Monday, September 10, 2007

Romney's Utah Campaign Finance Chief Reportedly Fired in Teen-Abuse Scandal


Candidate's Beehive State Finance Committee Co-Chairman Named a Defendant in Lawsuit Charging Youth-Services Agency He Headed With Physically and Sexually Abusing Its Clients; National Campaign Finance Chief Headed Similar Youth Program That Got Sued Out of Existence

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Another headache for GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney: The former Massachusetts governor must now deal with a scandal involving two of his campaign aides. His Utah state finance committee co-chairman, Robert Lichfield, and his national campaign finance chief, Mel Sembler, founded and headed two youth-services agencies that have been sued on charges of physical and sexual abuse of its teen-aged clients. Romney has reportedly fired Lichfield. (Photo: Mary Ann Chastain/AP)

(Updated 1:30 a.m. EDT Tuesday, September 11, 2007)

By Skeeter Sanders


Already under fire by hard-line social conservatives over pornographic TV shows offered by the Marriott hotel chain on whose board he once served -- and by gay-rights activists for his changing position on same-gender marriage -- Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney now must confront questions about the former finance chief of his campaign in Utah.

Robert Lichfield, co-chairman of the Romney campaign's Beehive State finance committee, was fired personally by the former Massachusetts governor in July amid a growing scandal over allegations of fraud and abuse in a controversial network of schools for troubled teens operated by a youth-services agency that Lichfield co-founded in the late 1970s, according to the online edition of Radar magazine, RadarOnline.com.

The chairman of the Romney campaign's national finance committee, Mel Sembler, headed a second youth agency that
also came under harsh scrutiny over nearly-identical allegations of abuse of its teenaged clients and was ultimately sued out of existence in the early 1990s, The 'Skeeter Bites Report has learned.

Lichfield is one of Utah's largest political donors. He organized a fundraiser in February in his hometown of St. George that netted nearly $300,000 for the Romney campaign, and members of the Lichfield family have personally donated $17,000.

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ROMNEY'S BOSTON CAMPAIGN HQ BURGLARIZED

BOSTON -- The presidential campaign headquarters of Mitt Romney were burglarized overnight in the North End, a campaign spokesman said Monday.

There was "forced entry" into the three-story waterfront building and several computers and a television were stolen, said spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom. The break-in, which occurred either late Sunday night or the pre-dawn hours of Monday morning, did not appear to be politically motivated, he said.

"By all appearances this is a routine burglary," Fehrnstrom said. "There were a number of items that were left untouched -- files and the like."

Fehrnstrom referred additional questions to Boston police. He declined to described how the burglar or burglars broke into the building.

A law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the case said someone at Romney's campaign headquarters reported the crime in a 911 call at 9:40 a.m. and said that $20,000 worth of equipment was stolen.

According to a preliminary police report, entry was made through a third-floor window and eight laptops and a 32-inch television were stolen. A Crime Scene Unit responded to process the scene, and detectives from District A-1 are conducting interviews.

-- The Boston Globe

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Lawsuit Claims 140 Youths Were Abused at Schools Run By Lichfield's Agency

Lichfield was named as a co-defendant in a lawsuit filed three months ago in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City by the families of 140 youths who have attended schools associated with the Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs (WWASP), alleging that they were subjected to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

The non-profit WWASP provides consulting services to schools specializing in "behavior modification" for wayward teenagers. Ken Kay, the agency's president, confirmed in an e-mail sent to RadarOnline.com -- which first broke the story on Wednesday -- that Romney asked Lichfield to resign his campaign post and to stop participating in fundraising activities for the campaign.

"Governor Romney has asked Mr. Lichfield to step down and not be involved in any more fundraising until the lawsuit is resolved in the positive, which we are confident will happen," said Kay, a longtime associate of Lichfield's, who dismissed the lawsuit's allegations as"ludicrous."

"We don't condone any type of child abuse and it's highly unlikely that any of the incidents ever happened," Kay told RadarOnline.com, noting that troubled teens "often have a record of fabricating stories." WWASP, he said, "simply provides administrative and other business services to schools, does not deal directly with students, and is not responsible for any mistreatment."

