Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Mel Sembler and the women in his life

by Wes Fager

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Recently Melvin Sembler was deposed in a lawsuit he has brought against one of his former employees, Ray Bradbury. Mel and Betty are suing Bradbury for trying to sell Melvin's discarded penile pump on eBay. During his deposition the ambassador submitted that his personal assistant Marlene McCord keeps a file on special people and that Bradbury fits that category. [pp. 59 -60] Who else? Mel Sembler has bought many friends through the years and made many enemies. Every time he builds a shopping center there are those who oppose him. Many blacks feel he is a racist and have protested BayWalk. They have even protested at his home. Local anti-war folks blame him and his fellow Republicans for getting GIs killed. And survivors of his Straight camps simply hate him.

The "special" files is just one issue that Ms. McCord could potentially clear up [see pp. 48-49]. So Bradbury has subpoenaed her [see notice, duces-p1, duces-p2]. Sembler's attorneys have stated they are in compliance and that she will not show up for her deposition today.


Betty Sembler. In 2001 Medill News and the News-Press, newspapers in Mel Sembler's hometown of St. Joseph, Mo., wrote articles about him. A former editor recalled that girls had considered him "a hunk” and a star football halfback who dated a pretty blonde girl.[1] Melvin "Buddy" Sembler met his wife Betty a half century ago while they were both students at Northwestern University. She must have been smitten immediately by the gorgeous, brainy athletic hunk. The pair have been together ever since.

Two years ago they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at their castle in Rome. That event has been billed as the "Mother of all Toga Parties." Mary Evertz, the Sembler's mouthpiece at the St. Pete Times, was there. [2] It's easy to remember the date that Buddy and Betty got married. It was May 17, 1953 exactly one year before Brown vs. the Board of Education--the US Supreme Court decision that allowed blacks to go to white schools. Memorable because it is ironic due to the Sembler's reputation to deny education to white children, and because the Semblers are behind all these amicus briefs reaching the Supreme Court demanding to discard Constitutional rights prohibiting unreasonable search, and because many blacks accuse Sembler of being a racist.

Ms. Sembler is the former Betty Schlesinger of Dyersburg, Tenn. She was Mel's campaign manager when he successfully ran for class treasurer at Northwestern. Betty's daddy owned a ladies apparel store in Dyersburg. Word has it that Mel's daddy was bookie in St. Joseph, Missouri.[1] After college and a stint in the Army Mel applied for, and got, a job in Mr. Schlesinger's department store. Mr. Schlesinger must have been impressed with the young whippersnapper because Mel married the boss' daughter and then convinced his father-in-law to let him expand their "family" business. During expansion Melvin, a young man with a vision, decided to make room for other stores and so it came to pass that he learned to build and manage shopping centers. In the early 70s he moved his business to Tampa Bay where it has become the giant it is today.

Melvin and Betty share many interest beside money. Art, politics and fine dressing and dining interest them. But their real passion outside the family shopping center business is drug policy and the rehabilitation of teen drug addicts. After one of their own sons, crazed with drugs, threw Mr. Sembler down a flight of stairs Mel and Betty became inspired to start the world's largest chain of juvenile drug rehabilitation programs which they called Straight, Inc. [The wayward son went on to become a VP of one of the world's biggest shopping center developers--Sembler Company.]

Seventeen years later they were forced to give up Straight as its reputation for dastardly and intentional child abuse became widely known, and as Mr. Sembler was personally exposed for interfering with a state investigation to close Straight for child abuse. Undeterred, Mel and Betty simply changed the name and mission of Straight. Now it is the Drug free American Foundation and Betty has positioned herself in another drug rehabilitation program--Operation Par. Just as Mel Sembler talked his hometown statesman and sometimes house guest Congressman C. W. "Bill" Young into getting $50 million appropriated to repair the causeway out to his house and $113 million to procure a monument in Rome to his greatness, he talked Young into a measly $2 million to build a research center for Betty's Operation Par. And while Mel and Betty escaped prison and law suits over Straight, this dynamic duo feel they have a special calling to establish national and international drug policy. That is what they do at DFAF.

