Bush rewarded one of his loyalists with the ambassadorship to Italy
-- despite his past as the founder of an cult-like teen rehab clinic.
Among our president'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
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
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 Fornits.com and TheStraights.com 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
"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'
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.
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 Hell.
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
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.
"While at the facility," wrote Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative
Services Acting Inspector General Lowell Clary on May 19, 1993, "the team
[of inspectors in 1989] received a phone call informing them that no matter
what they found, STRAIGHT would receive their license." "If you do
anything other than what I tell you on this issue, I will fire you on the spot,"
an HRS official was told. Clary wasn't positive, but evidence suggested that
"pressure may have been generated by Ambassador Sembler and other state
By now, Clinton was in office. Four years earlier, while young "druggies"
were still being restrained to chairs for 12 hours, denied medication and sent
to the hospital with injuries, the 1989 report would have tarnished President
George H.W. Bush's "points of light." Bush had designated STRAIGHT
an American treasure. On that fragile premise, not one but two STRAIGHT presidents
had been named ambassadors in 1989, the year of the Florida inspection. Sembler
got the Australian assignment. The other post sent co-founder Joseph Zappala
to Spain armed for diplomacy with a high school education. The two were mocked
in People as "too hick to hack it." They'd clowned around during the
nomination process, turning in nearly identical answers on Senate disclosure
forms. In the "languages spoken" box Sembler had written, humorously,
That took real cheek. These two pranksters had been leaders of a group characterized
as a destructive cult by top authorities on cult abuse ranging from Steve Hassan
of the Freedom Of Mind Center to the late Dr. Margaret Singer of UC Berkeley,
an expert on the abuse of American servicemen in the Korean War whose expert
testimony was used to close a facility in Cincinnati. Bradbury, the whistleblower,
concurs, saying the program modified his personality into something monstrous.
Bradbury attended the St. Petersburg, Florida clinic. "You don't understand
what they did to these kids," Bradbury told AlterNet. "They put stuff
up my butt."
But you wouldn't know from Sembler's State Department biography that his claim
to fame has such a shoddy legal record. The program has the honor of being described
as a "remarkable program" in his bio, and it credits STRAIGHT with
saving 12,000 kids. The ambassador did not return attempts to contact him during
the reporting for this story, and declined the author's interview requests last
year through a U.S. Embassy spokesman.
In addition to receiving a second Ambassadorship from the second Bush president,
his Governor Jeb Bush named August 8, 2000, "Betty Sembler Day" for
her "work protecting children from the dangers of drugs," labeling
her "ambassadorable." The next year, at a drug policy conference in
Florida, a writer from the Canadian legalization magazine Cannibis Culture asked
her about the STRAIGHT victims. "They should get a life," he quotes
her as replying. "There's nothing to apologize for. The [drug] legalizers
are the ones who should be apologizing."
The ambassador's wife is an outspoken critic of what she calls "medical
excuse marijuana," and serves on the boards of such mighty anti-legalization
campaigns as the International Task Force On Strategic Drug Policy, which works
with Latin American countries to lobby for harsh drug laws. Mel himself used
his Rome ambassadorial pulpit for a global conference in 2003, appealing to
the "moral imperatives" of the drug war and urging a "culture
of disapproval of drug abuse." DFAF, founded by the Semblers, receives
hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from the Small Business Association
to advance workplace drug testing in businesses -- for example, a handout in
2000 of $314,000. Betty Sembler is president and Melvin has served as chairman.
Though Sembler's clinics were shuttered, the spirit of STRAIGHT lives on as
a flourishing model for drug rehabilitation. That includes offshoots run by
former STRAIGHT staff, such as the Orlando STRAIGHT spin-off, SAFE, which was
described by 16-year-old Leah Marchessault in 2000 as "something from the
Twilight Zone" in a report by Florida's WAMI TV station.
Leah had gone to visit her sister, in for heroin abuse, only to be told she
herself was a "druggie" -- sound familiar? And when Leah fled, she
was pinned against a wall and assaulted by a pack of nine women members who
forced her to undergo a full-body search. Another girl told WAMI of being "forced
to stand for about an hour and a half, the attention being focused on me, and
about every 10 minutes I was told how I was full of crap, how I needed to be
Despite their cheery names -- SAFE in Orlando, Florida; Kids Helping Kids of
Cincinnati, Ohio; Growing Together of Lake Worth, Florida -- these barely regulated
warehouses cry out for oversight. Hungry for recruits, they appeal to the fears
of parents by warning a child will die on the streets if uncorrected by their
In the TV report, the presence of a spokeswoman named Loretta Parrish was evidence
that SAFE was the child of STRAIGHT -- she'd been the local STRAIGHT's marketing
director until 1992, when the old company closed under state scrutiny, and SAFE,
a new company, almost immediately sprang up to replace it. A new head for the
hydra: Parrish didn't dispute the visiting sister's horrifying experience, but
called it necessary, as if explaining something something obvious to her since
"Yes we do require that," said Parrish. "And if they don't,
then they have to remove the other child. This is a family treatment program.
And unless the entire family is in treatment, it doesn't work."
"We do not do a strip search that is different from any other treatment
program," she adds, and later described the teens and moms attacking SAFE
as "a coalition of cockroaches." Gov. Jeb Bush even endorsed SAFE
in a letter he wrote as "a valuable tool."
And so with the former STRAIGHT bosses rich in Republican honors, and insulated
in a political Xanadu not unlike the alternate reality field engulfing the White
House, a new generation of teenagers is going under the hammer, as an old generation
of victims finds cold comfort for their own suffering. If this is the compassionate
kind of conservatism, how harsh the other variety must be.