Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Comments on St. Pete Times "Dirt & the ambassador"


an editorial by Wesley Fager

I once sat in on an unsuccessful intervention with a teenager's mother who was trying to talk her child into leaving SAFE, a second-generation Straight. There was an internationally known cult expert on our team. After hearing our stories of depravation and abuse by Straight I asked this person whether Straight fits his definition of a destructive, mind-control cult. He told me, "Wes, I usually deal with groups like &%&#@ and %^##!?!, groups that people generally recognize to be cults, but groups whose members would deny they are in a cult. If you guys were to tell them what you just told me, they would say, "NOW THAT'S A CULT!" " What he was saying is clear. Not only is Straight a destructive, mind-control cult, but as far as cults go it is among the worse!

Straight was founded in St. Petersburg, Florida by Melvin and Betty Sembler. For 17 years we learned of Straight's violation of civil rights and criminal activities from fine reporting by the St. Petersburg Times, a newspaper then managed by a recognized civil rights reporter named Eugene Patterson. In 1983 former Straight client Fred Collins, Jr., an adult, sued Straight in federal court in Alexandria, Va. for false imprisonment and abuse he had sustained at Straights in St. Petersburg, Fl. and Springfield, Va. Patterson sent his legal writer Milo Geyelin 1,000 miles north to Virginia to cover the celebrated trial. The jury awarded Mr. Collins $220,000 for false imprisonment--$180,000 alone was for punitive damages to send Straight a strong message to stop its outrageous behavior. From Dec. 3, 1982 to Aug. 11, 1983 The Times carried no less than 22 articles which mentioned the Collins' matter.

Eight years later on Nov. 9, 1990 a jury right there in Pinellas County awarded former Straight client Karen Norton $721,000 for abuse and outrageous behavior committed against her--$615,000 of that was for punitive damages. That's a half million more than Fred Collins and right there in The Times' own backyard! Yet, if you check The Times' usually excellent (and free) on-line achieves the only mention you will find of Karen Norton is in a letter to the editor written by Richard Bradbury in 1991. The Tampa Tribune traveled across the bay to cover the story and wrote articles on Nov. 3, Nov. 9 and Nov. 11, 1990. In fairness to The Times The Times did write (at least) two articles on the jury award on Nov. 10 but you have to go to the web page of cult tracker Rick Ross to find those articles. (See Straight Client Wins $721,000 Suit and Drug Treatment Center Loses Case.) It appears that The Times had been shamed into writing two articles on the case because it had been scooped the day before by the Tribune. And The Times has not allowed the articles to be included in its archieves.

What had changed was that Eugene Patterson had been replaced by Paul Tash and Andy Barnes. In 1988 this new duo hired Straight board member Bruce Epstein, MD as The Times' medical opinion columnist. Shamefully, a year and a half after the smoke cleared from the Norton award, on June 1, 1992 Dr. Epstein published a Times' article recommending his readers to use Straight, Inc.!

Straight went out of business in 1994 on the heels of massive lawsuits and state criminal investigations, and the Tash/Barnes Times abandoned the plight of the kids it had so ably defended for 17 years. Sadly, over 50 former clients have committed suicide. Instead of covering the continued fallout from Straight like the suicides and like the $11 million jury awards assessed against Miller Newton, Straight's former national clinical director and long-time resident of Madera Beach, The Times chose instead to work on improving the image of Straight's founder Melvin Sembler. A reporter named Mary Evertz was assigned to cover each and every glitzy social move the Semblers made. And when Mary Evertz herself became part of a Sembler story as when she traveled to Rome along with Times' columnist Bruce Epstein and retired Sixth Circuit Judge David Seth to attend "The mother of all toga parties"--Mel and Betty's 50th wedding anniversary, reporter Mary Jane Park was assigned to write the salutary gossip.

