THE BLOG
05/16/2006 03:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Penis Pump, the Ambassador and our Medical Privacy

This is a story so rich in irony, it's hard to know where to start. But please bear with me through the complex set-up-- it involves a major Republican campaign donor, the Bush administration, our sick drug policy, our ever-decreasing privacy rights and yes, Jon Stewart fans, a penis pump.

Florida native Richard Bradbury lost years of his adolescence to an abusive drug program called Straight Inc. Much of his "treatment" consisted of being forced to admit his "part" in having been sexually abused by a small group of pedophiles when he was a boy. Program staff believed the eleven-year-old Richard "seduced" these adult men in order to get them to buy him drugs. His "recovery" would begin when he admitted how low drugs had made him go and was prepared to accept the program's "help" with that.

But Richard never actually had a drug problem. His sister did. Because of the way Straight worked, her treatment required him to be "screened" for addiction as well. This screening consisted of an 8-10 hour interrogation in which admission of any marijuana smoking or alcohol use was seen as denial of more serious addiction-- and any denial of any use was seen as denial, period. His addiction was a foregone conclusion. Even though Richard's parents didn't believe he had a drug problem, they felt forced to admit him because otherwise his sister-- whom they believed the program was helping-- would be expelled.

Fast forward several decades. The program's co-founder, Mel Sembler, has gone on to far greater things. He's chaired the finance committee for the Republican party for the 2000 elections and been a major fundraiser and donor. He's served as Ambassador to Australia under Bush I, and Ambassador to Italy under W. He's currently heading fundraising for the Scooter Libby legal defense fund. Libby, of course, was Vice President Cheney's Chief of Staff and is accused of lying to investigators in the Valerie Plame-CIA leak case. The Vice President's office is believed to have played a key role in devising American torture policy.

And Bradbury? He spent several years at Straight, even becoming a staff member for a time because at first, he believed the program had actually saved his life. But eventually, he came to recognize that Straight was abusive and worked to expose what it had done to him and thousands of other teens who had been put through it.

At Straight, aside from forcing sexual abuse victims to admit blame for their victimization, kids were beaten, spit upon, kept for weeks in bare isolation rooms, restrained for hours, denied bathroom access until they wet or soiled themselves, denied medical care, food and sleep-deprived and constantly publicly humiliated and emotionally attacked.

Sembler proudly says on his official state department biography that, "During its 17 years of existence, STRAIGHT successfully graduated more than 12,000 young people nationwide from its remarkable program."

Bradbury wants him held to account for the abuse, which has been documented in media ranging from the St. Petersburg Times to the Washington Post and "60 Minutes" and by numerous personal accounts of Straight survivors and numerous regulatory investigations in the states in which Straight operated. Florida, for example, found "a propensity for abuse or excessive force" at the program.

In aid of his quest for accountability, Bradbury has regularly searched through Sembler's trash outside his home. With support from tough drug warriors like Sembler, privacy rights have become ever more constricted-- and the Supreme Court has ruled in a drug case that there is no expectation of privacy in garbage, so it may be searched by police without a warrant and is not illegal for others to search.

On one garbage hunt, Bradbury found a penis pump-- a pre-Viagra impotence treatment device. He immediately put it up for sale on Ebay for $300,000, noting its provenance. He said he planned to use any money raised for Straight's victims.

Sembler sued for invasion of privacy, calling Bradbury "sadistic" and saying in filings for the case that Bradbury's actions were "an invasion into the sanctity of our home and our bedroom." (Apparently, beating and forcing a sexual abuse victim to take responsibility for being abused doesn't count as sadistic or privacy-invading to Mel Sembler.)

But wait, it gets even weirder. In some of the legal proceedings in the ongoing case, sensitive information was revealed by Sembler's side that, Bradbury alleges, could only have come from his personal medical records from his treatment at Straight.

(Straight's treatment centers are now defunct, but the nonprofit group that ran them, the Straight Foundation, changed its name to the Drug Free America Foundation in 1995 and still operates. Mel Sembler and his wife, Betty, are its "founding members.")

For example, Bradbury's lawyer, Tom McGowan, has a document on a 1986 "mental status exam" of Bradbury. It bears the names of several known Straight employees and Sembler's attorneys provided it to a psychologist who examined Bradbury as part of the recent legal proceedings. Bradbury says he never authorized Straight to release such records.

Bradbury has filed a complaint with the federal government under medical privacy laws.

Bottom line: in order to make their case for invasion of privacy by Bradbury, the Semblers and/or their legal team may have violated medical privacy laws themselves!!!

And, while the people who popularized food deprivation, sleep deprivation, isolation and sexual humiliation for teens work to defend those like Libby who want to use those tactics on terrorists, they sue one of their teen program's victims for invasion of privacy and possibly invade his own privacy while doing so.

What a country we live in, what times!

[If you're interested in reading more on the Straight saga, on Richard and on currently-operating similarly abusive programs, check out my book, Help at Any Cost]