Has Operation PAR become the new treatment arm
Drug Free America Foundation?
Or: 3 strikes and the 6th Circuit is out!

In the early 1970s a remarkable woman from Pinellas County Florida named Shirley Coletti was so concerned that her teenage daughter was using drugs that she worked with James T. Russell, the county prosecutor, and Sheriff Don Gedung to found a juvenile drug rehabilitation program they called Parental Awareness and Responsibility or Operation PAR. Op PAR has become so successful that in 2001 PAR sent a representative to the National Institute on Drug Abuse's National Conference on Drug Abuse Prevention. But Shirley Coletti did not represent PAR at the conference; a woman named Betty Sembler did. A few years after PAR was founded, Betty Sembler had been another Pinellas County mother concerned that one of her teenagers was into the drug scene. But she did not send him to PAR; she chose instead a controversial Fort Lauderdale-based therapeutic community called The Seed.

The Seed had been founded by a comedian and recovering alcoholic named Art Barker. The St. Petersburg Times reported that Barker had a mail-order degree in psychology. Barker had ambitions to make The Seed a national program. James T. Russell and Sheriff Gedung visited the program and recommended opening a Seed expansion facility in Pinellas County. Sixth Circuit (Pinellas/Pasco County) Judge Jack Dadswell had two kids in The Seed in Fort Lauderdale. He had been on the Executive Committee which had brought The Seed to St. Petersburg in Pinellas County. Sixth Circuit Justices William L. Walker and James B. Sanderlin had served on The Seed’s Advisory Board along with Russell, Gedung and Dr. Charles J. Crist, vice chairman of the Pinellas County school board and father of Charlie Crist (Florida's Attorney General). Thirty years ago Sixth Circuit Judge Jack Page boasted about sending kids to The Seed "on a daily basis." Today it's Judges Walt Logan and Dee Anna Farnell who brag about sending one did a day to Operation PAR.

In 1974 the US Senate published a report that likened the methods of The Seed to those used by North Koreans on American servicemen (brainwashing). The Seed fell from grace after that but Betty Sembler and her husband Melvin were so enamored with The Seed that they opened their own version of The Seed which they called Straight, Inc. Mel Sembler was very wealthy and politically connected too and the two of them were able to accomplish what Art Barker had not. They made Straight a national-level program with treatment camps all over the country.

Besides peddling their program to politicians, the Sembler's were very successful in marketing Straight to the 6th Circuit as this marketing minutes shows. In 1977 Judge Page (the judge who sent kids to The Seed on a daily basis) had called Straight "excellent"; but word of Straight's abuses were quickly leaking out. Turns out, Straight was much more destructive than The Seed had been. By 1981 Judge Page and other 6th Circuit justices had stopped sending kids to Straight. Judge Page says he started sending kids to PAR instead. He noted that a court order to Straight could involve more time than a sentence to jail for the drug offense for which the juvenile had been brought to him in the first place. He noted that PAR is a shorter program and a little more “normal” than Straight.

In 1985 the Semblers, fearing civil suits (and perhaps fearing possible criminal prosecution as well) changed the mission of Straight, Inc. from "treatment" to "education" and its name from "Straight, Inc." to "Straight Foundation, Inc." And then they created a brand new organization to treat kids for addiction which they called "Straight, Inc."! In 1989 Florida health authorities tried to close Straight's flagship treatment camp in Pinellas County, but it appears that Mel Sembler used his political connections to keep it open. The new Straight, Inc. finally closed in 1993 amidst law suits and allegations of child abuse all over the country. And for the first time in 17 years DFAF and Betty Sembler found themselves without ties to a drug treatment business. James T. Russell, the man who brought The Seed to Pinellas County, never indicted Mel and Betty Sembler for their role in Straight, Inc. Matter of fact, James T. Russell never indicted anyone connected with Mel Sembler in 1988 for conspiring to defraud the taxpayers of Clearwater, Florida in The Great Cooper's Point Land Scam.

In 1995, two years after Straight had to be closed, Betty changed the name of her educational foundation again. This time to Drug Free America Foundation (DFAF). But Ms. Sembler will always feel she has something special to offer those suffering from addictions, her fiasco at Straight, Inc. notwithstanding. After Straight closed she joined the board of directors for Operation PAR. And so it came to pass that it was Betty Sembler, and not Shirley Coletti, who attended the 2001 NIDA conference representing Operation PAR. (That same year Mrs. Sembler spoke to the US Congress as a representive of DFAF. So this dual hatted grandam of the "War on Drugs" and self proclaimed "drug prevention and policy expert" represents DFAF when she wants to talk drug policy and represents PAR when she wants to talk drug treatment.)

Betty Sembler is not the only person with ties to Straight who has come over to PAR. Susan Latvala is chairman of the board of directors of Operation PAR. She is also on DFAF's Advisory Board. Terry Hensley is the former executive director of DFAF. Before that he was a director at Op PAR. The former director of Straight - St. Petersburg is an Interim Executive Director at Operation PAR. The former director of Straight - Sarasota is director of marketing for Operation PAR. Judge Irene Sullivan is on one PAR committee; her husband Donald was formerly secretary of Straight Foundation.