That is why Lenora LaPeter's article Dirt & the diplomat in the Sunday Times (11-12-06) is so amazing. Her "top of the front page" article is about a David standing up to a goliath. It is the story of a law suit brought by Mel and Betty Sembler against former Straight client Ray Bradbury. The suit claims Bradbury invaded their privacy and caused them emotional distress when he tried to sale Mel's discarded penis pump on eBay. The story takes up much of the front page and the entire inside of the back page. And there are many great photos. Essentially the article portrays Bradbury as a hero figure who was badly abused along with thousands of others at Sembler's Straight program who offered up the pump for sale as a publicity stunt to bring attention to the plight of Straight survivors. Mel Sembler refused to be interviewed for the article. La Peter's story uses interviews and deposition statements to give the Sembler side that Bradbury is a lose canon and a dangerous guy who is capable, they feel, of causing physical harm and who has no cause for his actions.

Unfavorable letters to the editor. Last week we reported on the stripped-down, e-version of the article which simply does not do justice to the printed report. The printed version is an excellent report though it could have gotten deeper into the harm Straight has caused to thousands, and into the darker aspects of Sembler's business affairs. Digging deeper would have explained the negative letters to the editor which followed the article. The Times printed seven letters to the editor in response to its article--all but one was negative. Two readers questioned whether the story had been an attempt to smear a prominent Republican by Democrats, and another stated that it was supermarket-style tabloid sensationalism. Sembler's Treasure Island neighbor Mary E. Lowe called Sembler, "This outstanding citizen of Pinellas County has given our community a great deal . . ." Had The Times also written about Sembler's dark business deals perhaps it would have been brought out that in 2003 Treasure Island Mayor Mary Maloof asked her neighbor Mel Sembler if his friends in Washington could help the rich people of Treasure Island build a new bridge out to their man-made Island community. Sembler's sometimes house guest and home-town congressman C.W. "Bill" Young, chairman of the House's Appropriation Committee, got $50 million of federal tax money to build a bridge out to the resort community, $113 million to name a monument in Rome after Sembler, $10 million for a stupid Roman Aids vaccine, and $2 million for Betty's new drug rehab, Operation PAR, which she infiltrated after being forced to give up Straight.

As LaPeter points out the Sembler's trash can is not the only one Bradbury has looked into. In his quest to document the crimes of Straight and to be a watchdog on the emergence of new Straights Bradbury found, for example, that on August 14, 1992 Straight-Orlando closed down. And on that very day Michael Scaletta, Straight-Orlando's executive director, opened Substance Abuse Family Education, Inc. (SAFE) out of the Straight facility. At breakfast the kids were in Straight, by dinner they were in SAFE! Bradbury also found a document that SAFE was using Straight's insurance policy making one wonder whether SAFE is Straight?

I am a former Straight parent. There came a time when our clinical director asked a father to leave a meeting stating he detected alcohol on the man's breath. The father invited him outside. I suspected there was going to be a fight and I was the only father who stepped outside to defend our director. When we had a raffle for an automobile, I sold more tickets than any other parent. I talked at least one family into joining Straight and I setup appointments with PTA's to recruit more families. But like Ray Bradbury when I found out about the abuse, I tried to change Straight from within. For this my wife of 23 years was asked to leave me because I was no longer good for the program. When others sued Straight I would have no part in it. I had been in a cult and even though had been spurned by Straight for speaking out it took me two years to realize I had been setup. By now most of Straights former clients have figured out that they have been abused and their families had been used. Not surprisingly, most parents will never realize it. I was one of Straight's biggest supporters. Today I am one of Straight's biggest antagonists.

Thus I was not surprised to learn that Phyllis Eig of St. Petersburg (who had a child in Straight) wrote that, "The Semblers were not responsible for changes that they did not know about at the time, and to print a story from an individual who wants revenge is appalling. Ambassador Mel and Betty Sembler should be held in high esteem in this community for their sincere and generous contributions for the benefit of all. But Ms. Eig, Sembler did know.