Marlene McCord. Actually I heard about Marlene McCord right here in, of all places, Virginia. You have to understand where I came from. For 15 years I lived in Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the wealthiest counties in the country with over a million people. I'm retired now and recently moved to the country. I'm still in Virginia but there's only a handful of people in the entire county. Two traffic lights and a barber shop--that's it. No bowling alley, no theater, no McDonalds. That's why the story I'm about to tell is so amazing. One day I went to the only barber shop and there was a man in there getting a haircut. The old timers were asking him about a book he had written. This guy had actually published a printed book. He is a retired spook, you know somebody in federal law enforcement or spying, and he had written a book about his experiences. Well, I had to tell him that I was a former military intelligence officer and that I too had written a book, albeit an e-book. Imagine two guys in the middle of nowhere, both with intelligence backgrounds, both authors. Of course it came out that I was researching Ambassador Mel Sembler and his wife Betty, but I was floored when the man said, "Mel Sembler! I know him." He told me that he used to be assigned to the US embassy in Australia back when Sembler was ambassador there. He said that the embassy building had a beautiful rustic Williamsburg motif, but the Sembler's had placed pictures on the walls depicting Florida's sunny themes--just out of place for the intended setting. "I never really saw his wife that much," he told me, "but I do remember that other woman though I can't remember her name. They always traveled together." "That other woman," I told him, "was Marlene McCord."

Just who is this McCord woman anyway? Marlene M. McCord was Sembler's neighbor in the 1990s[3]. She [at 540 Sandy Hook Rd.] lived just .31 miles [800 feet as the crow flies] from the Semblers [at 10324 Paradise Blvd.] on Treasure Island. [See map.] I do not know where or how Mel Sembler met Marlene McCord but according to a Sembler Company newsletter Marlene McCord joined Sembler Company in 1985. Sembler builds shopping centers. One needs zoning approvals before building a shopping center and so it becomes a very political thing. One needs to get city and county officials to vote one's way. One solution at Sembler Company is to line politicians' pockets with money. Another is to create a vice presidency called VP of Political and Community Affairs and that job is held by Marlene McCord when she is not with Sembler when he is overseas. Marlene McCord is Mr. Sembler's right hand man (uh woman), his personal "blackberry", his calendar. The Saint Petersburg Times calls her Mel's administrative assistant. The Italian press calls her Mel's l'assistente personale.

In 1989 the Sembler Company threw a farewell party for Mel and Betty on the occasion of Mel having been selected by George H. W. Bush to be ambassador to Australia. Actually Sembler Company honored three people who were headed for Australia. Melvin and Betty--and Marlene McCord. Sembler had selected Marlene to be an embassy attaché.[4]

Now move forward to 2001 when Sembler bought his second ambassadorship. This one Italy. Just like ten years earlier the Sembler company threw a bon voyage party for the Semblers now on their way to Rome. In the Sembler Company Newsletter (4th qtr, 2001) there is a picture of Mel with his arm draped lovingly around Betty's shoulder. There is a separate photo of a smiling Marlene McCord being guarded by Roman gladiators on either side. Why is there a picture of Ms. McCord? Because she is going to Rome with the Semblers. Again she would be Mel's attaché. It was a gala party with 150 guests held in the atrium of the Sembler Company. Scrolled invitations had a caricature of Buddy Sembler rendering him as Roman Emperor Caesar. There was a special party favor for guests. It was a coffee cup engraved with Sembler's likeness as Caesar. Cocktail glasses were embraced with little Italian and American flags which would aghast any former Straight parent who had ever been blasted for drinking a cocktail.[4]

Mary Evertz from The Times wrote, "The evening truly belonged to the Semblers and McCord." Evertz acknowledged that McCord had also accompanied the Semblers to Australia. And in case you are wondering whether Marlene lived with the Semblers in their ambassadorial castle in Rome, Evertz noted that she will be living three blocks from the ambassador's Villa Taverna residence on Via Montevideo. Evertz's article includes a rare photo of Mel, Betty and Marlene singing the national anthem. Rare because most public photos of the trio show Mel and Betty together and a separate photo of Marlene.[5]

In 1999 Mary Evertz reported that Mel and Betty, Betty's mother, and Marlene attended the Governor's ball in Tampa and flew back to Tallahassee in the governor's plane.[6] In Jan. 2001 Mary Evertz reported on the Presidential Inaugural Balls. "Lace gowns took the spotlight," she wrote as she discussed Laura Bush's "vibrant" red dress; Lynne Cheney's "pale, pale green" lace and Betty Sembler's ruby lace designed by Peggy Jennings. Marlene McCord was there too, but working. "Making sure [Sembler] was connecting with the top donors along the route," she wrote, "was his administrative assistant Marlene McCord. McCord had the Herculean task of getting people and tickets coordinated to events as well as keeping her gregarious boss on schedule."[7]

