Ms. Heath and many
of her cohorts had been in Straight almost 20 years ago. What possible
ax could they be grinding all these years later that what lead them to
make such a forlorn attempt to get the United Nations involved in an investigation
of an American citizen for such allegedly heinous crimes? And who is this
American dignitary known as the Teflon Ambassador, anyway? In 1976
Mel and Betty Sembler, prominent Republicans and multi-millionaires from
Saint Petersburg, Florida, founded Straight, Inc. to treat teenagers for
drug addiction. For the next 17 years Straight operated the world's biggest
chain of juvenile rehabilitation programs with centers in major metropolitan
areas all over America. Straight made nearly $100 million as a charity,
but there is a dark side to Straight. Straight is one of the most destructive
drug rehabilitation programs the world has ever known. It relied on traditional
Chinese thought reform technologies to strip a child down of his self
esteem before trying to build him up again in the Straight image. Food
and sleep deprivation, making kids sit in their own feces, urine and vomit,
spitting in kids' faces and not allowing them to wipe the spit off, forced
or cajoled sexual confessions open for common discussion, painful restraints--these
are all trademarks of Straight treatment. Many former students have committed
suicide subsequent to their
confinement at Straight. As many as 50,000 kids may have been held captive
at Straight. These are the charges that ISAC wants the UN to look into.
Mel Sembler was able to persuade Bush I to make him the ambassador to
Australia and to make a
TV commercial for Straight out of the oval office. It was Bush II
who made Sembler the US Ambassador to Italy. Last summer protesters gathered
at the Italian Embassy in Washington, DC to protest Sembler's purchase
of the Italian ambassadorship (photo left). Last month Ambassador
Sembler was at Northwestern University, his alma mater, giving a speech,
bragging that he and Betty had founded a successful drug rehabilitation
program! At a time when other Straight officers and directors are sticking
their heads in the sand trying to hide from their prior association with
Straight, Mr. Sembler, the founder, continues to crow. A multimillionaire
and builder of shopping centers, Mr. Sembler, and his wife Betty, are
very high up in national Republican party circles. He was the finance
chairman for the national GOP; she was the finance cochairman for the
President's brother, Jeb Bush, in his successful bid for governor of Florida.
Straight's founder has personally raised tens of millions of dollars for
Straight and some of its officers and directors have been very slippery through the years. Straights have closed under state criminal investigations, yet hardly anyone ever went to jail. There were close calls though. In 1996 Reverend Doctor V. Miller Newton, Straight's former national clinical director, then operating a second-generation Straight in New Jersey called Kids, agreed to repay the federal government $45,000 for 254 counts of insurance fraud in return for not being prosecuted. In Kentucky prosecutors said they would seek jail time for George Ross, Ph.D., Straight's former national education director, for allegations of coercion at his second-generation Straight called Possibilities Unlimited. That trial fell apart after key witnesses failed to show. Helen Peterman, one of Dr. Ross' character witnesses at his trial, has herself been accused of child abuse at Straight. Sarasota County Florida prosecutors were considering criminal indictments against Straight there when Straight voluntarily closed down. [Straight counselor Arthur Nicol, a former judge turned rehab counselor, got seven years for sexually abusing a 15 year-old Straight student and his 14 year-old friend.]
Straight was founded in 1976 on a donated warehouse, 25 plastic chairs, $100,000 in federal grants and a case of Vaseline. In 1977/78 Bob Marshall of Florida's Department of Health (HRS) led a team to investigate allegations of widespread child abuse at Straight. He ultimately reported in January 1978 that out of 30 allegations of abuse, none could be substantiated. He did find some deficiencies at Straight though. Straight was placed on probation, given a temporary license and granted time to work on correcting its deficiencies.
But John H. Dale, Jr., assistant chief of Floridas Bureau of Criminal Justice Planning and Assistance (BOCJPA) disagreed with the HRS report. In 1976 and 1977 Straight had received startup grants of $50,000 each from the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Agency (LEAA). BOCJPA had approved these grants and City of Saint Petersburg administered the money (Saint Petersburg and Pinellas County had even made grants of their own to Straight). Mr. Dale wanted to know why Straight's federally-funded program was already embroiled in controversy. In 1978 he published his findings on Straight in a document called Special On-site Monitoring Report.
Besides substantiating allegations of criminal child abuse, Mr. Dale uncovered other problems with Straight. He found that Straight disguised client fees as donations. A 1978 article in the Saint Petersburg Times reported that Straight asked parents for donations, "but program officials have insisted that payment is not required." The report stated that Jim Hartz (then Straights clinical director) "could only remember one instance in which the fees had been waived." Another finding of the BOCJPA report was that in its first 18 months of operation Straight had enrolled 450 youths but only one had been black! This a violation of federal racial discrimination law. 
