US ambassador gets taxpayers to buy a Roman monument to himself for on $113 million

Last year the Washington Post reported that US ambassador to Italy Mel Sembler and Congressman Bill Young bought a building in Rome for $113M and dedicated it to themselves. But there's more. $30M to refurbish the 1929 mansion, $50M for a bridge out to Sembler's Island home in Florida, $10 million for a stupid Italian Aids vacine pipe, and $2M for Ms. Sembler's drug rehab program.

Mel Sembler Building

Ambassador Melvin Sembler, AO finally gets his living Shrine. Al Kamen and the Washington Post broke the story--but they just uncovered the tip of the iceberg

In 2003 US ambassador to Italy Melvin Sembler, AO personally negotiated with an Italian company to procure the INA building in Rome (shown at left) for $83 million and then got his buddy from his hometown of Pinellas County, Florida Congressman C.W. "Bill" Young (the most senior Republican in Congress and chairman of the House's Appropriation Committee) to fork over the money plus another $30 million to renovate it and then have it named, as a shrine to himself, The Mel Sembler Building. According to State Department spokesman Emil Skodon, this is the first time in the history of the United States that a sitting ambassador has had a building named for him, so he must be doing something very, very right--or terribly, terribly wrong. This was not the first time Sembler apparently tried to get a monument erected to himself. I ought to know, I am his unauthorized biographer. Sembler also talked Young into appropriating $50 million to repair the causeway out to his exclusive home on Treasure Island; $3 million to build a research center for Operation PAR, his wife's drug rehabilitation program, and $10 million for some stupid Italian research project for an AIDS vaccine. And what does Bill Young get out of all this? Well Sembler has named the main hall in his Mel Sembler Building the C.W. Bill Young Conference Center and the research building for Operation PAR is named the C.W. Bill & Beverly Young, Center for Research & Recovery.

Al Kamen and The Washington Post broke the story on The Sembler Shrine on March 4. Sembler's hometown newspaper, The Saint Petersburg Times, made just a brief mention of the naming of the building on February 24 but did no further investigation. Also the Times failed to mention that 14 years before Sembler, then Ambassador to Australia and Nauru, may have been the force behind an initiative to get a monument erected to himself in his hometown of Saint Petersburg. As you are about to learn Ambassador Sembler has a dark past and the St. Petersburg Times knows it. His outlandish behavior should have been briddled years ago, long before he cost taxpayers 1/10 of a billion dollars to pump up his enormous ego, and the one entity that could have and should have stopped him was The Saint Petersburg Times. Why it did not is the story behind the story.

If you want the book on any politician go to his hometown newspaper. If it's an honest publication the answer will be there. In the case of Ambassador Sembler the paper is the St. Petersburg Times and it was as straight as an arrow--at least when civil rightist Eugene Patterson was the editor. In one series of three articles the Times used the word rotten in the title of each article. That story dealt with a Sembler Company effort to buy a mangrove swamp for $1 million (based on insider information from a Clearwater city official) and almost selling it overnight to Clearwater (with the aid of that insider) for $2.65 million!

Straight, Inc.--Sembler's destructive teen drug rehab program. In 1988 fellow Floridians and business partners Mel Sembler and Joseph Zappala gave matching amounts of $126,000 each to George H. W. Bush's campaign--and raised even more for him. (See Sembler's political contributions.) In return Bush appointed Sembler and Zappala ambassadors to Australia (and Nauru) and Spain, respectively. Both Republican and Democrat presidents often repay their high rollers by giving them ambassadorships to the glamor countries, so that was not unusual. But what distinguishes Mel Sembler from the other bidders is his involvement in the mental and sometimes physical abuse of 50,000 American kids at his juvenile drug rehabilitation program named Straight, Inc. For 17 years Melvin and Betty Sembler (and Joseph Zappala) operated Straight--the world's largest chain of juvenile rehabilitation programs and one of the world's most destructive. Straight targeted for treatment the children of affluent, white parents and took in $ 95 million saving them from drug addiction. But reports abound that many Straight clients were not drug addicts at all. One report from the Massachusetts' department of health found that Straight - Boston was treating one 13 year old girl for addictions when all she had done was "sniffed a magic marker!" The old St. Petersburg Times once used the expression foul odor in the title of an article about Sembler's apparent meddling to quash a Florida state health department effort to close Straight because it was abusing children. You can get a quick idea of just how abusive Straight is by taking these links:

a newspaper montage of child abuse
what professionals say about Straight
the torture of Sammie Monroe
court cases

Its growing reputation for abuse notwithstanding, President George H. W. Bush made a TV commercial for Straight right out of the Oval office. That's here. Endorsements by people like Bush I and Nancy Reagan made Straight the big business it became. [The Barcelona Summer Olympics were planned when Zappala was ambassador to Spain. Straight board member Roy Speer from St. Petersburg (founder of cable TV's Home Shopping Network and another $100K Bush donor) got the concessions contract for the Olympics.]

