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Mitt Romney's Big Drug Problem

What drug policy would Romney issue from the Oval Office? He's not saying. But his financial ties to the owners of teen rehabs infamous for abuse speak volumes of trouble.

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Romney, Sembler and Adelson photo via

With the future of America’s response to drug use and addiction at stake in this presidential election, many are wondering how a Mitt Romney administration would take up the mantle of the War on Drugs. Beyond his opposition to medical marijuana and his occasional hawkishness on foreign drug-war interventions, the candidate himself has, characteristically, kept his positions strategically nonspecific. This week's Republican National Convention in Tampa, at which the Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan ticket will be officially ratified, is unlikely to clarify the matter, as it is being scripted entirely around the goal of portraying a kinder, gentler Romney, a common man devoted to family, faith and country. Drugs are assuredly not part of that picture. However, the records of those around him speak loudly.

Taking a page from Nancy Reagan, who penned the "Just Say No" campaign, Ann Romney has said that as first lady, her pet issue (Michelle Obama has obesity) would be to work with “at risk” teens, code for drug-using teens. (The wife of Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, Janna, has a different potential drug problem: she was a lobbyist for PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry's trade group.)

This is not surprising, given that Romney has a long history of being involved with in “rehab” schools for teens—not just any institutions, but “tough love” ones with disturbing reputations for abuse. And not just one or two tangential connections, either: Mitt Romney’s entanglements with verifiably abusive schools for troubled teens are anything but tenuous.

As The Fix reported in April, Romney still makes money off of them. In 2006, after Romney’s tenure as CEO, Bain Capital bought CRC Health, which owns Aspen Education Group, a large chain that includes boarding schools for “troubled teens” that use “behavior modification” techniques. Although Romney left Bain before they bought CRC Health, he still shares in Bain’s profits.

Moreover, of the three Bain managing partners that sit on the CRC board, two gave the Romney super PAC, Restoring our Future, a half million dollars, on top of the maximum $2,500 dollars they each gave directly to the Romney campaign.

As a recent Salon investigation revealed, Aspen Education has an impressive rap sheet of wrongful deaths and abuse at its institutions. Children have died of neglect under their care as the pressure that Bain exerts on the company to make a profit filters down to their patients. Among the most serious abusers is Mount Bachelor Academy in Oregon, where staff members forced residents to wear provocative clothing and do lap dances. At a clinic called Turn-About Ranch in Utah, a girl was duct-taped to a chair after filing a complaint about the sexual abuse she had suffered at the hands of CRC staff. In addition, the quest for larger profit margins routinely leads to people being kept in these institutions longer than is therapeutic so that the institution can reap the revenue.

Bain Capital's Aspen Education has an impressive rap sheet of wrongful deaths and abuse at its rehabs.

Mitt Romney has even closer—and more explosive—ties to other abusive rehabs. One of the chief fundraisers for his 2008 presidential campaign, Robert Lichfield, who raised $300,000 at one Romney fundraiser, was the founder and a board member of the World Wide Association for Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS). This network of 20 schools nationwide and in Costa Rica, Jamaica, Mexico, Samoa and the Czech Republic has faced charges of fraud and other crimes in several states and numerous federal civil suits alleging child abuse, including one by 350 former students. Many have been raided by officials and closed. Staff routinely locked teens in dog cages, sexually and physically abused them, starved them, and emotionally brutalized them.

Like Romney, Lichfield is a Mormon, and some ex-students have reported being sent to the schools by their parents after questioning or rejecting Mormonism in order to be “re-educated” in Mormonism—to the exclusion of other (or no) religions. The WWASPS scandal got so hot that the Romney camp had to break its lucrative ties to Lichfield when the indicted Utah millionaire “resigned” as one of six co-chairmen of Romney’s Utah finance committee.

But the real icon of drug policy in Romney’s campaign, deeply involved to this day, is Melvin Sembler, a Florida strip-mall magnate who was a national fundraising chair for Romney in 2008 and is again a Florida State Co-Chair for Romney’s finance committee. Sembler, whose office is across Tampa Bay from where the Republican National Convention is taking place, held the first GOP fundraiser for Paul Ryan after Romney tapped him as his VP. (Florida, of course, is one of three crucial swing states in presidential elections.)

He gained the post as a reward for his financial loyalty to George W. Bush. But Sembler has raised money for and, in turn, won favors from Republican Party leaders going for decades. He served on President Reagan's White House Conference for a Drug-Free America. More recently, he was a drug-policy advisor to both President Bush and Bob Martinez, Florida's former governor, according to a 2005 in-depth investigation by John Gorenfeld on Alternet.com.

Sembler is militant in his support not only of the drug war but of foreign wars in general, cofounding, along with Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino owner and Romney backer to the tune of $100 million, “Freedom’s Watch,” a group that spent millions to advocate intensifying the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both Sembler and Adelson accompanied Romney on his July trip to Israel. Adelson's extravagant bankrolling of Romney's campaign will be rewarded at the Convention with the naming of its "Woman Up!" pavilion after his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, who runs the Adelson Clinic, which treats patients with opiate addiction, specializing—curiously enough—in teens on oxy, in Las Vegas and Tel Aviv. (The Fix found no record of charges of abuse at the Adelson Clinic.)

