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 )

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.

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