The 1991 proposal for a monument to Mel Sembler in St. Petersburg, Florida. Was Sembler behind it? Two years into their bought ambassadorships St. Petersburg, Florida attorney and Chamber of Commerce member Howard P. Ross became chairman of a committee formed to build an Ambassadorial Pavilion to Sembler and Zappala. The stone monument would be in a city-owned park with "benches, flags and banners" and would be made of "granite or marble" depending on the amount of money that could be raised. The St. Petersburg Times editorialized against the monument writing, "What would be the most suitable design: Two hands majestically reaching out for hundred-dollar bills?" While Straight did not have a formal corporate attorney, the one attorney who did most of their high profile work is Zappala's former business partner Anthony Battaglia. Pavilion chairman Ross was a partner in Battaglia's law firm. Did Ross dream up the cockamamy idea of a pavilion himself or did he have help?

Today Straight operates under the name Drug Free America Foundation which is funded by a grant from the US Small Business Administration. Though it no longer treats kids for addictions, a strong case can be made that Operation PAR, with an $18 million budget and on whose board sits Betty Sembler, is the new treatment arm of DFAF.

Congressman C.W. "Bill" Young has a history of appropriations benefitting Sembler. In 1989 during Sembler's first confirmation hearing Florida Congressman C.W. "Bill" Young (who is now chairman of the House's powerful Appropriations Committee) gave an almost laughable endorsement of Sembler declaring, "Australia is so much like the United States and Mel Sembler certainly knows his way around the United States. He is certainly able to communicate, which is one of the essential requirements of diplomacy." In 2002 Young visited with Sembler at his Villa Taverna in Rome.

In November 2004 Congress passed Young's $388-billion appropriations bill which included $180 million for his (and Sembler's) hometown friends in Pinellas County. Betty's Operation PAR got $3 million to build a research center. It has been named the C.W. Bill & Beverly Young, Center for Research & Recovery. Mel and Betty live on the exclusive beach resort town of Treasure Island. Last year Treasure Island Mayor Mary Maloof wrote a letter to Mel Sembler in Rome asking him, "to see what he can help us do with his contacts in Washington" to get the causeway out to Treasure Island repaired. Bill Young's appropriation included $50 million for the causeway. This year Young got another $34 million approved to build a new causeway for neighboring Belleair Beach.

Last year Sembler persuaded Young to include $10 million of US taxpayers money for an Italian AID's vaccine that some say has a weak scientific rationale. One US health official who requested anonymity said of the deal, "It doesn't smell good."

And that's the background bringing us up to today's story in The Washington Post Narcissus Is Now Greek AND Roman by Al Kamen. Briefly, one of the first things Sembler did when he got to Rome three years ago was to convince the State Department that it was difficult to secure his 200 embassy staff employees in the embassy Chancery and in several rented offices scattered around town; that the employees should all be concentrated in one big target like the mess hall in Iraq, the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon or the federal building in Oklahoma City. Further he reasoned he could save $2.5 million a year in office rental space. And he had just the building in mind. The INA building just across the street from the Chancery which was owned by the Italian insurance company Istituto Nazionale delle Assicurazioni. Sembler personally negotiated with INA to buy the mansion for $83 million of US taxpayers' money. Then he talked Bill Young into working the funds into his 2003 appropriations bill. Sembler "always makes money for his partners" and at the building's dedication Sembler announced that another $30 million would be used on building upgrades and that many Italian companies would be getting contracts for the renovations making the grand total for US taxpayers $113,000,000. In 2004 Young proposed to Congress that the building be named the Mel Sembler Building. And so it came to pass that the US Congress passed a law making the Mel Sembler Building in Rome the only building monument ever dedicated to a sitting ambassador ( though stranger things have happened in the town where Emperor Caligula married his horse!) Of course, at the building's dedication Ambassador Sembler reciprocated to Congressman Young by naming the grand hall in his Shrine the C.W. Bill Young Conference Center.