Sometimes Marlene accompanied her boss on local trips when they were in Italy as on Nov. 6, 2002 when Mel and Marlene took a yacht tour to review the readiness of the Italian port at La Spezia.[8] At the dedication ceremony for the $113 million Melvin Sembler Monument in Rome Sembler thanked Betty, then he thanked his children and then he thanked Marlene McCord. [See photo above of Betty and Marlene at the dedication ceremony.] The Italian press covered the airport departure of the Semblers on July 7, 2005 when they left their Rome post. The press noted that Marlene was with them.[9] The May/June 2005 Sembler Company Newsletter celebrates Mel's Roman monument and includes a picture of Mel and Betty and a separate one of Marlene.[10] The Oct 2003 Sembler Newsletter has a photo montage of Mel Sembler titled "A Photo Essay on Family, the Man Behind The Sembler Company, and His Patriotism." There's a picture of Marlene McCord in the spread.[11]

Marlene was even an officer of Straight under its current name Drug Free America Foundation. When Marlene 's son-in-law ran for state office the Sembler block all voted for him.[12]

End notes
[1] The people behind Straight http://web.archive.org/web/20070510235510/http://tinyurl.com/y6xmlm
[2] The Mother of all Toga Parties http://web.archive.org/web/20070510235510/http://tinyurl.com/y54s2x
[3] Marlene M. McCord [Mc Cord] gave a Treasure Island address on 10/3/06 when she donated money to the campaign of Joseph Smith and on 11/4/97 when she donated to Mark E. Souder. The SPT, Oct 15, 1994, gives her address in Treasure Island.
[4] Sembler Company Newsleter Fourth Quarter, 2001 http://web.archive.org/web/20070510235510/http://www.sembler.com/pdfs/2001_q_4.pdf
[5] St. Pete Times, 11-2-01, p. 8d http://web.archive.org/web/20070510235510/http://tinyurl.com/y42mnk
[6] Jan. 10, 1999, p. 3f http://web.archive.org/web/20070510235510/http://tinyurl.com/ygb255
[7] SPT 1-26-01
[8] La Spezia tour
[9] Sembler's leave Rome
[10] May/June 2005 Sembler Company Newsletter
[11] Sembler Company Newsleter Oct. 2003 http://web.archive.org/web/20070510235510/http://www.sembler.com/pdfs/2003_october.pdf[12] Sembler's vote for Marlen's son-in-law http://web.archive.org/web/20070510235510/http://tinyurl.com/sm8c2

Friday, November 10, 2006

Sembler's Dekalb deal

Originally posted by Wes Fager in Creative Loafing-Atlanta on 11.10.06 @ 05:31 PM

In October Sembler Company was trying to make a secret deal with DeKalb County Georgia officials to build a $600 million shopping center complex when DeKalb housing authority director Bettye Davis was suddenly fired just days after she had granted an open-records request by the Atlanta Constitution and Journal for records on the deal. This led state Rep. Mike Jacobs, D-Atlanta, to state, "It makes me wonder why the wheels are so greased for this one developer in particular. Something about this seems fishy." On Tuesday Jeff Rader, an urban planner, was elected commissioner from the district where the proposed shopping center is planned. About the proposal he says, "It may be a great thing for DeKalb if it's developed in the right way, but nobody's doing anything to determine that. . . Right now, it's being handled like a private real estate transaction, which is not good public policy." Gale Walldorff, the outgoing commissioner who was replaced by Rader, also has concerns about the proposed center. She says the project is "sizable enough to warrant special scrutiny before it advances to the point of a rezoning hearing." But other commissioners are more drawn to Sembler's proposal. For example when Creative Loafing reporter Scott Henry called county CEO Vernon Jones for an opinion on the proposal, Jones criticized Walldorff and suggested Henry call her to ask, "what she has against Sembler." Well Jones himself shouldn't have to go too far to see what's wrong with Sembler--it's all over the web. Rep. Jacobs says the Dekalb deal is "fishy." Others, at different places and different times, have used phrases like "rotten", "foul odor" and "doesn't smell good." You've heard of selling swamp land in Florida. In 1987 Sembler paid $1 million for a mangrove swamp called Cooper's Point in Florida and almost sold it overnight to Clearwater for $ 3 million with the aid of an insider working for the city. The story is at: http://tinyurl.com/yafovv That Sembler scam prompted the St. Petersburg Times to write an editorial titled "Cooper's Point deal is rotten" at: http://tinyurl.com/y9jusp

