The well-connected Mel Sembler

By A. James Memmott

October 2, 2007 at 7:48am

Scooter Libby, Joe Lieberman, Bush 41, Bush 43, and Mitt Romney all have at least one thing in common: They’ve been the recipients of Mel Sembler’s largesse and his fund-raising effectiveness.

Sembler, a Florida shopping center developer who founded a controversial non-profit group of drug treatment centers for adolescents, helped raise millions for the elections of Bush the elder and Bush the younger.

He and his wife, Betty, came through with donations when it looked like Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat who supports the war in Iraq, might lose his U.S. Senate seat in 2006.

And when Libby, assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney, was indicted for perjury, Sembler helped raise millions for his defense fund.

Now, Sembler is a one of the founders of Freedom’s Watch. The recently formed advocacy group is spending millions to rally support for the surge in Iraq.

“A bunch of us activists kept watching MoveOn and its attacks on the war, and it just got to be obnoxious,” Sembler told the New York Times. “We decided we needed to do something about this, because the conservative side was not responding.”

One of the group’s television ads features a National Guardsman who lost his legs to an explosion in Iraq. He urges the American people not to “surrender” in Iraq.

Sembler, 77, is a native of Missouri who graduated from Northwestern University. He started building suburban shopping centers in Tennessee and eventually settled his business in St. Petersburg, Fla.

He made millions and went on to give away millions, some of this to Republican and conservative causes.

In 1989, the first president Bush named Sembler ambassador to Australia and Nauru. Garry Trudeau lampooned the choice in Doonesbury suggesting the Sembler got the post by making the highest bid at an auction. Sembler served as ambassador until 1993.

From 1997 to 2000, he was the finance chairman of the Republican National Committee. In 2001, the second president Bush appointed him ambassador to Italy. Sworn in by Cheney, he served until 2005.

Over the years, Sembler has drawn fire for his involvement with Straight Inc., the drug rehabilitation group for young he founded in 1976. Former patients, investigators and members of Congress accused the group of harsh treatment tactics, including sleep deprivation and close confinment. Often sued, it closed in 1993.

Sembler, his wife and the Sembler company continue to support conservative causes. In July, Mel Sembler and his wife each gave $25,000 to the Republican National Committee.

FEC records indicate that Romney is the only one of this year’s Republican presidential candidates to receive contributions from the Semblers so far. Mel Sembler serves as a national finance co-chair of Romney’s campaign.

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