Thirty years and still no Straight prosecutions: everybody is on the board. [Photo. Congressman Young (right) dedicates $113,000,000 Shrine to Ambassador Sembler while Sembler counter-dedicates the hall in which they are standing to Congressman Young.] If Straight was so bad you ask then why hasn't anyone ever been prosecuted. Well, everybody in Florida is on DFAF'S (Straight's) Advisory Board. Governor of Florida Jeb Bush is on the board along with his wife Columba and his Lieutenant Governor Toni Jennings. The current and past director of Florida's state police (FDLE) are on the board and so are the state's Secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice and the former speaker of Florida's House.

One state health investigator was fired for investigating Straight in 1978; another was threatened to be fired if she did not grant Straight a license in 1989. Despite scores of complaints and numerous investigations by his own office and by HRS (the Florida state health department) Pinellas County prosecutor Republican James T. Russell never brought charges against Mel and Betty Sembler or Straight. Russell never prosecuted anyone from Sembler Company over the Clearwater mangrove swamp scam either. Fact is, it was prosecutor Russell who brought the Straight concept to Pinellas County in the first place under the name The Seed. [Russell also helped start Operation PAR.] Russell was on The Seed's Advisory Board along Circuit Judge William Walker and County Judge James Sanderlin.[1] One of his assistant prosecutors was on Straight's Advisory Board. A 1974 US Senate report likened The Seed's methods to North Korean brainwashing! Mel and Betty Sembler's middle son had been in The Seed. The Seed fell apart after the Senate report but Mel and Betty liked it so much they formed their own Seed which they called Straight and used Sembler's growing political clout, plus help from the second White House Drug Czar Robert DuPont, to make Straight the national level program it became. In the first year of operation a half dozen Straight directors left, one publicly implying that Straight was worse than The Seed!

In 1983 Sarasota County prosecutors closed down Straight there and reported that the counselors had been trained to do their abuse in the flagship program in St. Petersburg in Pinellas County. This caused Russell to launch another investigation but he found no wrong doing. Two years after Straight opened Congressman Young himself got three complaints about Straight which he turned over to James T. Russell. Young publicly commented, "I have a question as to some of the tactics that were used in an earlier program known as The Seed, and I'm anxious to get Mr. Russell's report on Straight to see if the situation is similar."[2] Once again a public outcry forced Russell to launch yet another investigation but as always, for 17 years, he never found anything wrong. And Congressman Young let the ball drop.

Sembler announces retirement just hours after The Montel Williams Show airs devastating segment on Straight. On Jan. 18, 2005 The Montel Williams Show aired a very revealing and disturbing segment on Sembler's defunct Straight program. The video trailer is here. Within hours Sembler announced his resignation as ambassador. At his memorial dedication he mentioned that he would be coming ho,me within the next months as soon as the president had found a replacement.

Our 2004 proposed Monument to The Great Coalition Builder. Sembler gets protested all the time and not just by Straight survivors, blacks have protested his venues claiming he is a racist. On his Senate application for his first ambassadorship, in the box for foreign languages, Melvin Sembler wrote "English (fluent)". At another point on his application Sembler had written: I have been known as a coalition builder, able to organize my colleagues and peers to action in support of worthy civic, charitable and political causes. Joe Zappala had written on his form, I am known as a coalition builder. I am able to organize my colleagues and peers to action in support of worthwhile civic, charitable and political causes. The two men obviously copied each other's papers. Since both Abraham Lincoln and Mel Sembler are strongly viewed by blacks, and since one is known as The Great Emancipator and the other as The Great Coalition Builder, and since Lincoln has been memorialized in stone for his greatness, and Sembler wants to be, I therefore proposed in 2004 the granite monument to Mel Sembler shown at left. Surely this could be done for under $10 million for a savings to the taxpayers of $103 million!