But Mel Sembler’s name is most likely to strike fear into the hearts of anyone involved in teen drug rehabs. Sembler and his wife, Betty, founded a chain of such institutions under the name Straight, Inc., which at its peak in the ‘80s had 12 clinics in nine states and a track record of extreme abuse. Straight’s “rehabilitation” approach was adopted from an earlier program called The Seed, which was suspended by the US Senate for practices similar to Communist POW camps. As in the Scientology’s Narconon rehabs, Straight developed the cultlike feature of turning former students into counselors who embraced and enforced the institution’s brutal regime.

A student at Straight, Inc.—one of Bush's "thousand points of light"—was beaten, raped and locked in a janitor’s closet.

In one of many stories from Straight that have been exposed, a teenage girl testified to being compelled into the program after being caught with an airline bottle of liquor given to her by a friend, and then beaten, raped, locked in a janitor’s closet in pants soiled by urine, feces, and menstrual blood, forced into a false and bizarre confession to being a “druggie whore” who went down on truckers for a fix. Monroe’s story is extreme but in no way unique. Similar accounts from Straight survivors have been collected en masse online at TheStraights.com.

In one Pennsylvania death row case of a homophobic hate-murder, evidence of the perpetrator’s abuse at the hands of Straight counselors—which included beating boys while calling them “faggots” and spitting on them—was an admissible mitigating factor.

“My best guess is that at least half of the kids were abused,” Dr. Arnold Trebach, a professor emeritus at American University and founder of the Drug Policy Foundation (now the Drug Policy Alliance), which supports ending the drug war, told Gorenfeld.

Given these harsh practices, Straight’s clinics were under the scrutiny of state licensing boards. However, at the time, Sembler’s political star was rising after he raised millions for the campaign of George H. W. Bush, who named Sembler’s Straight, Inc. one of his “thousand points of light” and rewarded his supporter with the ambassadorship to Italy. So, in 1989, when Florida Health Inspectors were inspecting a Straight facility, “the team received a phone call informing them that no matter what they found, Straight would receive their license,” recalled then-Acting Inspector General for the Florida Department of Health and Human Services Lowell Gary. Another inspector recalled a phone call in which he was told, “If you do anything other than what I tell you on this issue, I will fire you on the spot.” Clary suggested, “The pressure may have been generated by Ambassador Sembler and other state senators.”

A barrage of lawsuits and settlements ended up crushing Straight, Inc. in 1993, but Mel Sembler and his wife were untouched by the consequences. Many of those lawsuits were filed against Miller Newton, a figure emblematic of the Straight story. Newton, who held a PhD in public administration from an unaccredited institution, was chosen by the Semblers to be their national clinical director. He has had to pay out over $12 million in damages to his victims, who he has thrown against walls, held against their will, kidnapped, restrained in leg irons, forced into servitude, and otherwise abused. He started his own Straight spin-off named KIDS, but now calls himself “Friar Cassain,” a priest in a non-Catholic Antiochian Church. In a court case against Straight in 2005, Betty Sembler testified that Newton was “a very close and dear friend” and “absolutely not” responsible for “outrageous acts.” Other Straight spin-offs have included SAFE and Growing Together in Florida and Kids Helping Kids in Ohio.

In 1993, all the Straight clinics closed; its organizational structure became the Drug Free America Foundation (DFAF), which is still chaired by Betty Sembler. Newton continues to be involved with the DFAF. The DFAF main mission is to campaign against the decriminalization of any drug; against, in Betty Sempler’s words, “medical excuse marijuana”; and against harm-reduction policies, which DFAF says “emerged from a radical group of physicians trying to soften the public’s perception about drug use.” DFAF has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual grants from the Small Business Association to promote drug testing in the workplace.

DFAF has demanded that Showtime pull its hit show Weeds, attacked needle-exchange programs, blamed “chronic pot use” for Jared Laughner’s 2011 shooting of Gabriel Giffords in Arizona, and so on. The Bush family continues to shower the Semblers with accolades; Jeb Bush declared August 8, 2000, “Betty Sembler day” in Florida.

Such are the attitude and interests of some of Romney’s closest advisors on drug policy. These are people—including the candidate himself—who make money off of an absolutist notion of drug policy, and associate themselves with sadistic methods to beat the demons of drug use out of our nation’s youth. So when Ann Romney says, “At risk youth have been a concern of mine and a love of mine for many years,” what dark polices may lurk under her words? Vote Romney 2012 to find out.

Jed Bickman is a frequent contributor to The Fix. He also writes for The Nation, CounterPunch and other websites and magazines. Maia Szalavitz is a columnist at The Fix. She is also a health reporter at Time magazine online, and co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered (Morrow, 2010). She broke the story of abuse of teens at rehabs nationwide in her book, Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006).

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