And that's not all Mr. Dale uncovered. When Straight received $100,000 in federal grants from LEAA the grant guidelines had clearly stated that the money was to be used for salaries only. But the Dale Report found that Mel Sembler had violated federal conflict of interest regulations because the LEAA money had been placed in a single bank account along with other Straight funds at First Bank of Treasure Island. What's worse, Mel Sembler was on the bank's board of directors! The report further disclosed that Straight officials Richard Batchelor, Helen Petermann and Marlene Hauser had violated federal conflict of interest law because either they or a member of their family was receiving part of the grant money as salary. Now one might tend to forgive Straight for all these violations (except for criminal child abuse) because, after all, Straight was then just a startup charity, except that Jeffrey G. Symons, director of Saint Petersburg's grant program, had reported that Straight had been told previously how to structure its grants account yet had failed to do it. Furthermore John White, Straight's treasurer, was a financial officer for the City of Saint Petersburg! So Straight had to have known that it was ignoring the spirit of the giving of the federal funds. 
There is a part to the story that John Dale was apparently never aware of.
And so what happened to Mel Sembler and to Straight in 1978? Absolutely nothing! Jerry Vancil had been one of the cases under investigation by Bob Marshall in 1978. Jerry Vancil had gotten to the Saint Petersburg Times where he told a story of being gang beaten by several other clients as part of his special treatment. Bob Marshall had publicly announced that if the story could be substantiated, he would turn the matter over to James T. Russell, the states attorney, for a criminal investigation. But then Jerry Vancil disappeared and has never been seen since (as far as we know), dead or alive. Public exposure forced Russell to investigate Straight, but no charges were made. Nothing happened to Mel Sembler and Straight in 1978. Instead HRS came up with a plan for Straight to improve itself. A citizens action committee was formed to investigate Bob Marshall. The committee included Circuit Court Judge Jack Dadswell and also the man destined to become chief of police for Saint Petersburg. Bob Marshall was fired!
Two weeks into Straight's probation on the evening of February 2, 1978, a teenage girl named Gail Stephenson, dressed only in a bathrobe, blue jeans and slippers, knocked on the door to the home of Fisher and Thelma Thomas in Largo Florida and asked to use the phone. While she frantically pleaded with her sister to come get her, Straight students busted into the Thomas home without permission and forcibly carried Ms. Stephenson away. Attorney James F. Beers, representing the Suburban Estates Home Owners Association, announced that within the past few months Largo residents had seen "young teenage girls who were allegedly handcuffed together" enter the Straight foster home together. HRS officials announced that, the Thomas' and other witnesses are prepared to testify if Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney James T. Russell calls for a criminal investigation. But Russell did not investigate. He let the girl remain at Straight for a week. By that time she told HRS personnel that she wanted to stay. (This had happened all the time at The Seed in Pinellas County, and Russell refused to get involved then too.) Once again, Sembler, nor anyone else at Straight, was investigated. Just three months later Florida Congressman C. W. Bill Young received three complaints of abuse at Straight, one of the complaints came from fellow Congressman Robert E. Bauman from Maryland. Congressman Young turned the complaints over to James T. Russell, but once again, Russell used his prosecutorial discretion and did nothing. Now I can describe instances like this over the next 15 years, because that's what happened, and that's what states attorney James T. Russell did-ABSOLUTELY NOTHING--but I'll stop here.
In 1983 James Gardner, states attorney for Sarasota County, Florida, conducted an extensive investigation of Straight-Sarasota. What he uncovered was sickening. Among the allegations were that kids were being made to clean toilets with their bare hands! Mr. Gardner granted immunity to several Straight staff members in return for their testimony. He asked them where they had learned to do the things to kids that they were doing and was told that they had been trained at Straight's flagship facility in Saint Petersburg in neighboring Pinellas County. Assistant states attorney David Levin, Gardner's principal investigator on Straight, has subsequently stated, . . . it was child abuse and torture--was directed by Miller Newton (Straight's national clinical director who operated out of Straight's Saint Petersburg complex).  (Former White House Drug Czar Carlton Turner embraces the inside cover Dr. Newton's book Not MY KID with these words, NOT MY KID should be required reading for any parent concerned about their children's future. Nancy Reagan made a public TV announcement endorsing NOT MY KID here. Dr. Donald Ian Macdonald, Straight's former national medical research director, went on to become another White House Drug Czar.) Straight-Sarasota closed facing possible criminal charges. And the counselors? They went back to Straight-Saint Petersburg in the domain of states attorney James T. Russell--the man who failed to prosecute them in 1978. Also in 1983 a federal jury in Alexandria, Virginia awarded Fred Collins, an honor roll college student at Virginia Tech, $220,000 for being falsely imprisoned at Straight-Saint Petersburg and at Straight-Springfield, Virginia. [Today Fred Collins has a PhD. in Mathematics.] Public exposure of Straight forced Russell to investigate Straight-Saint Petersburg. But he found them clean. He did nothing in 1978 and nothing in 1983. In fact it was James T. Russell who had personally invited The Seed to Pinellas County in the first place. Later his principal assistant states attorney joined the board of directors for Straight!