Nor was I surprised about the letter from Diana Jay of St. Petersburg who wrote, "In 2001, with the help of a Sembler family member, my husband and I found one of those programs, SAFE . . . Our youngest child was out of control, flunking out of school and experimenting with all kinds of drugs. SAFE treats not only the child but the whole family. Today our son is a senior at a large out-of-state university, getting excellent grades and planning to go to law school. I thank God every day for SAFE and the Straight program from which it evolved." Ms. Jay's letter is precisely an example of one of our biggest complaints against these Straight-based synanons. Diana Jay has publicly admitted that her son was "experimenting with all kinds of drugs." Diana Jay has defended Mel Sembler, SAFE and Straight and helped them grow at the expense of defaming her own son!

The prey letter. LaPeter discusses a threatening letter sent to Bradbury from Sembler's attorney Lenny Englander telling him he is about to become the prey. And she writes that Englander acknowledges that he and the Semblers thought their "prey" letter would make Bradbury give up. It's incredible that an attorney would tell someone they are to become "prey." Look it up in the dictionary. Prey is something stalked and killed! How long will the Sixth Circuit let such a threat go unpunished?

A blog called PumpGate. Another significance of LaPeter's article is that she notes that there is a blog called PumpGate (the blog you are now reading) that is following the penis pump trial. This is the first time ever, we believe, that the St. Petersburg Times has acknowledged that there is a web presence representing the survivors of Straight.

Here's the real significance of The Times long overdue article. You have the Reader's Digest giving the Sixth Circuit, not one, but two broken gavels for judicial malpractice. You have the whole nation scrutinizing the Sixth Circuit's every move since George Greer pulled the plug on Terri Schiavo. Former TV talk show host / former US ambassador to the UN Economic and Social Council, Alan Keyes, who ran in the 2000 Republican presidential primary against George Bush, has even written a bio on Greer which speaks to Greer's part in Sembler's Cooper's Point land scam. Keyes got the data form our web page. And you have Columbia Law School releasing a study finding that the 6th Circuit leads the nation with an 89% error rate of death sentences.

The St. Petersburg Times and USA Today have reported on attorney Lenny Englander and 6th Circuit Judge Walt Logan's gag order to shut up KaneTM Furniture critic Manny Gonzales and Charlie Crist's role in the matter. The Internet has pointed out the Logan / Englander injunction against Bradbury. Also blogs abound about the Oklahoma judge (who claims his penis pump was given as a gag gift) who masturbated with the device during a murder trial. These blogs often include the story about the ambassador (who claims his discarded penis pump was medically recommended after a bout with cancer) who is suing a man in 6th Circuit to get the pump back.

Mary Evertz, Mel Sembler's former dedicated gossip columnist at the St. Pete Times is now a member of the 6th Circuit's Grievance Committee. There are blogs, radio talk shows and an e-newspaper talking about the 6th Circuit's unfair treatment to defrocked attorney Mark Adams resulting from a matter involving the law firm of Straight's attorney Anthony Battaglia. And there's the Mark Foley scandal coming out of Florida. Why Mel Sembler is still in this thing defies imagination. What more real harm he thinks he can levy on Ray Bradbury, none of us can see.

How much more harm and embarrassment does he intend to bring to his friends, associates and political bosses, and to Pinellas county and the Sixth Circuit? Bradbury won this case the day the Washington Post published its story on Mel Sembler's penis pump. Wonkette picked up on the story after that and the tale spread like wildfire (and continues to grow) on the world-wide web. The Times story finally validates and underscores what The Post already found.

I spoke to Bradbury recently about The Times' article. He told me that from the day the article was published until the day the earth crashes into the sun he will be satisfied knowing that a picture of Gumbo (his dog dying of bone cancer) made it to the front page of The St. Petersburg Times. Last year La Gaceta, the nation's only tri-lingual newspaper, did a piece on PumpGate. Two months ago laRepubblica, the biggest selling newspaper in Italy, did a story on Sembler's destructive Straight program. It's about time The Times stepped up to the plate to try to undo what it has done. Lenora LaPeter did a great job. Just what in the hell do Melvin and Betty hope to gain by letting this case on? Who else has to become a casualty of PumpGate?

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