Why was there a protest of the
Florida Holocaust Museum and
why the media chose not to cover it?

an editorial by Wesley Fager (c) 1-24, 2004

updated: 3-1-2004 in red


I don't believe that it [Straight, Inc.] was as bad as that group makes it out to be. If you all need to be angry at someone, you should be angry at your parents for putting you in there.
Gary Polland, Development Director for the Florida Holocaust Museum from an unofficial transcript dated 12-7-02 as published in The Agitator. A reporter from The Oakton Institute spoke with Mr. Polland on 1-28-04 (1151 AM EST) and asked him if he could confirm the comment. He replied that he had talked to someone at Straight but did not remember exactly what was said so he could not confirm any comment in the transcript. When I asked him what is his view on the issue I had brought up he replied that he has no comment to make about Straight.
On Saturday January 17, 2004 Judy Genshaft, president of the University of South Florida, received the 2004 "To Life Award" from the Florida Holocaust museum for her efforts to teach tolerance and fight racism. Fittingly, a reporter from the USF's newspaper, The Oracle, had been dispatched to cover the story. But The Oracle never covered that story and the reason is another story altogether. The staff at The Oracle had been informed beforehand that a group would be protesting the event, and so, in an effort to cover all sides of a story, the paper's reporter tried to get to the event in time to cover the protest. The awards ceremony was held at the Hyatt in downtown Tampa Florida starting at 7 PM. The protestors conducted their protest from 4:30 to 7. Unfortunately, USF's reporter did not make it to the event until 7:15 by which time the protesters had disbanded. Being unable to give a balanced report of both the good and the bad The Oracle decided not to cover the event at all. (See theStraights dot com coverage of the protest here.)

The Tampa Bay area's two largest newspapers, The Saint Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune, had also been alerted about the protest. Both of these papers covered the awards banquet but decided to ignore the group of 20+ marchers that had assembled outside the hotel. This brings up two questions. Why would anyone want to protest a charitable event? And why would the local papers refuse to carry the story of such a visible, yet highly unusual protest?

From 1976 to 1993 Straight, Incorporated was the largest chain of juvenile drug treatment programs in the world. But Straight was also one of the most destructive juvenile treatment programs the world has ever seen. It was a money making scam that took in nearly $100 million tax free dollars. In return it violated the human rights and civil liberties of tens of thousands of American teenagers. Forced sexual confessions, spitting in kids' faces, making kids mess in their pants and restraining them in their own vomit. Kids were watched while they defecated and wiped themselves on the toilet not unlike the public spectacle the Nazis made of public defecation of Jews in concentration camps. In fact the SS had originally called Dachau, its first concentration camp, a "re-education centre." Straight called its camps "re-acculturation centers." Straight treated many kids for addictions that they just did not have. Many former Straight clients now have mental problems; over 40 have committed suicide. Several people now question whether Straight's destruction of young lives, especially its emphasis on the public disclosure for public discussion of confidential sexual information, has not led to some of these tragic deaths. (See Fox News coverage of Straight here.)

Straight was founded by Tampa Bay area prominent citizens Melvin and Betty Sembler. Mr. Sembler has put his Straight experience to work for him billing himself as a great humanitarian concerned with saving America's youth from drugs. Both President Bush's have made him an ambassador citing his work at Straight as one reason for their decision; though they actually appointed him because he bought his way in (see Straight founder buys his second ambassadorship.) Ambassador Sembler made his good friend Walter Loebenberg president of Straight Foundation, the education arm of Straight, Inc. Walter Loebenberg went on to found the Florida Holocaust Museum and Mel and Betty Sembler have been longtime board members though the Semblers may have been removed within the last couple of years. In The Saint Petersburg Times article on the awards ceremony by Amy Scherzer, Ms. Scherzer noted that The Loebenberg Award had been presented. How can people responsible for conducting a program that violates human rights and civil liberties found a museum for the remembrance of those who suffered the violation of their human rights and civil liberties? That is what the protesters were all about. They are staunch supporters of the stated goals of the Florida Holocaust Museum and any Holocaust Museum. It is not the precepts of the museum they have a problem with. The protesters want anyone associated with Straight removed from association from the museum.

Mel and Betty Sembler, the target of many protests. Since 1988 Mel and Betty Sembler have been the target of many protests. As can been seen from the pictures on this this page, the Semblers' home has been picketed, the Italian Embasy has been protested, the Datia conference in Washington, DC has been protested. Kurt Waldheim, a former secretary general of the United Nations and a former president of Austria, made no bones about the fact that he had briefly served in the Wehrmacht (German Army) as a fighting man during World War II. Later it was learned that Waldheim had actually participated in Nazi atrocities during the war. Does Arnold Schwarzenegger now have a responsibility to speak out against his longtime friend Kurt Waldheim? That is what the protest of the Florida Holocaust Museum was all about.

For over a year people like Chris Tyler had haggled over the problem with former museum president Larry Wasser who refused to act. Here is an unofficial transcript of Marti Heath's interview with the museum's development director Gary Polland, who, according to Ms. Heath, told her he didn't think Straight was as bad as "that group makes it out to be. If you all need to be angry at someone, you should be angry at your parents for putting you in there." Someone told a reporter at theStraights dot com that a verbal complaint has been lodged with the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC but that their position is that the Florida Holocaust Museum is an independent entity. One wonders what their position and responsibility would have been had they learned that Adolf Eichman was on the board of directors of Buenos Aires Holocaust Museum.

Last summer Larry Wasser died unexpectedly. And, as if daring the Straight crowd to protest, the museum board appointed Dr. Bruce Epstein as the interim museum director. Dr. Epstein is another former Straight board member who is also on the board of directors for the Florida Holocaust Museum. He was also a guest writer for the Saint Petersburg Times who once, in spite of all the public records of Straight abuses, encouraged Times readers to send their kids to Straight. In her article Ms. Scherzer noted that Dr. Epstein was in attendance. Besides Mel and Betty Sembler, Walter Loebenberg and Bruce Epstein, Jay Synder is another former Straight board member who was also on the board for the museum. So there was little problem in getting Dr. Epstein appointed as the museum director. (Dr. Epstein has subsequently been replaced by Geoff Simon.)

Mel Sembler makes his money by developing and administering shopping centers at The Sembler Company. While he is off to Italy, the company is run by CEO Craig Sher and Mel's son Brent who is vice chairman of the company. Craig Sher's wife Jan Miller Sher is another board member of the Florida Holocaust Museum. And while Brent Sembler had nothing intentionally to do with Straight, he was Mel Sembler's inspiration for Straight. As a teenager Brent had been in a juvenile drug treatment program called The Seed whose methods had been likened, in a report by the United States Senate, to the methods of brainwashing used on American POWs during the Korean War. Publicity like that caused The Seed to close. After the Saint Petersburg Seed closed, Mel and Betty Sembler opened Straight and patterned it after The Seed. If anything Straight was worse than The Seed. The Semblers ran Straight as an almost exclusive charity for affluent white children. (See A hundred million dollar treatment charity for affluent white kids.)

But Straight is not the only Sembler enterprise that has been accused of racism. For the past few months on Saturday evenings a black political movement called Uhuru has been picketing Bay Walk, a $40 million shopping center in Saint Petersburg built and owned by the Sembler Company. The Uhuru claim that the mall is racist. It is not known whether last Saturday the Uhuru was picketing one Sembler venue for alleged civil rights violations while another group was picketing the Holocaust Museum for its association with Sembler and his violation of civil rights in another venue.

Judy Genshaft was not the only person to receive a "To Life" award for teaching tolerance and fighting racism. Brent Sembler and his wife Debbie were also awarded the "To Life" medal for their efforts to teach tolerance and fight racism, notwithstanding the fact that Sembler Company is currently being accused of racism by a prominent black group. Ms. Scherzer noted that Brent and Debbie thanked Mel and Betty "with full hearts" and noted, as all Times' reporters do, that "Mel Sembler is the U.S. Ambassador to Italy."

The Florida Holocaust Museum's "To Life" Award was started in 2000. Former Straight Foundation president Walter Loebenberg and his wife Edie were the first recipients. In 2001 former Straight board member Dr. Bruce Epstein, his wife Amy, and Mel Klinghoffer received the award. Last year's recipients were Loebenberg's former Colony Bank business partner Barry Alpert, his wife Judith, and Erwin and Wendy Katz.

The Semblers and the Saint Petersburg Police. The Semblers have always enjoyed a cozy relationship with the police and have been very effective in silencing critics. The Seed upon which Straight had been based had been invited to town by James T. Russell, the county prosecutor, and Don Genung, the county sheriff. Former acting St. Petersburg Police Chief Raymond Waymire was a founding board member of Straight. Saint Petersburg policeman Mack Vines was on a committee that investigated the state department of Health and Rehabilitative Services when HRS investigated Straight early on for criminal child abuse. That committee succeeded in getting the state investigator fired while Mack Vines became chief of police for the department. Terry Hensley, another Saint Petersburg police chief, became the director of Straight under its new and current name--Drug Free America Foundation. The Saint Petersburg Beach police department sponsors the Joe Zappala Officer of the Year Award in honor of former Straight founder Joe Zappala. Everett S. Rice, the county sheriff, and James T. Moore, commissioner of the Florida state police (LEAA) and member of Straight's advisory board, serve on the the advisory board of the Multijurisdictional Counterdrug Task Force Training Office along with Betty Sembler.

The Semblers are prominet Republicans who have always enjoyed a cozy relationship with those in political power and with local law enforcement officials. And the Semblers have been quite effective in silencing their many detractors. Keith Stewart, the repudiated organizer of a protest against Sembler-owned Bay Walk, has been charged by the Saint Petersburg police with inciting a riot--a felony. Ray Bradbury, an outspoken critic of the Semblers and Straight has been ordered by the court to keep quiet about Sembler. Marti Heath who agreed to be the spokesperson for the museum protesters was previously threatened with a law suit by Miller Newton. (See the Semblers using the courts to silence opponents.)

Besides silencing their detractors the Semblers have been quite effective in controlling what the media says about them. For 17 years Straight had been involved in massive violation of human rights. We know this because of excellent reporting of the abuse at the Saint Petersburg Times under the then leadership of editor Eugene Patterson (see world renowned cult expert Rick Ross on Straight.). But times have changed at the Times. It is now directed by Andy Barnes and Paul Tash, two men who have been very kind in their frequent reporting of Mel and Betty Sembler in stories about Betty's birthday party and the couples recent wedding anniversary. (See How Mel Sembler controls the press.) And lest we forget, Red Newton, former editor of the Tampa Tribune, is the father of Straight's former national clinical director Reverend Doctor Miller Newton who today is tracked on a web site for abusive priests.

Mel Sembler-the humanitarian
On May 2, 1989 Straight co-founders Mel Sembler and Joseph Zappala were awarded the Humanitarian Award by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, in part for their achievements with Straight, Inc. Rabbi Ira Youdovin, senior rabbi at Temple Beth El, gave the closing service in remembrance of Holocaust survivors. Former Straight Foundation president Walter Lobenberg and Mel Sembler are past receipients of the Golda Meir/Kent Jewish Center Humanitarian Award. In 1999 Mel and Betty Sembler received the Distinguished Citizens Award from the Boy Scouts. Straight's former national clinical director, Reverend Doctor Miller Newton (who settled for $6.5 million last summer with a former client for the abuse she sustained at his second-generation Straight in New Jersey) is a former Boy Scout master who is tracked today on a web page for abusive priests.

Mel Sembler calls himself a coalition builder and besides making alliances with the press to control what it says about him, he is adept in making alliances outside the media. Many of the board members for the Florida Holocaust Museum also belong to Sembler's and Lobenberg's synagogue Temple Beth El. Last year in honor of the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Temple Beth El invited Darryl Rouson, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, to be its guest speaker. (Craig Sher, CEO of Sembler Company, is a past vice president of Temple Beth El. His wife is chairman of the school board for the Temple's school. She is also on the board of the Florida Holocaust Museum. Leonard Englander, Sembler's attorney in his suit against Straight-dissident Ray Bradbury, is the former president of Temple Beth El and a member of the board of the Florida Holocaust Museum.) Late last year admist the Uhuru cry of racism at Sembler's Bay Walk, the Sembler Company joined forces with a black business to build a small shopping center. Darryl Rouson is employed by that company!

The planning for Saturday's protest was shrouded in secrecy with last minute releases given to the press. Hundreds of former Straight clients never even knew there was going to be a protest. Still over 20 protesters showed up, most of whom had never been associated with Straight. Is it time to stop the secrecy so as to increase the number of protesters? Is it time for the Uhuru and the Straight crowd to compare notes? If the Florida Holocaust Museum won't deal with the problem and if Mel Sembler won't let the press cover the story, then perhaps the next protest (should there be a next) should be expanded in scope to include a protest of the local media as well as Holocaust centers beyond Florida. Perhaps people from the Simon Wisenthal Center or the National Holocaust Museum could persuade the board members of the Florida Holocaust Museum to deal with the matter in an honorable way while the Washington Post or New York Times could embarrass the Saint Petersburg Times into covering the news.