Thursday, November 2, 2006

We take exception to Craig Sher's comment about buying politicians for $500

Oh yeah, a buffer. The family had a lot of buffers!
..............Willi Cici: The Godfather: Part II

Ref. (a) "Sembler family is flexing its political muscles in city" by Carrie Johnson, St. Pete Times, Oct 30, 2005. pg. 1.B

(Note: This article was originally posted on Nov. 2, 2006 on melvinandbettysembler.blogspot.com. )

The other day Carrie Johnson of the St. Pete Times wrote an excellent article (ref. a.) informing readers of huge campaign donations Mel Sembler and his entourage have made to candidates for local St. Petersburg elections. [Mel Sembler has a history of buying political influence.] In her article she quotes Sembler Company CEO Craig Sher who says, "I would take offense to the notion that any politician is in the pocket of anyone. I don't believe a $500 contribution is going to influence anyone." Well, I take offense with what you just said, Mr. Sher.

Before I tell him why, we need to be clear on just what the law regarding campaign contributions in Florida states:

  1. In the state of Florida a person or political committee can contribute a maximum of $500 towards a candidate's election campaign. Primary elections and general elections are considered separate events so that a maximum of $1,000 per candidate can be contributed. National or state political parties in the aggregate can contribute a maximum of $50,000 to a candidate; and candidates for statewide office can receive a maximum of $250,000 in the aggregate from national, state or county executive committees. (F.S. 2005, Title IX, Electors and Elections, Ch. 106, Section 08, Contributions, Limitations on, p. 107.)
  2. According to the Center for Public Integrity in the state of Florida a private citizen, PAC, corporation, union and the national party committee can contribute an unlimited amount to a state party committee.
  3. However, according to Florida law 106.08 (6), p. 108, a contributor to a state party committee may not earmark his contributed funds for a specific candidate.

Recently I was contacted by a journalist who asked me whether Mel Sembler had ever made a public statement about the abuses of Straight -- the destructive juvenile drug rehabilitation he founded in 1976. Frankly I had to admit to him that rarely did Mr. Sembler ever come forward when the press asked about Straight abuses. These questions were almost always, with very few exceptions, fielded by a clinical director or executive director like Miller Newton, Jim Hartz or William Oliver; or by a Straight spokesperson like Helen Gowanny or the ever beautiful Joy Margolis. But, I told him, whenever a George Bush, or a Nancy Reagan, or a Congressman Michael Bilirikis visited Straight, it was ALWAYS the Semblers who accompanied them. Mel Sembler has always had plenty of buffers to isolate him from the darker side of his growing reputation.

At the Sembler Company it is CEO Craig Sher who talks to the press about blockading BayWalk from protesting blacks and peace protesters. It is Mr. Sher who recently spoke to the St. Pete Times (Mel Sembler did not return a phone call from the Times' writer) about the Sembler family's financial influence on local St. Petersburg elections. That's when he said he didn't "believe a $500 contribution is going to influence anyone."

When the Semblers invest time and money into a political candidate, it is not unreasonable for one to suspect they might want something in return. For example when they invested in George Bush for president, Bush made Sembler ambassador to Italy. The Semblers were also heavy financial supporters of the president's brother Jeb for governor of Florida. In fact when Jeb Bush ran unsuccessfully the first time, Betty Sembler was his finance cochairman. Earlier this year Sembler Company tried to build a huge open-air shopping mall in Winter Garden, Florida, but local citizens mounted a heavy resistance to the proposal. When a vacancy occurred on the city's board of commissioners, it appeared that whoever got the vacant position would be the one to cast the deciding vote for the shopping center. Since the vacancy would be filled by the governor, it came to pass that for a measly investment of tens of thousands or a few hundred thousands of dollars, the governor could appoint someone who might vote to let the Semblers make millions of dollars!

