The controversial past of big GOP donor Mel Sembler
Last week, Governor Rick Scott held a fundraiser at the home of Pinellas County based developer Mel Sembler. Over the course of the past two decades Sembler, his family and his companies have donated over a $1,000,000 to the coffers of various Florida Republicans or the RPOF. Sembler has long been one of the go-to donors for Republicans in Florida and has been twice rewarded by GOP Presidents with Ambassadorships. On occasion it should be noted that Sembler has also donated to Democrats. These have generally been Democratic candidates running in the Tampa Bay area for State House or State Senate. In many ways he and his family have long been seen as leading citizens of Pinellas County and St Petersburg. No doubt Sembler has earned this distinction, though one major aspect of his past is controversial.
Last week Mother Jones Magazine reminded us of another, less savory side of Sembler’s background - one which is often forgotten but leaves a sour taste in the mouth and a queasy stomach. (Warning: many of the links to stories from the 1980s and 1990s contain disturbing narratives.)
In 1976, Sembler founded Straight Inc. which were drug treatment centers that developed a negative reputation in some outlets for its tactics and also lost a six figure lawsuit which alleged illegal detention of kids at the centers.
In 1990, the Los Angeles Times reported multiple cases of abuse forced California authorities to close a Straight Inc. clinic in southern California. This came less than a year after authorities in Texas had found abuses including patients being tied with rope to prevent freedom of movement and overcrowded bedrooms furnished with special containers for urination.
Being an anti-drug crusader put Sembler on a fast track to stardom in the Republican Party. While political donations make a big difference, Sembler’s treatment centers got him special recognition from the Reagan and (elder) Bush Administrations, culminating in becoming an Ambassador and being named one of the President’s “Thousand Points of Light.” In fact, Sembler’s political emergence coincided nicely timeline wise with the “War on Drugs” that was a major talking point of the 1980s and 1990s politically.
Sembler’s own biography on his company website indicates an embrace of the Straight Inc. legacy.
Although best known as a leading shopping center developer, Sembler is also renowned for his activism in the anti-drug movement. In 1976, Sembler and his wife Betty founded STRAIGHT, an adolescent drug treatment program. During its 17 years of existence, STRAIGHT successfully graduated more than 12,000 young people nationwide from its remarkable program. He is nationally recognized as an activist in the anti-drug campaign and as a staunch, long-time supporter of the Republican Party and its candidates.
Through the years Sembler has continued to emerge as a leading fundraising in Republican Party circles. He became the RNC Finance Chairperson following Bob Dole’s Presidential Election defeat in 1996. Sembler”s relationship to the Bush family, including Jeb Bush who had been defeated for Governor of Florida in 1994 and was running again in 1998. George W. Bush’s run for President in 2000 was backed by Sembler and he was rewarded handsomely.
In 2001, President Bush appointed Sembler as the US Ambassador to Italy. This plum appointment resulted in a building being named after Sembler in Italy, something that to that point had never happened in the annals of US Diplomatic History. The biggest reason the building was named was thanks to Sembler’s own Congressman Bill Young who was at the time Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. While nothing is technically wrong with doing this, it certainly raised eyebrows at the time.
The Republican Party of Florida, Governor’s Charlie Crist and Rick Scott as well as countless Republican legislative candidates have been the biggest beneficiaries of Sembler’s campaign cash since he returned to Florida from Rome in 2005. His extensive list of donations as well as that of other family members to state candidates can be easily accessed via the Division of Elections website.
He has also been active in anti-drug efforts including helping to pour money into Colorado in opposition to the 2012 marijuana ballot initiative in the state. Using Straight Inc. as a reference point, Sembler has helped make anti-drug crusading again a political issue.
What conclusion people come to about Sembler or Straight Inc. is up to each individual. However, we felt it was necessary to share some of the reporting going on outside Florida on this matter.