Straight closed its flagship program in Saint Petersburg on April 13, 1993 amidst an investigation of Straight being conducted by Lowell Clary, Acting Inspector General for Florida’s Department of Health and Human Services (HRS) now called the Office of Children and Family. Mr. Clary had begun his investigation back in December because of damaging documents about Straight's operations which he had received from Richard Bradbury. Mr. Clary released his findings on May 19, a month after Straight, Inc. had closed. His report, which is presented below in its entirety, insinuates that Melvin Sembler and " unnamed state senators" probably pressured HRS to grant Straight-Saint Petersburg a license in 1989 when an on-site inspection team was preparing to deny the license. According to the report Harry Moffitt, an HRS senior program specialist, said that deputy assistant secretary Linda Lewis questioned why Florida would continue to let Straight operate in spite of allegations of withholding medication and food from clients, depriving them of sleep and using excessive force against them. That when Ms. Lewis brought this up to Ivor Groves, an assistant secretary to HRS, she had been told that she would be fired on the spot if she did not do as told. Groves denied the conversation and Lewis did not recall it. The report also revealed a definite pattern of abuse or excessive force used against clients at Straight facilities. See the five page report here:
Post Clary: Straight's Dr. Donald Sullivan, MD oversees Florida's Office of Children and Families--the office that would investigate Sembler--if an investigation was ordered
Donald C. Sullivan, MD is a respected orthopedic surgeon in Saint Petersburg, Florida. In 1992 he was successfully elected to the Florida state Senate as a Republican. One thing that former Senator Sullivan can be credited for is making Saint Petersburg Community College a full four year college. [ Betty Sembler sits with Florida's drug czar Jim McDonough on on the advisory board of the Multijurisdictional Counterdrug Task Force Training (MCTFT)--a program funded by the U.S. Department of Defense through the Florida National Guard and hosted near Betty's house at Saint Petersburg Junior College. MCTFT is the federal government's program to train law enforcement officers, nationwide, in counter drug task force efforts.] Besides his work in education, Senator Sullivan served on the state Senate's Children and Families Committee which oversees Florida's Office of Children and Families, the very same office that the Clary Report insinuates was prepared to deny Straight's license in 1989 when political pressure was put on it to grant a license. This all occurring, of course, before Senator Sullivan came aboard.
Former Senator Sullivan says he had been persuaded into running for the state Senate in 1992 by his friend, then state Senator, John Grant, a Republican from Tampa. (Between 1994 and 1996 Senator John Grant got $4,000 from eight separate $500 donations from the Sembler clan. Joseph Garcia, former Chairman Straight Executive Committee and former Executive Vice President and Treasurer of Drug Free America Foundation contributed $250 to John Grant's 1996 campaign. [Source: Florida Department of State Division of Elections]) Interestingly, Wesley Pennington, the president of Straight, ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the state assembly in 1992. Interesting because according to a document submitted by Straight Foundation to the IRS as part of its tax package, in May 1992 Donald Sullivan, MD was the secretary of the board of directors of Straight Foundation, Inc. Check out the 1996 annual report for Straight Foundation (which now calls itself the Drug Free America Foundation) in which the state's office of corporations is instructed to remove Donald Sullivan from its list of officers.
Post Clary: Dr. Sullivan's wife Irene Sullivan becomes a Sixth Circuit judge
In the preface to an article written by Saint Petersburg Times reporter William R. Levesque on October 29, 1998, Mr. Levesque writes: "Critics say the endorsements blur the line between party politics and non-partisan judicial campaigns." He writes: "In two fliers, the Republican Party of Pinellas County urges residents to vote the party ticket, . . . Included in the list are Irene Sullivan, a candidate for circuit court judge, and George Brown. . ." Irene Sullivan, who is the wife of Dr. Donald C. Sullivan, got her judgeship. (Irene Sullivan received $1,000 from Mel and Betty Sembler in four separate $250 donations between 1997 and 1998. Walter Loebenberg donated $500 to Ms. Sullivan's campaign in 1998 and $250 in 1997. Former Straight board members or advisory board members attorneys Guy Perenich and Myron Mensch, Dr. Bruce Epstein and wife Amy (Amy is not a former board member), and Mel Gross and Raymond Bourgholtzer threw in $650 combined. DFAF Advisory Board member Susan Latvala and her husband state senator Jack Latvala donated $550 between 1997 and 1998. Irene's husband and former Straight Foundation secretary Donald Sullivan, MD gave the maximum allowed of $500. But all of this pales to insignificance compared to what Irene Sullivan donated to her own campaign fund. She gave $99,000 of her own money to become a judge. [Source: Florida Department of State Division of Elections])
For Betty Sembler's 70th birthday everybody gathered at Gratzzi's Italian restaurant to wish her well. Judge Irene Sullivan was there. Instead of gifts Betty had asked everyone to contribute to the DFAF.
The Clary finding is not the only time Mel Sembler's cronies put heat on state licensing officials either. Straight had opened in 1976 and by 1978 was in danger of being shut down because of numerous allegations of serious child abuse. The man who led the investigation had been Robert G. Marshall, district director of the state's licensing authority for drug rehabilitation programs in Pinellas County for the state office of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS). Naturally, a special citizen's committee called Parents Associated Inc. had been created to investigate--the investigator, Bob Marshall. Prominent on that citizen's committee had been Pinellas County Judge Jack Dadswell and Mack Vines who would be the chief of police by 1980. (Terry Hensley, another Saint Petersburg Police Chief, would later become the executive director of the Straight Foundation under its new name the Drug Free America Foundation.) A spokesperson for HRS Secretary William J. "Pete" Page, Jr. has admitted that Straight officials had called to complain about Marshall. Straight board member John White said that on one occasion a Straight official complained to Page about Marshall, but he did not know who it was. Even Melvin Sembler confirmed that some Straight officials had contacted Mr. Page about the HRS investigation of Straight, but, according to a newspaper account of the time, like Senator Curt Kiser 10 years later, he can't remember who they were. In any event Straight did not close but the investigator Bob Marshall was fired!
An interesting thing happened after the man destined to be the chief of police for Saint Petersburg investigated HRS' Bob Marshall. One of his assistants, Lt David Milchan, who had headed the Youth Services Division of the St. Petersburg Police Department, had frequently referred families to Straight. In fact he was on the Straight Advisory Committee. Well it seems he just got tired of being a police officer after all those years of service. No he didn't bother retiring. He just up and quit and took a job with HRS. So now Straight had managed to get Bob Marshall fired for investigating Straight and get a former board member working for HRS to boot. Well after a bit David Milchan decided that he wanted to be a policeman after all, and so he went back to law enforcement. But not as a mere lieutenant. He went to Saint Petersburg Beach which is the city of residence for Straight co-founder Joseph Zappala and, in 1981, was given the job of Chief of Police! The Saint Petersburg Beach Lions Club annually awards the Joseph Zappala Policeman of the Year Award.