By 1985 Straight, Inc. was facing another deluge of civil suits for the intentional abuse of the children in its care; and once again James T. Russell chose not to prosecute. Straight was facing so many civil suits that it created a shell corporation to protect program assets and directors from civil judgments. The name was changed to Straight Foundation, Inc. and the mission to one of educating the public on the dangers of teenage drug use. Straight Foundation kept all the money so far collected from revenues and donations, plus it kept all the property. A new entity was then created called Straight, Inc. which was to provide substance abuse treatment to addicted kids. But the new Straight, Inc. had no property in which to treat clients and no money to pay staff salaries. So the shell corporation leased the property back to Straight, Inc. and gave it grants to meet payroll until it once again started paying for itself. The by-laws for the shell corporation were modified to allow foundation money to be used to defend foundation officers and directors should they be sued, and also to allow for the spending of foundation money to pay legal judgments in case any court judgments were made against foundation officers and directors.
If you believe that I've got some swamp land I'd like to sell you in Florida. In 1987 Michael Kenton, then the environmental management director for the city of Clearwater, Florida, passed up a chance to buy Coopers Point, a mangrove swamp in Pinellas County, for use by the city as a park. Instead he approached the Sembler Company and struck up a deal. Together they bought the property for $1 million using $15,000 of Kenton's own money. Kenton was paid a management fee of $50,000 by the Semblers. Two and a half months later the team almost got away with selling the swamp to the city of Clearwater for $2.6 million when the Saint Petersburg Times learned of the deal and had a field day. The plan was quagmired for a few months and ultimately the city did purchase it from Sembler for $1.95 million. Kenton's cut was a cool $150,000. All eyes then turned to states attorney James T. Russell to see what he would do. Russell decided this was not a criminal matter since Kenton had been a state employee. He decided that the state ethics commission handle the matter. There was never any consideration to prosecute anybody at Sembler Company--afterall they weren't city employees. Ultimately Kenton was steeply fined by the state's ethics commission.
In 1993 the FBI investigated Straight for financial fraud (it had plenty of ammunition too) but no indictments were ever issued; no grand jury ever convened. Also in 1993 the Inspector General's Office for Florida's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) issued a report that concluded that in 1989 Mel Sembler and certain state senators probably intervened on Straight's behalf to quash the state's attempt to deny Straight's license due to repeated regulatory violations. Thereafter Dr. Donald C. Sullivan who was the secretary of Straight Foundation ran successfully for state senator and jockeyed himself onto the Senate's Children and Families Committee which oversees Florida's Office of Children and Families (formerly HRS). Dr. Sullivan is currently being considered for the directorship of the state Republican Party.
Amazingly, Jeb Bush,
the President's brother and governor of Florida, along with his wife Columba,
his lieutenant governor, Toni Jennings, his drug czar, James R. McDonough
and James T. "Tim" Moore, Commissioner of the Florida Department
of Law Enforcement, are all on Straight's advisory board under its new
Free America Foundation (DFAF) along with former drug czar Robert
L. DuPont, Jr. who is in partnership with former head of the DEA Peter
Bensinger, Thomas Constantine, another former head of the DEA, and Richard
M. Baker, mayor of Saint Petersburg, [Click here
for a complete list of individuals on Straight's advisory board.] DFAF
no longer treats kids. Instead it is federally funded to give assistance
to businesses to setup a Drug Free Workplace Environment. And DFAF also
serves as a think tank for national and international drug policy where
it continues to make a significant impact. For example, last spring the
US Supreme Court decided to allow for suspicionless drug testing
of kids who are involved in any school activity, including honor societies,
in violation of their fourth amendment right protecting them against unreasonable
searches and seizures. The court's decision was no doubt influenced by
an Amicus Curie Brief signed by scores of national and international figures
who urged the court to take the action it subsequently did. Philadelphia
attorney David Evans of the Legal Foundation Against Illicit Drugs
is the author of that brief. The Oakton Institute has learned that LFAID
was co-founded by Calvina Fay, executive director of DFAF. What's more
Mr. Evans is a member of the Institute on Global Drug Policy--a
DFAF front group.
While Ms. Heath's forlorn hope to get the United Nations to look at Straight was doomed to failure from the start, it does beg some questions. Have large-scale crimes been committed? If they have, what can a concerned citizen do if state and federal officials refuse to act. And if Florida state officials are a part of the problem, then what impact would that have, say on statue of limitations, to take action against the state of Florida? There are plenty of professionals who can attest to the crimes of Straight. Arnold Trebach is just one. Arnold Trebach, Professor Emeritus of Law at American University, has made this statement about the Semblers on the Internet:
Today scores of former clients are coming forward denouncing their imprisonment at Straight as cruel and inhumane. They are saying that Straight crushes and breaks the spirit of boys and girls. But Mel Sembler continues to stand by what he did. On January 15, exactly eight days after ISAC mailed its complaint to the United Nations, Ambassador Sembler was giving a speech at Northwestern University, his alma mater, where he told the assembled students, When Betty and I saw what a social and personal scourge illegal drugs was becoming in America, we decided to do something about that. Thats why we founded and directed for many years a treatment program that rehabilitated over 12,000 young drug abusers. Through these activities, Betty and I became friends with the Bush family . . . And then Ambassador Sembler read to them these lines from a crumpled up poem he carries around with him always: