Introducing Freedom's Watch Watch: Who Is Mel Sembler?

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

2007-10-04-sembler090.jpgFreedom's Watch popped onto the national political scene in August with a $15 million television ad buy in 21 states, urging Congress to stay the course in Iraq. Although fronted by familiar faces who had worked in the Bush White House, the group's origins, sources of funding and intentions remain murky.

The Huffington Post will be keeping an eye on the work of Freedom's Watch, exploring its key players, contributors, and messages.

Do you know something about Freedom's Watch you want to share with us? Send it to huffpolitics@huffingtonpost.com

For our first installment of Freedom's Watch Watch, we're taking a look at Melvin Sembler, a founding donor of the group who himself is no stranger to controversy.

Ambassador Sembler - as his office will answer if you call - served as envoy to Australia and Nauru under President George H.W. Bush, and was later George W. Bush's first Ambassador to Italy.

Sembler is the Founder and Chairman of The Sembler Company, a real estate firm that specializes in developing downtowns and shopping centers.

His ambassadorships were the result of extensive political giving to Republican candidates - approximately $200,000 to various campaigns and committees since 1997, according to Federal Election Commission Records, and planning events that raised tens of millions more. And Sembler could be gearing up for another possible ambassadorship: he serves as a national finance co-chair on Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

The former ambassador also continues to serve as a top player in one of modern conservatism's cause celebres: chairman of the Libby Legal Defense Trust. This group of prominent conservatives raised around $5 million to help I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the ex-Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, fight the obstruction and perjury charges for which he was ultimately convicted. President Bush commuted Libby's sentence earlier in the year.

The GOP moneyman has been embroiled in some major controversies of his own.

Sembler was criticized for a real estate acquisition he pushed in Italy. Under his guidance, the US Mission paid $83.5 million for a building close to the Embassy in Rome , which Congress later named the Mel Sembler Building. Even President Bush reportedly thought it unusual that a diplomatic station was named for a political appointee while he was still serving in his role as ambassador.

Additionally, intelligence agents acting out of his embassy conducted an 'extraordinary rendition' of an Egyptian cleric based in Milan. Sembler was called on the carpet by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2005 and told to respect Italian sovereignty. The incident has put a heavy cloud over US-Italian relations and cooperation in the war on terrorism. An Italian court indicted 26 US personnel on a variety of charges in absentia this year.

But that isn't the only torture-related controversy in which Sembler has been mired. Along with his wife Betty, Sembler founded Straight, Inc., a residential drug treatment program for teenagers.

A website founded by former patients alleges that employees of the Semblers' program committed physical, psychological, and sexual abuse against its teenage charges. Journalist Maia Szaalavitz, who has blogged for the Huffington Post, wrote in 2006 that in order to 'scare straight' children who were believed by their parents to be using drugs, the program's staff forced sexual abuse victims to admit blame, beat and spit upon children, kept patients restrained for hours and required them to live in isolation rooms, deprived them of food and sleep, and engaged in constant public humiliation of the teens in the facilities.

One Straight patient, Samantha Monroe, recalled her two-year experience on the Montel Williams Show in 2005. She claimed she was often locked in a closet, and required to wear the same pants for weeks at a time in spite of the fact that she was not allowed to use a toilet. Consequently, Monroe claims she was forced to sit in her own urine, feces, and menstrual blood. A counselor at her facility raped her, she said, and the state of Florida later paid for an abortion that she characterized as forced.

Another Straight patient, Karen Norton, was awarded $721,000 in 1990 by a court after claiming she was thrown against a wall, denied medical treatment, and subjected to emotional abuse. A report by the inspector general of the Florida state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services found "a definite pattern of abuse or excessive force used against clients at Straight facilities," and also concluded that Sembler himself had pressured Florida officials to preserve the operating license of the organization's facilities in spite of its findings.

Although Sembler's bio states that "During its 17 years of existence, STRAIGHT successfully graduated more than 12,000 young people nationwide from its remarkable program," it leaves out that the program was closed down in the aftermath of the abuse allegations.

So why is Sembler serving as a founding donor to Freedom's Watch? Staff at Sembler's Florida office referred all calls to Freedom's Watch. Spokesman Matt David told the Huffington Post that he couldn't comment on the motivations of individual donors.