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Italian Article on Mel Sembler (Founder of Straights, Inc.)

Diplomatic immunity
Doubts about the past of Mel Sembler, the chief US diplomat in Rome

Before the tragic epilogue of the kidnapping of Giuliana Sgrena brought his name into press reports for his efforts at mediation between Rome and Washington, Mel Sembler, US Ambassador to Italy, was virtually unknown in America. But among the few who already knew him, many have been seeking to put him and his wife, Betty, behind bars for years. For seventeen years, the couple founded and ran “Straight, Inc.” a network of group homes for drug addicts, whose severe methods have led to numerous legal and civil suits on the part of ex-patients.

Having grown wealthy as a builder of shopping centers, the seventy-five year old ex-ambassador to Australia and Nauru was a major fundraiser for the Republican Party. While his wife took an important role in the Florida gubernatorial campaigns for the president’s brother, Jeb Bush, Sembler brought tens of millions of dollars of contributions into the two electoral campaigns of George W. His efforts were awarded in 2001 with the nomination to become ambassador to Italy.

In his official biography, the ambassador’s long experience with “Straight, Inc.” is described as a great success story. “During its 17 years of existence, Straight successfully graduated more than 12,000 young people nationwide from its remarkable program,” reads the State Department site. But Wes Fager, a computer scientist who entrusted his fifteen-year-old son to “Straight” in Virginia in 1989, couldn’t agree less. “Approximately 50,000 children passed through those group homes. Many still have mental problems, and over forty have committed suicide. Some of them are among the 12,000 Sembler considers ‘graduated’ drug-free. They are successful graduates, but they’re dead.” Fager has dedicated himself to uncovering the truth about “Straight,” and created the website “The Straights”. After five months at the center, his son was never the same again. “He had nervous breakdowns. I believe Straight greatly contributed to that. One of his therapists told me, ‘Your son might have had problems anyway, but Straight pushed him over the edge’.”

Taking inspiration from theories fashionable at the time and particularly from Chinese methods of thought control, Straight’s philosophy was simple: to cure an addict, you must first destroy his personality and then create a new one. During their stay at Straight homes, the young patients were forbidden to see their parents and were not allowed to leave the center. “No one could get out until they “confessed” their problems in the way Straight wanted,” Fager explains. “Because of this, the ‘cure’ always lasted longer than they said it would when it began. And the costs kept going up. Above the 12,000 dollars a year I paid at the beginning, they kept demanding more money. But they had no expenses: there were no doctors, the centers were basicly empty warehouses, and the children slept and ate in the houses of families outside the center.”

According to dozens of charges brought to court, in Sembler’s centers the patients were beaten, deprived of food, and forced to sit in the same position all day. There are instances of some clients being made to sit in their own feces, urine, and vomit. Some girls were even forced to sit in their own menstrual blood. Older members were encouraged to spit in newer members’ faces, and patients were compelled to recount their most humiliating sexual experiences. Superiors ordered senior patients to abuse the newcomers. “Straight does something very close to psychic homicide,” says Marge Robertson, former head of the local section of the American Civil Liberties Union, speaking about the Cincinnati center. “We’re talking about the same abuses and torture that provoked scandal at Abu Ghraib,” Fager insists, “At the Straight centers, that conduct was the norm.”

Some of the charges of mistreatment lead to convictions and the paying out of large settlements. One after another, the Straight group homes finally closed in 1993. Some of the directors subsequently opened new centers with different names but similar methods, but it was the end of the largest drug rehabilitation program ever founded in the United States, a business that generated almost 100 million dollars. Although its ending was inglorious, Sembler – already nominated ambassador to Australia by Bush père – escaped virtually untouched. Shopping centers built by the Mel Sembler Company continued to sprout up across the United States, especially in Florida. One of them, in Saint Petersburg, was accused of racism by the local Afroamerican community because of the methods used by security guards to target black youths and because, out of 450 employees, only one was black.

For the most part, Sembler is known

Last Paragraph of article (truncated)

For the most part, Sembler is known only to those who have come into contact with his group homes and shopping centers. Except for a brief appearance during the Sgrena affair, he makes little news, just another one of the many US ambassadors throughout the world. But recently he achieved a distinction which earned him an article in the Washington Post, when he bought a stupendous Roman building for the embassy for the expansion of diplomatic offices. The ambassador chose to name the newly-acquired building after himself: the Mel Sembler Building. For the first time in American history, a diplomatic building has been named after a sitting ambassador.
Alessandro Ursic