Plaintiff Claims Sexual Abuse; Ex-Counselor Convicted of Assault

Plaintiff Chase Wood, who attended Lichfield's Cross Creek Center for Boys and another WWASP-affiliated school, claims he was fondled, forced to eat his own vomit, and locked in a dog cage.

The lawsuit alleges that the Cross Creek boys were also exercised to exhaustion, deprived of food and sleep, exposed to extreme temperatures without adequate clothing or water, forced to clean toilets with toothbrushes and then brush their teeth with them, severely kicked and beaten, emotionally brutalized, thrown and slammed to the ground and forced into sexual acts.

The suit was filed a week after Randall Hinton, an educational counselor who worked at Cross Creek and at many other schools affiliated with WWASP, was convicted by a Colorado jury of third-degree assault and false imprisonment for slamming the head of a 15-year-old boy at Royal Gorge Academy in Colorado into a stairwell and forcing a 17-year-old youth to lie flat on his stomach for so long he had to vomit.

Hinton faces up to three years in prison.

2006 Lawsuit Against Lichfield Claims Fraud

A separate 2006 class-action lawsuit accusing Lichfield of fraud alleges that he makes $90 million a year through a complicated network of businesses based around behavior modification and has owned or operated a total of 26 schools worldwide, some of which have been closed by local authorities for mistreatment.

The class-action suit, filed in U.S. District Court in New York, claims that the Academy at Ivy Ridge, a school that sits on land owned by Lichfield and for which he has provided consulting services, admitted students for five years without any accreditation as an educational institution from the state.

Agency Once Headed By Sembler Also Charged With Abuse of Youths

Lichfield, who could not be reached for comment, isn't the only member of Romney's fundraising team who's tainted by scandal over alleged abuse of teenagers. Sembler, the Romney campaign's national finance co-chair and former Republican Party campaign finance chief during the 2000 election, once headed his own nationwide network of treatment programs for troubled youths.

Known as Straight Inc., it variously operated nine programs in seven states between 1976 and 1993. And, like WWASP, Straight Inc. has come under scrutiny by state investigators and by plaintiffs in civil lawsuits for scores of alleged abuses of youths.

Straight Inc. was highly controversial throughout its 16-year history due to the style of therapy it used, called "tough love," that critics likened to cult-like brainwashing. The abuses reportedly included youths being beaten, deprived of food and sleep for days, restrained by fellow youths for hours, bound, sexually humiliated, abused and spat upon.

According to a series of articles published in 1990 in the Los Angeles Times, California state investigators uncovered multiple cases of Straight Inc.youths “subjected to unusual punishment, infliction of pain, humiliation, intimidation, ridicule, coercion, threats, mental abuse… and interference with daily living functions such as eating, sleeping and toileting.”

Several lawsuits filed from 1983 to 1985 in Ohio complained that youngsters in Straight Inc.'s treatment center in Milford, near Cincinnati, were beaten, painfully restrained, held for long periods in small isolation rooms and deprived of adequate sleep and food, the newspaper said.

Soon after the Times series was published, the Virginia State Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation filed suit, charging that clients in Straight Inc.'s Springfield, Virginia program were restrained by thumb-bending, were yelled at and spat upon, were deprived of food, sleep, family visits and access to toilets and were strip-searched by other clients.

That lawsuit led ultimately to Straight, Inc. going out of business in July 1993.

Many former patients of Straight Inc. have formed "survivor groups" assembling themselves in small numbers seeking a means to understand the trauma suffered and supporting one another in grasping the reality of what happened in their lives.

Romney Campaign Spokesman Hotly Denies Lichfield Firing

A spokesman for the Romney campaign hotly denied Thursday that Lichfield was fired, insisting that the former finance chief resigned voluntarily. "Robert Lichfield resigned on his own accord from the Romney campaign and is not a part of any campaign or finance activities," said spokesman Stephen Smith in an e-mail sent to the news site, RawStory.com.

Smith was quick to make clear that Kay has no role in the Romney campaign.

"Ken Kay is not a part of the Romney campaign in any capacity whatsoever," Smith said in his e-mail. "Kay has not served on the Utah finance committee and is not a Romney donor. He has no standing to make the claim that he did."

