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.





  1. Really important to bring this to light. There has been some good journalism on this issue but for some reason the Florida papers won’t touch it. This guy buys influence in the Legislature in a serious way.


    1. I find it interesting that every time questionable political contributions come up, both Rick Scott and Charlie Crist have their fingerprints all over the money.


      1. Now if only they could get some of that anonymous out-of-state Progressive Choice money…


  2. Beat Rick Scott · ·

    Love that this piece only gets written with the mention of Charlie Crist. What Charlie did under pressure as a republican shouldn’t ever matter. He’s a democrat now.


    1. This is sarcasm, correct?


    2. Jeebus. I had this argument earlier today. Charlie wasn’t under the spell of the Republican Party, he was its standard bearer! He helped create the GOP mindset that rules the state today. For Pete’s sake, he appointed Jim Greer to chair the party!

      If you want to support him, that’s one thing, but please stop trying to whitewash his reputation and rewrite history.


  3. So what you are saying is that the only candidate for Florida’s Governor that has never been in bed with this guy is Nan Rich.


    1. No pay to play corporations or 1 %ers will contribute to her because she puts the people’s interests ahead of the crooks. If people are sick of the 16 years of Republican special interests they need to send $25 to Nan so she can compete with the big money puppetmasters.


  4. Fla Dem Insider · ·

    If it bashes Crist it will end up here. Kartik, really you are a smart guy and must realize this stuff ultimately hurts democrats.


    1. Crist was one of several Republican elected officials both current and former mentioned in the piece, FWIW.


  5. Get a clue · ·

    This is a really good article but the point about Crist was unnecessary. Extraneous to the article and totally undermines what we are trying to do.


    1. Who is “we?” Also I am not sure how it is extraneous. Crist was a major recipient of donations from Sembler. I am glad he is a Democrat now and welcome him to the party. But simply wiping the slate clean on his transgressions of the past is also a mistake.


  6. Florida Voter · ·


    You miss the point. This is a great article and you do great work. But slipping Crist’s name in an article that was sold to be about Republicans just undermines your credibility. Sembler obviously is a terrible man but how this relates to Crist.


  7. Why does it seem that whenever you mention Crist there arises a chorus of Crist defenders, who’s tone seems to be VERY similar….make you wonder….


  8. It is hard to tell if Crist defenders are Dems. or Repubs. They hide behind alias’ and never explain why they think Crist can be trusted. His contributors and financial people are in jail or should be. Defend him if you can but you can’t deny his trail of undignified supporters.


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