Mel Sembler: The Teflon Ambassador,
a Crack in Bush's Golden Egg?
by Wesley M. Fager
Oakton Institute for Cultic Studies, Oakton, Virginia
February 19, 2003 ©2003
They run very close to really performing psychic murder.
Marge Robertson, executive director of the Cincinnati Chapter of the ACLU, speaking of Straight, Inc., from Cincinnati Post

Melvin Floyd Sembler, AO, George Bush's selection for United States Ambassador to Italy, has done it again. He's slipped right past another charge hurled at him. This time the complaint was lodged by Marti Heath, a citizen of Pinellas County, Florida and others from ISAC (International Survivors Action Committee), an organization formed by former students from the Straight juvenile drug rehabilitation program established by Mr. Sembler in 1976. On January 7, 2003 ISAC filed a formal complaint with the United Nations against Sembler and Straight, Inc. for the high sounding charge of crimes against humanity. What ISAC got back was a form letter dated February 6 from Markus Schmidt, Secretary of the Human Rights Committee. Mr. Schmidt had denied ISAC's request to even look into the matter. Why? Not because the UN had found no preliminary evidences to substantiate an investigation. Not because the forms were not properly filed or even because statues of limitations had run out. No. Mr. Schmidt responded (as you can see here) that the Committee Against Torture cannot examine petitions alleging violations of the Convention Against Torture unless the State has made a declaration under Article 22 recognizing the Committee's competence to receive and consider petitions. He indicated that the USA has not made that declaration. In other words the United States has never agreed to let its citizens be investigated or arrested by international policemen--and rightfully so as it would be abhorrent to allow blue helmeted Gestapo from Syria or Pakistan to knock on our doors and interrogate American citizens.

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.

Nevertheless, 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 the Republicans.

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.[1]

But John H. Dale, Jr., assistant chief of Florida’s 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.

The Ugly American. Mel Sembler's purchase of the Italian ambassadorship in 2001 underscores the sheer vanity and meaningless of American ambassadorial appointments. In 1989 Bush I made a TV commercial for Straight, Inc. and appointed Straight founders Mel Sembler and Joseph Zappala ambassadors to Australia and Spain, respectively, because, as members of Team 100, the two had raised considerable funds for the Republican Party. Officially, the two had been pawned off to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as humanitarians who had founded the Straight treatment program. Joe Zappala was just a high school graduate who spoke no Spanish and had no foreign policy experience. On his Senate application form, under the block for any foreign languages spoken, Mel Sembler had written "English (fluent)." At one place on their Senate application forms Sembler and Zappala used almost identical language, prompting Maryland Senator Paul Sarbanes to remark:

This is an absolute insult to the process. It's incredible. It's the sort of thing where a teacher in school would hand the exam back, or better yet flunk the student. [Source: St. Petersburg Times, October 4, 1989]

Despite his largess, in 1989 Sembler had been shunted off to far away Australia, missing the more glamorous assignments in Paris and Rome. Peter Secchia, a building supply magnate from Michigan, got the Italian job from Bush I in those days. According to People's Magazine [1989] in 1987 at a GOP gathering, Mr. Secchia once told a reporter that he was looking for a "big-titted" woman. Later he boasted, "I'm so proud of my fucking candidate, I could shit." [Sembler simply says, "You pay a little more, you get a little more."] Before he got to Rome, Mr. Secchia said that, "I saw the new Italian Navy. Its boats have glass bottoms so they can see the old Italian Navy."

Perhaps before he purchased the Italian job, Mel Sembler had become as "fluent" in Italian as he is in English; but then what does it matter anyway. It's all a joke. No wonder the French hate us.
In his report Dale disclosed that HRS officials had held back information in their January report and that state officials did indeed have information "corroborating" many allegations of client mistreatment at Straight. When informed by a reporter of the BOCJPA report Melvin Sembler stated, "I don't believe that, I don't think that's factual." The special report confirmed that HRS Secretary William J. "Pete" Page, Jr.'s office had received a telephone call from "one or more" Straight board members. Melvin Sembler himself confirmed to a newspaper reporter that Straight program officials had contacted Page. "For whatever reasons," the special report stated, "the extensive initial report was withdrawn and a considerably briefer report, mostly administrative in nature, was released." Later Bob Marshall confirmed that on January 18, the day before the substantive HRS report was to be released, he had received a call from Page and had spoken with an HRS attorney. It had been decided then to publicly announce a smaller, two page report and announce Straight would get an interim license while it made several program changes. Thus there is data supporting allegations of abuse at Straight right from its inception. Stories of widespread abuse continued to mount for the next 15 years and they became the basis for the recent charges that Ms. Heath and others tried to present to the UN's Committee Against Torture since the state of Florida and the United States government have consistently refused to show any interest in investigating these very serious charges. 

