Friday, January 13, 2006
Friday, January 06, 2006
Dead: James T. Russell, former Pinellas County States Attorney
Like any good prosecutor, James T. Russell looked for solutions to juvenile delinquency on his turf. To that end he turned to two people: Art Barker, the Pied Piper from Ft. Lauderdale, and to his neighbor Shirely Colletti. Both had visions to solve addiction problems in young people. Mr. Barker formed The Seed in Ft. Lauderdale. One day Russell and Sheriff Don Genung visited The Seed. They liked what they saw and Russell invited Barker to speak at a luncheon for the Pinellas County Bar Association. This led to the founding of the St. Petersburg Seed which had Russell as a founding advisory board member. After the US Senate exposed The Seed for using Communist techniques to brainwash kids, The Seed closed and Mel and Betty Sembler opened Straight which they patterned after The Seed.
The Semblers turned their Seed implementation into the national-level program that had always eluded Art Barker. Straight did not become the powerhouse it became because it was effective--actually it was destructive. No, it grew because powerful politicians in Mel Sembler's pockets praised it. Because former NIDA director and White House Drug Czar Robert DuPont was a Straight consultant. And because James T. Russell looked the other way when Straight abused kids. Russell did not witness any abuse at The Seed. Indeed, Art Barker would not let anyone behind the curtains to observe what he was doing with his young charges. When the abuse charges came out and The Seed closed, Russell felt that the Semblers could fix The Seed's mistakes. Straight was a pyramid scam that sold its two products--a reborn kid in a reunited family--to affluent white folks. Straight was a criminal activity not just limited to criminal child abuse. Its crimes rose to the level of RICO.
But Russell refused to believe the claims of abuse at Straight. He did this because he felt responsible for bringing Straight to the county. He turned aside when six Straight board members resigned the first year--one implying that Straight was worse than the Seed. Allen Allweiss, formerly Russell's chief assistant state attorney for Pasco County, was on the Straight board of directors.
Art Barker created The Seed; Shirely Colletti created Operation PAR. PAR took the poor blacks that Straight was not interested in. Through the years Mel and Betty had Straights taken away from them for charges of criminal child abuse. Now Straight is closed. Betty Sembler and her Straight staff have virtually taken over Operation PAR.
James T. Russell is dead and so are over 40 former Straight clients--thanks, in part, to James T. Russell for not taking the threat of Straight seriously. Now he must answer to the Creator for those ruined lives. The story of James T. Russell's involvement in Straight is here.
Thursday, December 15, 2005
Sembler turns his rezoning sights to Garden Manor in St. Petersburg
"To keep Pinellas a self-sustaining county, instead of becoming a bedroom community for the wealthy will require between 2,200 and 5,800 acres of industrial land, which traditionally generates more jobs per acre than commercial land, to attract new industries and let the industries already here expand locally instead of moving elsewhere."Brian Smith added that Pinellas by Design, Planning to Stay, the Comprehensive Plan and other long-range county plans discourage the rezoning of industrial land for other uses.
We are surprised that no one at the hearing pointed out that back in March the Safety Harbor city council approved a Sembler request to rezone 3 acres from industrial to commercial so it can build a shopping center there; or that back in August Sembler met with members of the Garden Manor Neighborhood Association in St. Petersburg in South Pinellas County to explain its plans to buy 18 acres of industrially-zoned property from the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg and get it rezoned commercial. When Pinellas planners look at rezoning requests by a particular company, do they turn a blind eye to history or is every specific request considered in relation to other current/previous requests made by every company?
On Monday Sembler held a second meeting with the folks in Garden Manor. The local citizenry seems to be opposed to the idea. They feel there are already enough shopping centers (one of them already built by Sembler) and they are concerned about additional traffic. But Sembler studies show "minimal new impact" to traffic.
A better way to make a living: give up your 9 - 5 office job and become an anti-commercial activist. Just find out where a big company wants to build and stir the local citizens against it. I'll bet somebody will offer you a consulting job or a vice presidency--or something. Last August local citizen Steve Plice lead the charge agaisnt Sembler. But Monday, Steve was a changed man. He has seen the light. He had this to say at teh meeting, "Sometimes commercial property takes traffic off the road. It depends on the kind of commercial."
What does Steve do these days. After August's meeting he became a consultant with the Diocese trying to sell the property! See SPT for full story.
Seminole Beacon 12-14-05
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Good to hear Bill Young doesn't tolerate Congressional bribes
Now we hear Cunningham wasn't alone. story
12-02-05 Great Caesar's Ghost: Even the St. Pete Times is chastising Bill Young and his Republican Guard Times
Monday, December 12, 2005
Lingering ethical issues over Sembler's rezoning request in Seminole
What we did not observe on the Internet coverage was when (after the cameras stopped rolling) Will Van Sant of the St. Petersburg Times approached the commissioners and asked whether any of them had had ex parte communications with the Sembler team before the hearing. Back in March the city council of Safety Harbor acted on another Sembler proposal also to rezone from industrial to commercial. This one was a just a 3 acre plot. Once again Sembler had been represented by Tim Johnson (plus Steve Williamson--also of Johnson, Pope). The difference in procedure from the Safety Harbor meeting and the county meeting was that right up front Safety Harbor's city attorney asked the assembled councilmen whether any had had ex parte discussions with Sembler representatives. All said they had not. No one asked the county commissioners before their meeting started.
