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May 14, 2004

Mel Sembler: Corporate Welfare Daddy

Yesterday, the Tampa City Council signed a check for another big mortgage payment for strip mall developer and Corporate Welfare Daddy Mel Sembler’s generic failure of a mall known as Centro Ybor.

The Dick who was our last Mayor made a sweetheart deal with Sembler. The city spent millions to build parking garages and promised to route the $56 million Marriott Tourist Trolley right past the doors of Centro. But that was just the start. Dick also had the city guarantee Centro’s mortgage. At the time, of course, Dick smiled and pretty much said that no way would we ever have to pay a dime of this guarantee because his buddy Mel was absolutely sure to make sizable profits every year as Centro brought the great unimaginative washed white masses surging back to Ybor, a rushing current of disposable income!

Unfortunately, the masses chose to steer their own course, and their money has been flowing to Baywalk in St. Pete (another Sembler joint) and the Channel District in Tampa. Centro Ybor is a massive failure, and Tampa is now on the hook for over $16 million in guaranteed mortgage payments as well as the maintenance and upkeep of a few mostly empty parking garages.

In January, the city decided to steal from the poor to make February’s mortgage payment:

The February payment, about $300,000, will come from Community Development Block Grant funds, city officials said. But after that, no one knows for sure where they're going to come up with the money. ......

The city is scrambling to come up with money because Centro Ybor, the shopping complex that was supposed to drive the revitalization of Ybor City, defaulted on its loans and sought a bailout.

To make the project happen, the city had pledged tax funds to cover a $9-million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. If developers couldn't make the payments, the city promised it would. It pledged dollars intended for low-income housing and community development.

Over the next 14 years, the total price tag, with interest, will be more than $16-million.

Yesterday, the city stole the money from funds designated for infrastructure improvements, and they’re looking for more accounts to raid:

The city council approved taking $455,755 reserved for improvements in Ybor City to make an August bail-out payment for the struggling Centro Ybor entertainment complex. ......

City officials learned in January that a 1998 agreement to help build the $53 million Centro Ybor complex had left the city on the hook for $16 million when the developers couldn't continue making loan payments.

The city, under former Mayor Dick Greco's administration, agreed to guarantee a $9 million loan for developers. Under the agreement, the city would take over payments after five years if the complex struggled.

Including the interest, the city now must make payments twice a year of about $400,000, with a $5.6 million balloon payment due in 2018.

In January, $300,000 in federal grant money intended for housing programs and improvements in low-income neighborhoods was used to pay the city's first installment. The city council then urged the administration to come up with other sources for future payments so poor neighborhoods wouldn't shoulder all of the burden.

The council said Thursday that it doesn't like Iorio's alternative any better.

Council members questioned the legality of using tax increment finance money dedicated for Ybor City to pay a city debt because it is set up specifically for infrastructure improvements.

Sam Hamilton, an assistant city attorney, said there is a loophole in Ybor's community redevelopment plan that makes it legal.

When Ybor's redevelopment district was created, the historic Centro Espanol building was identified as a potential redevelopment project. Because that building is part of Centro Ybor and was renovated by the complex's developers, the tax money can be used, Hamilton said.

``Just because it is legal doesn't mean it's right,'' Councilman Kevin White said.

CRAs are designed to improve infrastructure by capping property taxes that go into city and county general revenue. As property values increase, the extra tax revenue is reserved for the district.

Actually, CRAs are designed to improve the bottom line for the rich developers who tend to benefit from them, uh kinda like what is happening here.

Speaking of rich developers, just who is this Mel Sembler, and why are we giving him so much money. First, the second question. Mel is a friend of Dick. Friends of Dick did very well during Dick’s tenure as Mayor.

Now, on to the burning question: who is Mel Sembler?

Mel is the founder of Straight, which offers cultish, much aligned drug treatment programs for children (whose parents can afford it) and has received hundreds of millions of dollars in government money since its founding.

