Has the Tash Times been soft on
Tampa's Dynamic Duo?
by Wes Fager © 2002
  For two decades the Saint Petersburg Times reported on the controversy surrounding prominent Tampa Bay Republicans Mel and Betty Sembler and their Straight rehabilitation program. But has all that changed since Paul Tash became the editor and president of the Times in February 2000? Andy Barnes, the man who negotiated the Ice Palace naming deal, remained chairman and CEO when Tash took over the newsroom. A look into the Tash Times reporting on Tampa's controversial couple only seems to add teeth to the hypothesis that the Times omitted a story about the couple in 2002 because it was in its own best financial interest to do so. In 1992 when other Times editors and writers were exposing Sembler as an opportunists who ran a controversial rehab program, Paul Tash, as the Times Washington bureau chief, was meeting Sembler and Bush I firsthand in Australia and writing about the brownies covered in ice Betty had brought back from America for the President. He wrote that "Sembler's performance has quieted some original critics and seems to have won the admiration of many Australians." In 1977 Florida Trend Magazine, which is owned by the Times, called Sembler "kingmaker . . . a self-made millionaire, anti-drug crusader, community benefactor . . . " Andy Barnes was chairman of Trend when that magazine praised Mel Sembler. Paul Tash, who had been the editor of Trend prior to being the Times' Washington bureau chief, was vice president of Times Publishing--the owner of The St. Petetersburg Times and Trend--at the time of the article.

The fact is that ever since Paul Tash took over the helm at the Times, the paper seems hell-bent on rewriting the history of the once controversial couple. The paper won't touch Straight anymore which is now called Drug Free America Foundation. Take Betty's 70th birthday party in 2000 that was covered by the new Times. The Times called her, "the indefatigable wife, mother, activist and philanthropist . . ." Instead of bringing a gift, the article said, donations should be made to the Drug Free America Foundation. [At a minimum the Times could have said, "DFAF (formerly known as the controversial Straight program.)"]. Last month the Times ran a big article describing the gala 50th wedding anniversary planned by the Semblers at his "Magic Kingdom" in Rome. The article noted that Betty calls the Drug Free America Foundation almost every day--again never mentioning where DFAF had come from.

The Tash Times reports on the Semblers and DFAF all the time, but no hint of controversy seems to be allowed. The new federally-funded Straight (DFAF) uses its experience in treating kids for drug addiction to help companies setup drug free work place environments, and to formulate national and international drug policy. And even in its new role there has been controversy. A DFAF sponsored group wrote the Amicus Curie Brief that was used by the US Supreme Court last summer in its decision to allow for suspicionless drug testing of school students in violation of their constitutional rights. Many of the signers like Robert DuPont who is on the DFAF Advisory Board are involved in the drug testing industry, but this conflict of interest went unreported. Florida's governor Jeb Bush is also on the Advisory Board for DFAF, along with his wife Columba, his Lieutenant Governor Toni Jennings and his Drug Czar James R. McDonough, but the Times won't touch that either. In 2000 Miller Newton, Straight's former national clinical director and still a Bay area resident, settled with a client for $4.5 million for abuses she sustained in his second-generation Straight in New Jersey. The Times did not cover the story. A few months ago the DFAF attempted to have an open Internet forum, but former clients started posting about their Straight experiences and the open forum closed in less than 12 hours--perhaps an Internet record--but the Times left it alone. And so it goes. With the exception of a single article in June 2002 (the day of the Sembler protest) that announced the Straight survivors' conference and did tell the horrors of Straight, there has been nothing out of the Tash Times. At this point we believe that article was a fluke; that it had missed the eyes of the business office.