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Joe Lieberman is running with a bad crowd

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Joe Lieberman is running with a bad crowd. Last Wednesday, Republican fund raising superstar Mel Sembler raised a couple hundred thousand dollars for Lieberman’s senate campaign at a fundraiser in St. Petersburg, Florida. Last February, Republican lobbyists Craig Fuller and H.P. Goldfield held a fundraising dinner for Lieberman in Washington, DC. On Monday, George W. Bush visited Connecticut for an elite Republican fundraiser which the Republican nominee Allan Schlesinger did not attend.

It’s a sad but typical case of Pseudo-bipartisan Abuse Syndrome–a form of psychic rot that might have been prevented if only we had recognized the warning signs. 

To their credit, Democrats tried to stage an intervention for Joe in the form of a Lamont primary challenge, but by then, the senator was simply too far gone. 

Last week, I introduced you to Mel Sembler the founder of Straight, Inc., a notoriously abusive chain of drug treatment facilities that subjected teens to brainwashing techniques modeled on those employed by Chinese and North Korean interrogators to break political dissidents. The Straight program claims to have "graduated" 12,000 teens, but only a fraction of the kids enrolled in the program ever graduated. Sembler’s treatment centers may have brutalized as may as 50,000 American children before the program got sued out of existence in 1993. Here’s a list of the numerous civil and criminal cases filed against Straight so far.

 The question everyone asks is why Sembler’s sordid past hasn’t caught up with him. Far from hiding his association with Straight, he’s still boasting about his connection to the program on his corporate website.

The short answer is that Joe’s new friend Mel is one of the most well-connected Republican operatives in America. His ties to the administration go back to the Reagan era. Nancy Reagan herself endorsed Sembler’s drug treatment program.

Sembler was a top fundraiser for George H.W. Bush and was eventually rewarded with an Ambassadorship to Australia.

Sembler served as the Finance Chairman for the Republican National Committee from 1997 to 2000. In 1998 Sembler and his wife went to Israel with George and Laura Bush. Sembler has close personal ties to both George W. and Jeb Bush. Sembler’s wife Betty was a fundraiser for Jeb’s gubernatorial campaign. As a gesture of gratitude, Jeb declared August 8, 2000 "Betty Sembler Day" in Florida, ostensibly for her anti-drug work.

In 2000, as a reward for his fundraising exploits, G.W. Bush gave Sembler an even more prestigious diplomatic appointment, Ambassador to Italy. While he was there, he managed to get his longtime crony Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young (R-FL) to introduce legislation to name a multimillion dollar building after Sembler and the conference room after Young:

"I spoke to President Bush just a few days ago," Young said, "and told him that I was coming here to be with you and what we were going to do today."

Bush thought this unusual. "And he said," Young recalled, " ‘We don’t do that, do we? We don’t name buildings for ambassadors where they have served.’ And I said, ‘Mr. President, I introduced the bill and you signed it.’ " (Don’t blame Bush for not noticing one line tucked into the omnibus appropriations bill.) Young and Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) flew to Rome for the ribbon-cutting.


Bill Young is an interesting case in his own right. He was a Straight champion from the early days. He’s now the most senior representative in Congress. He was chairman of the House Appropriation committee while Duke Cunningham was taking millions in bribes from defense contractors. Young later said that Cunningham always struck him as a real straight arrow.

Perhaps most alarmingly, Mel and Betty Sembler continue to be major players in American drug policy. Several former Straight Board members have gone on to high-level positions at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and a few have even become drug czars.

After Straight closed in 1993, the organization reinvented itself as the Drug Free America Foundation. The DFAF continues to receive millions of dollars in federal funding and to wield major influence over US drug policy at home and abroad.

It says a lot about this country that one of the most notorious (and unrepentant) child abusers in our history considered a leading authority on treating drug abuse.

It says a lot about Joe Lieberman that he’s the first "Democrat" ever to benefit from Sembler’s fundraising mojo. 

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Lindsay Beyerstein

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