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Maia Szalavitz

Maia Szalavitz

Posted: September 6, 2007 12:07 PM

Romney Fires One Teen-Abuse Linked Financier, Keeps Big One


Radar has the news that Mitt Romney has kicked troubled-teen titan Robert Lichfield to the curb. Lichfield's organization, the World Wide Association of Specialty Schools and Programs (WWASPS, previously WWASP), is being sued in a class action suit by over 100 plaintiffs, alleging serious sexual, emotional and physical abuse. In the worst cases, teens were beaten, kept in stress positions, sleep deprived, made to walk thousands of laps on a hot desert track, forced to eat their own vomit and held in dog cages. Mexican police shot footage of the dog cages and the track, which was aired on Inside Edition.

Another lawsuit alleges educational fraud by one facility-- that facility was already made to pay parents back over $1 million for falsely claiming to provide legitimate New York state high school diplomas, in one of the largest educational fraud judgments in New York history.

Lichfield was Romney's Utah co-chair for finance-- and he has been relieved of that position "until the lawsuit is resolved in the positive, which we are confident will happen," WWASPS spokesperson Ken Kay told Radar. This is the same Ken Kay who said under oath in another civil suit that he did not know whether sex between staff and teens in WWASPS programs was necessarily abusive.

But Romney's national finance co-chair, Mel Sembler, remains. While Sembler has not been linked with any abuse personally, the organization he co-founded, Straight Inc., paid out millions of dollars in similar suits during the 1980's and 1990's. The abuse included kidnapping, false imprisonment, beatings, sexual humiliation (boys were called "fags," girls, "whores"), punitive use of isolation and restraint and bizarre incidents like teens being gagged with Kotex and held on the floor for hours until they wet or even soiled themselves. In every state where Straight had a facility, regulators and/or lawsuits eventually documented serious abuse.

The treatment regime itself is essentially abusive-- it was virtually identical to a program in which Sembler was a participant that a Congressional investigation compared to North Korean brainwashing. (That investigation prompted the founding of Straight as the prior group had been so discredited by the report and resulting bad publicity).

And in Florida, home to both Sembler and the first Straight site, when Straight finally folded in 1993 after nearly two decades of documented abuse cases, lawsuits and investigations, one final investigation suggested that political influence had kept regulators from shutting it down sooner. At the time, Sembler was serving as a U.S. Ambassador. The Florida Inspector General's report said, "there were indications that outside influence was involved with this licensing issue. It appears that pressure may have been generated by Ambassador Sembler ."

Of course, Lichfield has only raised hundreds of thousands for Romney; Sembler, who was national finance chair for the Republican party for the 2000 election season, can raise many millions.