Friday, December 07, 1990

Mel Sembler, youth gulag meister, is running Scooter Libby's defense fund?

Josh Marshall flagged the Sembler Libby connection; does he know how shady Sembler really is?

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 extortion.)

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...

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.

Americans have these people in high positions, thanks to the Republican party.


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