Smith also downplayed Lichfield's fundraising impact on the campaign. "We have accepted contributions from tens of thousands of individuals across the country," he said. "And Mr. Lichfield has donated to numerous Republican candidates and committees."

Scandal Is the Latest Headache for Problem-Plagued Romney Campaign

For the Romney campaign, this latest scandal could not have come at a worse time, coming two months after the candidate came under sharp attack from anti-pornography crusaders who branded Romney a hypocrite for his refusal to stop hard-core X-rated hotel movie offerings during his nine-year tenure on the board of directors of Marriott International, one of the world's largest hoteliers.

"Marriott is a major pornographer," Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values, an anti-pornography group based on Ohio, said in July. "And even though he [Romney] may have fought it, everyone on that board is a hypocrite for presenting themselves as being pro-family values when their hotels offer 70 different types of hard-core pornography."

The scandal also comes against the backdrop of a lingering controversy over Romney's shifting opinion on same-gender marriage -- a shift that has infuriated gay-rights activists.

In an article published Saturday, The New York Times pointed out that Romney, while running for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, met in a Boston gay bar with members of the gay GOP group Log Cabin Republicans and told them that while he believed that marriage should be limited to the union of a man and a woman, he promised not to campaign on either side of the issue.

But after the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared in 2003 that gay couples in the Bay State have a right under the state constitution's equal-rights amendment to marry, Romney became a fierce supporter of a state constitutional amendment to bar them from doing so.

The proposed amendment ultimately failed in the Massachusetts legislature earlier this year, but Romney has since made his opposition to same-gender marriage a cornerstorne of his presidential campaign, making himself an ever-more-visible crusader against such unions as he works to gain support among social conservatives who form a major part of the GOP's electoral base.

Many Christian Evangelicals Still Have a Problem With Romney's Mormon Faith, Poll Finds

With Romney already under fire by hard-line social conservatives allied with the Christian Right over the Marriott pornography issue and over his seeming "flip-flop" on abortion -- he freely acknowledges being pro-choice earlier in his life, but that he is now pro-life -- the scandal over alleged abuse of teenagers by agencies once headed by two of Romney's campaign aides is likely to further alienate conservative Christian evangelicals he's been trying for months to win over.

Underscoring Romney's problems is a newly-released poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press that strongly suggests that a candidate's religious views may be as much a liability as an asset, depending on the candidate.

While most Americans say that it is important for a president to have a strong religious faith, a candidate who comes across as an overt zealot -- such as televangelist Pat Robertson, who unsuccessfully sought the 1988 GOP nomination -- might not be acceptable to voters, according to the survey.

“So far, religion is not proving to be a clear-cut positive in the 2008 presidential campaign," said Andrew Kohut, the Pew Center's executive director. "The candidates viewed by voters as the least religious among the leading contenders are the current front-runners for the Democratic and Republican nominations -- [Senator] Hillary Clinton and [former New York City Mayor] Rudy Giuliani, respectively."

“On the other hand," Kohut said, "the candidate seen as far and away the most religious -- Romney -- is handicapped by this perception because of voter concerns about his Mormon faith.”

The poll found that a quarter of Americans -- Democrats, independents and Republicans alike -- said they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who is a Mormon, with more than a third of self-described Christian evangelicals, particularly Southern Baptists, voicing that sentiment.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, officially considers the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as the Mormons are formally known, a cult.

Among the Pew Center poll's other findings:

* Social issues, such as abortion and same-gender marriage, are of much less interest to the average voter than the war in Iraq. The war has been -- and is likely to remain -- the overwhelmingly dominant issue in the 2008 campaign.

* Giuliani's image has been largely unaffected by his pro-choice stance on abortion, perhaps because public awareness of his position remains relatively small. Overall, only 22 percent of the public --and, more significantly, just 31 percent of rank-and-file Republicans -- know that Giuliani favors legal abortion.

The Pew survey was conducted August 1-18 among 3,002 adults nationwide and has an error margin of plus or minus two percentage points.

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Volume II, Number 45
Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.









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