How bad is Straight? Even conservative Fox News has some problems with its methods:

Samantha Monroe was 12 years old in 1981 when her parents enrolled her in the Sarasota, Fla., branch of Straight Inc., an aggressive drub rehab center for teens.

Barely a teen, Samantha also had no history of drug abuse. But she spent the next two years of her life surviving Straight.

She was beaten, starved and denied toilet privileges for days on end. She describes her "humble pants," a punishment that forced her to wear the same pants for six weeks at a time. Because she was allowed just one shower a week, the pants often filled with feces, urine and menstrual blood. Often she was confined to her closet for days. She gnawed through her jaw during those "timeout" sessions, hoping she'd bleed to death.

She says that after she was raped by a male counselor, "the wonderful state of Florida paid for and forced me to have an abortion."

There are hundreds of Straight stories like Samantha's. Wes Fager enrolled his son in a Springfield, Va., chapter of Straight on the advice of a high school guidance counselor. Fager didn't see his son again until three months later — after he'd escaped and developed severe mental illness.

Since then, Fager's set out to clear the air on Straight. He has accumulated stories like Samantha's and his son's on a clearinghouse Web site. They are stories of suicides and attempted suicides, rapes, forced abortions, molestations, physical abuse, lawsuits, court testimonies, and extensive documentation of profound psychological abuse at Straight chapters all over the country.

Yet, the Straight model of drug treatment is thriving, with the trend toward "boot camp" style rehab centers growing more and more en vogue and Straight's founders, high-powered Republican boosters Mel and Betty Sembler, wielding enormous influence over U.S. drug policy.

Mel Sembler is currently serving as President Bush's ambassador to Italy, and the Semblers serve on the boards of almost every major domestic anti-drug program. They are longtime close associates of the Bush family, and are behind efforts to defeat medicinal marijuana initiatives all over the country. Despite the horrors that have surfaced about Straight's history, they are proud and unrepentant about the program.

With more and more U.S. states turning to mandatory treatment instead of incarceration for minor drug offenses — with Mel and Betty Sembler continuing to flex political muscle in the power corridors of the drug war — the story of Straight is one worth hearing.

Straight was spun off of a rehab program called The Seed based on the "synanon" method of treatment. Established in 1972, the program lost its funding after a congressional investigation turned up evidence of brainwashing and cult-like mind control tactics. But a Florida congressman named Bill Young persisted. He found advocates in the Semblers and persuaded them to start a similar rehab center in St. Petersburg, which they called "Straight Incorporated."

Despite allegations of abuse from escaped members and pending lawsuits, over the next 15 years Straight won laudatory praise in Republican circles. Luminaries from Nancy Reagan to Princess Diana visited Straight branches and touted their successes (though by most estimates only about 25 percent of Straight "clients" ever completed the program).

But Straight's tactics soon caught up to it in the courts. A college student won a false imprisonment claim of $220,000 in 1983, and another claim cost Straight $721,000 in 1990. A Straight spin-off called Kids of North Jersey lost a $4.5 million claim in 2000. Straight chapters across the country began to shut down, culminating with the last branch in Atlanta closing in 1993.

But the Straight philosophy was far from finished. Many chapters and directors reopened new clinics that employed the same tactics under different names — such as KIDS, Growing Together and SAFE. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush visited and praised SAFE, despite the fact that a Miami television station reported widespread Straight-like abuse at the facility in a 2000 expose.

Amidst mounting lawsuit losses and bad publicity throughout the 1990's, the umbrella organization Straight Inc. changed its name in 1996 to the Drug Free America Foundation. DFAF thrives today — receiving $400,000 in federal subsidies in 2000 and $320,000 from the Small Business Administration.

"It amazes me that despite the pattern of complaints and abuse allegations, Straight chapters can simply change their names and continue to operate," says Rick Ross, a cult expert and intervention specialist. Ross says there's an unfortunate market for "rehab" centers that take burdensome children off the hands of troubled parents.

