimes
you never committed." (Some survivors call it

Melvin Sembler stepped down earlier this year as Our
Man In Rome -- he also served under the first Bush as
Ambassador to Australia. Were Monroe's story unique,
his STRAIGHT clinics might still be in business.
Instead, his creation, which he stubbornly defends,
closed under a breathtaking array of institutional
abuse claims by 1993, ranging from sexual abuse,
beating and stomping to boys called "faggots" for
hours while being spat upon -- humiliation so bad that
a Pennsylvania judge recently ruled it potentially
mitigating of a Death Row sentence for a former
STRAIGHT teen who committed a homophobic murder.

Although prosecutors closed the clinics, six-figure
settlements sucked it dry, and state health officials
yanked its licenses after media reports of teen
torture and cover-up, Sembler himself escaped
punishment. As one of the preeminent and
hardest-working GOP fundraisers, Sembler has received
the honor of living during the George W. Bush
presidency at the Villa Taverna, the official
residence for the U.S. ambassador, which has the
largest private garden in Rome. One night in May at
"The Magic Kingdom" (as Mel and Betty call it), the
dining room filled with smoke from fine cigars, as the
ambassador entertained Bush Sr. and an entourage --
until Betty complained that the old friends were
stinking up "my house," the Washington Post reported.

He's come home, but still wafting across national drug
policy is the influence of his STRAIGHT, which has
legally changed its identity to the Drug Free America
Foundation (director Calvina Fay denies it's the same
organization but the name change is listed in Florida
corporate filings). Subsidized by tax dollars, it
lobbies for severe narcotics policies and workplace
drug testing, with an advisory board that includes the
like of Gov. Jeb Bush and his wife Columba, and
Homeland Security Director of Public Safety Christy
McCampbell. A more pressing issue is that former
overseers of Sembler's company, true believers in the
STRAIGHT model, are still running spin-off businesses
that treat teens with the old methods.

Starting out STRAIGHT

The story begins in 1976 when Sembler, who'd made his
fortune in Florida real estate, founded STRAIGHT from
the ashes of The Seed -- an earlier program suspended
by the U.S. Senate for tactics reminiscent, said a
senator, of Communist POW camps. But as the Reagan
years rolled into view, and a climate of fear nurtured
a Shock and Awe approach to teens, the Semblers found
a new world of acceptance for an anything-goes
treatment business, meting out punishment in privately
run warehouses. Endorsers from Nancy Reagan to George
H.W. Bush lent their names to the program, celebrating
a role model weapon in the "war on drugs."

Nine years before the elder Bush took office, Sembler
was a faithful political supporter, and raising
millions beginning in '79 for the Bushes' clash with
Reagan for the Republican nomination. In 1988, as Bush
finally accepted the GOP's nomination for president,
Sembler sat in the front row. With his man in the
White House, STRAIGHT would become a vehicle for
purchasing eminence as a Drug War thinker. By 1988,
Sembler wasn't just running the Vice President's "Team
100" soft money campaign and enjoying steak dinners
with him -- he was sojourning in George and Barbara
Bush's living room, briefing the candidate on drug
policy. As a token of his friendship, he gave Bush a
new tennis racket, receiving this note in return:
"Maybe we can play at Camp David someday."

And Sembler's success grew and grew as the Clinton era
spooled out. The slickly dressed go-getter smashed
records as RNC Finance Chairman from 1997 to 2000,
chairing the "Regents" club that accommodated such
super donors as Enron's Ken Lay to fund George W.
Bush's campaign machine.

Meanwhile, a coast-to-coast trail of human wreckage
had ensued during STRAIGHT's reign from 1976 to 1993
-- its survivors claimed physical, sexual and
psychological trauma. The Web sites and have collected many of their stories.
Posts Kelly Caputo, an '88 alumna: "I don't think I
will ever be the same. My every thought has been
violated, confused, degraded and warped."

"My best guess is that at least half of the kids were
abused," says Dr. Arnold Trebach, a professor emeritus
at American University who created the Drug Policy
Foundation to find alternatives to harsh laws. He has
singled out STRAIGHT in his book "The Great Drug War"
as among drug warriors' worst mistakes.

But today, Sembler's trail of purchased political
friendships has led him through the opulent doors of
the $83 million "Mel Sembler Building" in Rome,
christened this year with help from a longtime ally in
Congress, Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-FL). Not the palace
where Sembler worked as ambassador, but another of the
Eternal City's architectural treasures, built in 1927
and now dedicated as an annex to the U.S. Embassy in a
$30 million renovation at taxpayer expense. "Narcissus
is now Greek and Roman," said the Washington Post of
the monument. No one could remember any other diplomat
receiving such honors, not even Benjamin Franklin.

"We don't do that, do we?" George W. Bush reportedly
told the congressman, according to Congressman C.W.
Bill Young 's (R-Florida) speech during the ceremony.
"We don't name buildings for ambassadors where they
have served."