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 Straight’s clinical director) "could only remember one instance in which the fees had been waived."[2] 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. [3]

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. [3]

There is a part to the story that John Dale was apparently never aware of.

In 1974 the US Senate had conducted a study of Straight's predecessor program, The Seed, and had concluded that The Seed used methods similar to the "brainwashing" methods employed by North Koreans against American servicemen during the Korean War. And since The Seed was being funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, under NIH, which was then directed by Dr. Robert L. DuPont, Jr., the White House's second Drug Czar, Senator Sam Ervin, the chairman of the Senate investigating committee, directed Dr. DuPont and NIDA to require The Seed to issue NIDA human consent forms to Seed participants and to their parents acknowledging that they were participating in human experimentation as required by NIDA's own regulations. It was because of this stipulation, in large part, that Seed expansion programs like the one in Saint Petersburg shut down in the first place. Mel and Betty Sembler had a son in that Seed. When it closed Mel, Betty and some other Seed parents formed their own Seed which they called Straight. A half dozen directors left the new Seed in the first 18 months, one of them publicly comparing Straight to The Seed had inferred that Straight was worse than The Seed!

But NIDA was not the only federal department to have funded The Seed. The Law Enforcement Assistance Agency had also made grants. Senator Ervin informed LEAA that it had neither a charter nor the expertise to fund medical experimentation programs. He strongly suggested that LEAA stop it. Shortly after, the director of LEAA held a press conference and announced that LEAA would no longer fund treatment programs. When Senator Ervin died, Straight went to LEAA, not NIDA with its human consent forms, for federal funds. Robert DuPont left NIDA and became a paid consultant for Straight, testifying in one civil trial against Straight that it was he who first recommended to Straight that it go national!

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.[4] 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.[5] (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.[6] 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). [7] (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 name Drug 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.

The Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1998 authorizes the U. S. Small Business Administration to hand out grants to "qualified intermediaries" that can provide technical and financial assistance to small companies in setting up Drug-Free Workplaces by providing for drug testing, employee assistant programs (EAPs) and such. DFAF (Straight) got one of those SBA grants for $314,539. And while DFAF is not involved directly in drug testing, National Drug and Alcohol Testing, Inc., DFAF's partner in Saint Petersburg, is. NDAT got $234,000 from the SBA. DFAF's executive director Calvina Fay used to operate a drug testing company herself before becoming the director of Drug Free Business Houston which was sponsored by a drug testing company. DFBH got $170,000 from SBA. Robert DuPont, the former White House Drug Czar and founding director of NIDA before becoming a Straight consultant, is a partner with Bensinger and DuPont. Bensinger and DuPont are involved in EAPs and drug testing. DuPont was another signer of the brief. And while many of these signers may truly believe that it is in a child's best interest to suspend his civil liberties, they, or their cohorts, are also in a position to make money from the court's decision to require suspicionless drug testing. To learn more about the new Straight's role in drug policy click here.

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:

As a proud American, I find Melvin Sembler, our ambassador to Italy, and his wife, Betty, to be profound embarrassments. It is important that their advice on the drug war and especially on drug treatment be ignored. Indeed, it might be best if Italians listened to what this powerful couple had to say about drugs - and then followed policies in precisely the opposite direction.

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. That’s 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:

I often wonder what it is that brings one man success in life and . . . failure to his brother. . . some men succeed because they cheerfully pay the price . . .and others are unwilling . . . That’s why so many . . . remain on the beaten paths that are for broken men.

  1. Saint Petersburg Times, 1-20-78, p. B1]
  2. Saint Petersburg Times, May 7, 1978, p. 3b.
  3. Saint Petersburg Times, March 3, 1978, p. 3a; March 19, p. 23; March 24, p 3b; May 7, 1978, p. 3b.
  4. Saint Petersburg Times, 12/4/77, p. 2B
  5. Saint Petersburg Times, Feb. 3, 1978.
  6. Saint Petersburg Times, 4/30/78, p. 15B
  7. St. Petersburg Times, 9-19-83, p. b1. West 57th Street 1-21-89, "Kids of America: Caring and Concern."