Betty's treatment concept through the use of politics (with its influx of taxpayer money) seems to have reached Operation PAR. The Sembler's were able to persuade George H. W. Bush and Nancy Reagan to visit Straight. Already Jeb Bush and his mother Barbara have made separate visits to Operation PAR. The web page for The White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy caries a feature article on Operation PAR. Wes Fager, editor of www.thestraights.net, once editorialized on his concern of Mel Sembler's plan to test all American teenagers as a rite of passage for getting a learner's permit and that possibly Sembler and/or his associates would be paid to do the testing. If a teen shows positive on this invasion of his privacy and if he is just a user he would possibly go to a Sembler-inspired drug rehab program. But if he is a dealer, he would go to a private prison for punishment and treatment. (See Sembler's plan to make all 16 year-olds pay drug testers for the right to drive.) Already Operation PAR is operating a national and an international program for prisons. Today Operation PAR is an $18-million, 500-employee agency treating 8,000 to 10,000 people yearly making it the biggest, most comprehensive drug treatment agency in the southeastern United States!

Blacks and addiction in Pinellas County. A study done by the St. Petersburg Times in the early 1980s found that Operation PAR clients were typically black, had demonstrated a drug dependency beyond casual use of marijuana, and paid on a true sliding scale based upon income. That study found that Straight clients were typically white, the fees were steep, and casual use of marijuana was cause for admittance.

After the street violence in the predominantly black Midtown section of St. Petersburg in 1996 the community opened Family and Substance Abuse Center to treat black addicts. But by 2003 no public money had ever been freed up for the operation of that program (unless the person in need had committed a crime and had been subsequently court ordered). Any available operational money went to Operation PAR and to other established treatment programs elsewhere in the region. So much for failed drug rehabilitation for Midtown. But the city did manage to free up $ 1.3 million to buy land to build a $ 5 million shopping center in Midtown. Urban Development Solutions, a nonprofit headed by Larry Newsome and the NAACP's Daryl Rouson, got the contract. The city council leased land to UDS for $5 per year and loaned it $1.35 million for construction. The loan is interest free and UDS doesn't have to make payments for 10 years. And who is UDS' business partner in this project? The Sembler Company.

Op PAR receives a lot of its income from government grants, and from government Medicaid and Medicare payments. Last year it received a $ 4 million federal grant to build a development center and therapeutic community. In 1999 PAR was accredited by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. Today PAR can also be reimbursed by managed health care providers in addition to receiving its government grants. PAR even bought and operated a mental hospital which is ironic since Susan Latvala, chairman of the board at PAR, has been very chummy with the Church of Scientology™. Scientologists strongly oppose the profession of psychiatry, though many consider Scientology™'s Dianetic™ processing as a sort of poor man's alternative to psychiatric counseling. PAR's Dr. Betty Buchan even endorses Narconon™, the drug treatment regimen so closely aligned with Scientology™.

Two Strikes against the Sixth Circuit. Justices Page, Logan and Farnell are not the only 6th Circuit judges with a working relationship with Operation PAR. Sixth Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley is or was a member of the board of directors at Operation PAR. Judge Lauren Laughlin works with Operation PAR to do drug assessments for the court. Pinellas County prosecutor James T. Russell helped found PAR. PAR runs a program for the county sheriff's department. Judges are always looking for an alternative to rehabilitate or punish young offenders in lieu of sending them to jail. That's understandable, but the judges need also understand that these places of businesses are, after all, just that--places of business--even many of the non-profits. The more people they treat, the more money they make. The more people referred to them by the courts, the more money they make. And the longer a person stays in treatment, the more money they make. Twice before Florida's 6th Circuit has placed its money on juvenile rehabilitation programs endorsed by or operated by Betty Sembler. And twice before that court has struck out. To our knowledge, there has been absolutely no history of abuse at Operation PAR and that's great. But the court should be reminded, from time-to-time, of its own endorsements of The Seed, Straight and Operation PAR, and the links these programs have to one another.

Straight, Inc. used to be the treatment arm of DFAF but today DFAF has no drug abuse treatment arm. Or does it? Drug Free Workplaces of Tampa Bay is an arm of DFAF. According to SAMHSA, there are 147 substance abuse programs within 100 miles of Pinellas County, and yet DFWTB's web page links to one, and only one, of these 147 programs--Operation PAR![1] Why? What is the true relationship between Op PAR and DFAF? On Feb. 12, 1999 Betty Sembler and Shirley Coletti attended Governor Jeb Bush's Drug Summit in Tallahassee but they had to be back in Tampa that evening to attend an Operation PAR fund raiser co-chaired by Karol Bullard, wife Sembler's business partner Fred Bullard. No problem, the two just hopped aboard Mel Sembler's private jet and flew to Tampa. Lennie Bennett, a gossip columnist for the St. Petersburg Times, covered the day's events writing that Betty Sembler is "one of PAR's founders." Well that is not true, but we might was well start believing it. After all, who runs PAR today--Shirley Coletti or the Straight crowd?

Related articles:
The Infiltration of Operation PAR by Straight
Straight Foundation: Piercing the Corporate Veil

[1] DFWTB links to several sites, but only one of them is a drug treatment program--OP PAR.