"Mr. President," the politician replied, "I introduced
the bill and you signed it." Bush may have missed the
Sembler Building provision, tucked as it was into an
appropriations bill. But he owed much to the longtime
family friend, whom he thanked on "The Jim Lehrer
Report" [RealAudio] in 2000 for raising $21.3 million
at a single dinner in April, a new record. Asked what
favors the money paid for, Bush professed wonderment
at the premise: "I know there's this kind of sentiment
now -- I heard it during the primaries ... [that] if
someone contributes to a person's campaign, there's
this great sense of being beholden."

At the Sembler Building, visitors can stroll among the
Italian frescoes of cherubs and heavens, and marvel at
the spoils of Bush family loyalty, and meditate on the
human costs that made Sembler's paradise possible.

STRAIGHT's practices

Melvin Sembler's Jekyll-and-Hyde empire appealed to
parents with cheery pamphlets bearing pictures of
happy and reunited families that had put their
horrible pasts behind them.

Even Princess Diana had graced the clinics with a
visit, celebrating STRAIGHT as a humanitarian
institution. George H.W. Bush named the program among
his "thousand points of light." But many called it

Taking in new kids without much discrimination -- many
addiction-free -- STRAIGHT staff assured parents that
a variety of troubled teens could benefit from their
brand of discipline.

Vanished from home and school, the newcomer would
enter the care of a "host home" overseen, at night, by
the same counselors up in her face by day. Over the
months, patients like Samantha Monroe earned back
basic privileges like speaking or, in the distant
future, going to the bathroom alone, without an
ever-present minder's thumb in the belt loop --
literally. The counselors were themselves STRAIGHT
kids, who had been molded into drug warriors in the
heat of humiliation. They'd learned to play along and
join the winning side, becoming the hall monitors and
the muscle that enforced the rules.

>From the outset, STRAIGHT's method was on thin ice
with regulators. The underpinnings had long struck
critics as more Pyongyang than Pinellas County.
Sembler took his blueprint from another St. Petersburg
program, The Seed, in which his son had enrolled in
the 1970s. The Senate was less impressed than Sembler
with The Seed. Senator Sam Ervin, who'd brought down
Richard Nixon, killed the program's federal subsidies
for funding a method "similar to the highly refined
'brainwashing' techniques employed by the North
Koreans." Ervin's 1974 probe into the rise of
treatment abuse articulated an admirable American
ideal: that "if our society is to remain free, one man
must not be empowered to change another's personality
and dictate the values, thoughts and feelings of
another." Sembler had other ideals in mind, as
hundreds of STRAIGHT victims would later attest.

Finally, one by one, the 12 clinics, which had once
formed a nine-state empire, went dark. Much of the
money was lost in settlements, but jury verdicts
offered a peek into the regularity of the abuses.
Florida patient Karen Norton was awarded $721,000 by a
jury after being thrown against a wall in 1982 by the
Semblers' treatment guru of choice: Dr. Miller Newton,
whose unaccredited Ph.D was in public administration,
but was tapped by the Semblers as STRAIGHT National
Clinical Director. He's emblematic of how the creature
Sembler built just won't stop sprouting heads, having
personally launched spinoff businesses with names like
KIDS. As a result, Newton has paid out over $12
million to his victims. Having moved back to Florida,
he now calls himself "Friar Cassian," a priest in the
non-Catholic Antiochian Orthodox church.

But just last month, Betty Sembler testified in a case
against a STRAIGHT critic that Miller Newton, the dark
cleric of rehab, is "a very close and dear friend and
a valued one," and an "outstanding individual." Had he
committed outrageous acts? "Absolutely not," she said,
adding that it was incomprehensible that ex-STRAIGHT
teen Richard Bradbury was picketing Newton. Thanks to
her judgment of character, Newton has been given a
voice in national drug policy, listed as a participant
in a Drug Free America Foundation "International
Scientific and Medical Forum."

>From the beginning, critics were shocked to find that
the keepers freely acknowledged many of the tactics --
yet insisted they were necessary. Mel Sembler even
seems to have been emboldened by painful questions
about his clinics. "We've got nothing to hide -- we're
saving lives," he said in 1977 after six directors
quit over practices that included kicking a restrained
youth. He remained closely involved in personnel
management. Almost two decades later, recalling how
the ACLU was furious about STRAIGHT's practices,
Sembler told Florida Trend Magazine in 1997 -- "with a
grin," the reporter wrote -- that "it just shows that
we must have been doing things right."

And rather than clean up Florida's program, he
apparently leaned on health inspectors in 1989 to go
easy on it. Reports of a cover-up wouldn't emerge for
four more years -- long years, for the teenagers
committed to a program that wouldn't lose its license
until 1993. STRAIGHT foe Bradbury, believing he'd been
"brainwashed" into becoming an abusive counselor,
brought the clinics to the attention of the state
after years of protest. Inspector Lowell Clary of the
Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative
Services found that reports of illegally restrained
and stomped-on teens had been swept under the rug,
likely with help from Republican state senators, who
went unnamed, but made phone calls urging the clinic
stayed open. A "persistent foul odor" hung over this
use of power, said a St. Petersburg Times Op-Ed
applauding the death of STRAIGHT.

1 comment:

  1. Great article... I would however like to point out that straight survived and still functions under names like safe inc and other programs. I can say from my time spent there that the stories are true...