Now Charlie Crist is running for governor of Florida and Mel's son Brent is Crist's financial manager. So far, according to Florida's Dept. of State, Division of Elections, Mel and Brent haven't donated anything to Crist's campaign, but their wives have given $1,000. Daughter-in-law Diane gave $500, Elizabeth Sembler gave $500, and son Greg gave $500. Another $23,000 was given in $500 chunks from an almost endless myriad of Sembler family partnerships, so numerous that they have resorted to naming them with numbers in lieu of names. Two Sembler gifts came out-of-state companies. On June 29 Sembler Atlanta DE VI, LLC and Sembler Atlanta, Inc. each gave $500 to Charlie Crist's campaign for governor. All told that's $25,500. Since 1995 MelSembler, his family members, his family partnerships and Craig Sher have made 215 individual $500 contributions! See Crist donations.

But that is not all Mel has given. There is no limit Mel Sembler can give to the Pinellas County Republican Party (PCRP) but the PCRP can only give $50,000 to Charlie Crist. On Jan. 10, 2005 Sembler gave $75,000 to PCRP. Actually on Jan. 10 this year Mel gave $25,000; his wife Betty gave $25,000; and his son Brent gave $25,000. Including this year's gift of $75K, since 1996 the Semblers have giving $235,000 to the Republican Party in Florida (not including individual candidates). On October 10, 2005 the Pinellas County Republican Party (PCRP) endorsed Charlie Crist for governor. Along with that endorsement was a check for $50,000!

And what about Sembler associates and business partners. Walter Loebenberg and Mel Sembler are long time friends. Mr. Loebenberg was Straight Foundation's president. He founded the Florida Holocaust Museum with Mel and Betty Sembler as founding directors. Walter Loebenberg has given the Republican Party of Florida $48,000 since 1996 including $25,000 on Jan. 10, 2005--the very day Mel, Betty and Brent Sembler gave $25,000! Since 1996 Mr. Loebenberg has made 57 individual contributions to political candidates in Florida for a combined total of $21,000. Almost all were in the $100 - $500 range with about half of them for $500.

By 2004 Sembler Company had built 140 Eckerd drug stores. Also, according to its portfolio, Sembler Company has built at least 18 Publix supermarkets and is currently building six Walgreens. Since 1996 the Echerds have given $337,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, plus another approximately 230 individual contributions to Florida state candidates for another $350,000. Seventy-eight of those were $500 donations. Since 1996 Publix has made 709 political contributions for Florida politicians for a total of $1,565,481.93. Half of that amount or $780,000 went to political action committees--with most of that or $500,000 going to the Republican Party of Florida. Additionally there have been 528 individual $500 contributions for $264,000. Since 1996 Walgreens drug store has made 92 $500 contributions to candidates for $46,000. Another $37,000 has been donated to PACs including $18,500 to Republicn Party of Florida. There are surely others, but that's enough for starters.

But that's on a statewide campaign and the Times article limits itself just to local elections stating that the Semblers and their ties had given more than $11,000 in $500 bites to local office seekers in St. Petersburg. Besides a check to Charlie Crist the Pinellas GOP gave $5,000 to Sembler's Treasure Island neighbor Everett Rice who is running for attorney general. PCRP also endorsed state representative Gus Bilirakis (R, Palm Harbor) but it is not known whether he received a check, or whether any local candidates for offices in St. Petersburg received money. So we don't know yet whether Sembler was able to give additional money to local candidates through PCRP.

But we do know that Marlene McCord, another Sembler neighbor in Treasure Island, who is Sembler's personal secretary and vice president of political and community affairs at Sembler Company, gave $500 to Angelo Cappelli. Not surprisingly, Betty's mother, 98 year old Fayetta Schlesinger hasn't made a political contribution since she donated the max to Republican candidate Rudy Bradley in 1999. What is surprising is that Sembler's 11 grandchildren, who are entitled by F.S. 106(8) to make maximum contributions of $100 each, have not come up with another $20,000 chunk. After all Sembler announced in January that he wanted to leave Italy to spend time with his grandchildren.

In short, in addition to the $ 75,000 contribution to the Pinellas County Republican Party this year and the 22 or so $500 individual gifts made by the Sembler bloc to local St. Petersburg politicians, 46 additional, separate $500 gifts have been made to a state Republican candidate from Sembler family partnerships or other Sembler ventures. $75K upfront and 68 individual $500 gifts. Since 1995 Sembler and his clan have made 215 $500 political donations. Since 1996, another 725 $500 contributions have been made to candidates from like-minded Sembler business partners and $1 million has been contributed to the Republican PAC. And Sembler buffer Sher is offended that anyone could think a $ 500 contribution "is going to influence anyone." Give me a break.