The politicians are in Sembler's pockets, is the local press too? [Photo. Sembler at dedication ceremony for his Shrine in the great C.W. Bill Young Conference Center within his Shrine.] In 2002 Straight survivors from all over the country descended upon Mel Sembler's Treasure Island home to protest him. The St. Petersburg Times provided a reporter who took pictures of 20 people in a line in front of his Treasure Island home, protesting. But the story was killed. Exactly one week later The St. Petersburg Times got exclusive rights to sell its newspaper in Sembler shopping venues [Mel Sembler builds shopping centers.] The sweetheart deal included a Times ticker tape and an entertainment stage named for the Times. Eugene Patterson has been replaced at the Times by Paul Tash and Andy Barnes. These two guys reported on Mel and Betty's gala 50th wedding anniversary toga party in Rome; on Betty's 70th birthday party; on Jeb Bush's proclaimed Betty Sembler Day [she was Jeb's finance cochairman]; on the naming of a building for Sembler; and on the $30 million name change of Tampa's Ice Palace to The St. Pete Times Forum from which he had hoped to have televised the last Republican National Convention. Tash had worked in closed session in a clear violation of newspaper ethics with fellow Semblerite Republicans to try to bring the convention to Pinellas county.

But the Tash-Barnes Times seems unwilling to report on the resurgence of Straight Survivors, coming of age and demanding justice. Nor does it appear to want to investigate the duplicitous naming of a shrine to Mel in Rome. In 1997 David Villano wrote an article for The St. Petersburg Times' Florida Trend Magazine on Melvin Sembler titled "Money Man" which extoled Sembler for buying political power, calling him a "kingmaker." Sembler crowed on how he had handled ACLU lawsuits against his Straight program that makes kids sit in their own urine, feces and menstrual blood. The Times acknowledged that Straight had closed four years previous, but did not state the reason had been because it was being investigated by state law enforcement and health departments all over the place (which it was) or because of civil suits against it. One (losing) 1993 civil suit was for $20 million brought on by a former client of Straight - Springfield, Virginia outside Washington DC. This client had become suicidal after his Straight experience. Straight kids have to be watched 24/7 even when they wipe themselves on the toilet to make sure they won't commit suicide to escape Straight's torture. But Straight is powerless to save them from self destruction, possibly brought on by Straight's own induced Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, once they leave Straight. Many fear that stress and depression led to many of the deaths by suicide of 13 former clients from Straight - Springfield alone! So far we have identified over 40 former clients from Straights all over the country who have taken their own life. Ambassador Sembler brags on his State Department web page that his Straight program produced 12,000 successful program graduates. Sadly, many who have commited suicide are among those successful Straight graduates.

The Times had glossed over the real reason for Straight's closing. Instead Villano had reported that Straight had actually closed because it was "losing about $500,000 a year"--and also because of "allegations surfacing." But Villano was quick to explain off those allegations. "Betty Sembler," Villano wrote, "labels the center's detractors as misguided". Perhaps unwittingly, Villano did predict the impending calamity about to fall upon the American taxpayer if his newspaper did not wake up. He wrote, "An energetic 67-year-old Sembler shows no inclination to slow down. His attention to dress and grooming at once catches the eye: European-cut suit, silk handkerchief peering from breast pocket. His thinning gray hair is pressed to one side, and his newly manicured fingernails gleam with clear polish." Had The St. Petersburg Times stayed out of politics and out of Mel Sembler's pockets, Sembler would have never become ambassador to Itay and we would not have had to pay for his monument.

In 1989 Patterson's Times gave Sembler and Zappala Sour Orange Awards--not just for buying their ambassadorships, but also for the buffoonery they exhibited along with it. And now, fittingly, The Washington Post has bestowed upon Sembler the In the Loop Narcissism Run Amok Award for 2005. A reporter once asked St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker [another Straight (DFAF) Advisory Board member] who's the most powerful man in St. Petersburg. He responded "Bill Young followed by Mel Sembler." Thank you Al Kamen and The Washington Post for doing what the The St. Petersburg Times is not allowed to do--expose Pinellas County's two most powerful citizens Congressman Bill Young and Mel Sembler in their most egregious transgression ever--bilking the US taxpayers of 1/10 of a billion dollars to build a shrine to their collective greatness!

[1] St. Petersburg Times, March 4, 1973, p. 4B.
[2] St. Petersburg Times, April 30, 1978, p. 15B.

Related articles:
Sembler and The Great Cooper's Point Land Scam!

Ambassador Mel Sembler: did he quash a state plan to close Straight?
Why Jesus is not a Regulator
Sembler's web monument


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