Most troubling, however, is the considerable and continuing political clout of Straight Inc.'s founders. Former President Bush once shot a television commercial for DFAF, and designated the Semblers' program as one of his "thousand points of light."

Long a presence in Florida Republican circles, Mel Sembler was tapped as ambassador to Australia in 1989. Today he serves the younger Bush as ambassador to Italy, and he served on the board of the 2000 Republican National Convention.

Betty Sembler co-chaired Jeb Bush's campaign committee. In return, the governor declared Aug. 8, 2000, "Betty Sembler Day" in Florida — due, he said, to her work "protecting children from the dangers of drugs."

She also serves on the board of DARE, the largely failed anti-drug program for elementary school students.

DFAF also worked with then-governor Bush on anti-drug programs in Texas, and today claims to have his ear on national drug policy as well. Indeed, Arizona prosecutor and Sembler favorite Rick Romley was on Bush's short list for drug czar. Though Romley wasn't nominated, Bush did tap staunch drug warrior John Walters. The nomination caused Betty Sembler to remark, ".... we have lacked the leadership and support of the White House ... until now."

"It's really shocking that the Semblers are still lauded and honored after all that's come out about their organization," says cult expert Ross, a self-described Republican.

Last year, a reporter from the Canadian e-zine Cannabis News asked Betty Sembler in person about the horror stories he'd read from Straight survivors. "They should get a life," Sembler replied. "I am proud of everything we have done. There's nothing to apologize for. The legalizers are the ones who should be apologizing."

That's the attitude of the drug war's power duo, who can be unrepentant about the lives their program destroyed because they believe a win-at-all-costs approach is the only way to remove the scourge of drugs from society. Shattered lives, suicides, forced abortions, fractured psyches — all necessary casualties of the drug war, and nothing to apologize for.

I read that article 3 times hoping to edit it down, but there’s just too much good stuff in it. Now, besides being the King of Anti-Drug Crusading Corporate Welfare Daddies, Mel also has a knack for slapping up ugly strip malls, specializing in providing retail space for Eckerd’s.

And Sembler has his hands in other developments all over the Bay Area. A quick google search turns up tons of references that tie Sembler to project after project around here. It seems that even if Centro Ybor is failing due to competition from other shopping districts (like the Sembler developed Bay Walk) that Mel is making his money. And rest assured: odds are good that many of Mel’s other projects benefit from corporate welfare in the form of tax breaks or incentives or other government subsidies. Mel has gotten rich off the backs of the taxpayers.

Which brings us back the the point of this post: Mel Sembler is an unapologetic right wing crusader who has ruined countless lives and continues to lure unsuspecting victims into his web of government subsidized treatment programs cults. He has more money than god, yet he sits back and allows hundreds of thousands of dollars (so far, but we’re still counting) to be stolen from poor people who actually need the money so that one of his many shopping malls can keep its mismanaged doors open.

Actually, I have no idea if Sembler still has any stake in Centro Ybor, but I have no problem using him as the poster daddy for shiftless, lazy, greedy corporate welfare cheats who get paid by the government to give birth to butt-ugly strip malls and other generic piles of bricks.

If Corporate Welfare Daddy Supreme Mel Sembler had an ounce of compassion, if he cared one iota about the community as a whole, he would let the city of the hook and take his losses in Centro Ybor just like an average investor who made a bad choice would have to.

That’s not likely to happen, of course, since Mel knew going in that his “investment” was safe, guaranteed by the FDWC (Friends of Dick Welfare Corporation, aka Tampa). People like him, folks who claim to be conservatives, yet get fat off of questionable government subsidies and then get rewarded for their thefts with cushy government jobs, have usually brainwashed themselves into truly believing that they are somehow deserving of this public largesse.

I say we stop payments to Centro Ybor. Let it default on its mortgage, and let the bank have the damn place. Nobody around here likes it enough to visit anyway.

Posted by Norwood at May 14, 2004 10:57 AM