Van Sant published his findings in The Times on Dec. 7 stating that Mel Sembler had contacted three Republican commissioners the week before and that his son Brent had tried, unsuccessfully, contacting the other two Republicans on the commission the day before the hearing. Neither of the two Democratic commissioners say they were contacted. One citizen who read Van Sant's article is Charles Plancon. Mr. Plancon was so disturbed by what he feels is a breach of ethics that he wrote a letter to the editor at The St. Pete Times that was published on Dec. 10.
He wrote that when he was the former chairman of Golden Lantern Mobile Home Owners Association in Pinellas Park, he tried to have an ex parte discussion with the county commissioners over a rezoning request but was told by a representative from the states attorney office that his association was "an affected party that stood to gain by the decision, therefore there was conflict of interest." So he was not allowed to talk to the commissioners, he wrote. After the association's request was denied, it decided to make a second attempt. But even before the second attempt was made Plancon wrote that he was told that "since the county knew that the owner of the property would refile, it was still a conflict" for him to communicate with the commissioners. Mr. Plancon feels that the commission has a double standard.
All this brings up some questions. Namely: (a) Just how extensive is Sembler's use of ex parte communications with local officials? (b) Did Sembler or any commissioner(s) do anything illegal or unethical? (c) If so, is there anything anybody can do about it?
(a) Just how extensive is Sembler's use of ex parte communications with local officials? Melvin Sembler has a history getting his name into the political spotlight by buying into politics to get what he wants like an ambassadorship now and then or a hundred million dollar monument named for his Greatness. Here is an incomplete tally of his generous donations to state and national political figures and parties: LINK.
But what about his donations and working relationships with local politicians. Last Tuesday , the Board of Commissioners sided with Sembler against the advice of its own staff. Last month the Pinellas Planning Council also voted to approve the measure despite the fact that its staff had also recommended against the proposal. Had Sembler approached any members of the council? Van Sant pointed out that Commissioner Susan Latvala sits on the Advisory Board of Betty Sembler's drug foundation. That would be Drug Free America Foundation (formerly known as Straight, Inc.). She is also executive director of Operation PAR which has been infiltrated with many former Straight officers including Betty Sembler. Ms. Latvala admits that Ambassador Sembler called her. Did Commissioner Latvala also talk to Betty Sembler about the impending zoning request? Besides the Seminole deal, has anyone from the Sembler team ever held other ex parte discussion(s) with any commissioner(s). Have any of the commissioners ever been to a function at Sembler Company or at his home (or any other social function sponsored by Sembler--whole or in part)? Has any commissioner ever had any personal business dealings with Sembler?
(b) Did Sembler or any commissioner(s) do anything illegal or unethical? No says Pinellas County Attorney Susan Churuti who was at the hearing. According to what theStraights editor Wes Fager was able to glean from her:
(c) But if so, is there anything that anybody could do about it?
The matter has come up before and was decided in 1991 in Jennings vs Dade County (589 So. 2d, 1337 3rd District Court of Appeals). The court ruled that it is not illegal for a citizen to contact his elected officials. The state legislature considered the matter to be so important that it voted into law Section 286.0115 "Access to Local Officials" which makes it legal for elected officials to talk to their constituents.
Appeals to the 2nd Court of Appeals. Ms. Churuti went on to explain that sometimes the board of commissioners acts like a judge hearing a case. In those instances it is a quasi judicial body. Other times it acts in a legislative manner. Ms. Churuti feels that last Tuesday's meeting started out as a quasi judicial body to determine yes on no or Sembler's proposal. But a broader discussion developed during the hearing as to how the county needs to improve upon its zoning scheme. But the board decided, she says, as a quasi judicial body and like any circuit judge's decision any appeal would go to the Second Court of Appeals.
Ms. Churuti concedes there could be a problem in the Seminole matter. If someone were to appeal the commission's decision the judge would rule that there is a "presumption of prejudice," especially from telephone calls--because nobody really knows what was said. Now that does not mean that an appeal of this specific case would automatically win. It only means that for starters the judge would assume "presumption of prejudice." Perhaps there are those who feel that the lost revenue that otherwise would have been generated from industrial tenants on the Seminole property will be passed on to tax payers in later years.
Lingering questions on ethics. Sembler has a history here. In 1987 Sembler formed a partnership with Clearwater city official Michael Kenton. Together they bought a swamp and almost got away selling it to Clearwater, with Kenton's lobbying, for a cool $1.65 million profit--practically overnight. States attorney James T. Russell would not even consider prosecuting Sembler for the scam. He declared it an ethics issue since Kenton worked for the city and referred the matter to the states ethics commission. Kenton was forced by the states ethics commission to forfeit his entire commission.
Mel Sembler is a very, very prominent Republican. He personally contacted three fellow Republicans about a vote they would be making. About a vote on whose outcome would mean millions to him. One commissioner he contacted was Susan Latvala. It is undeniable that the money he has given to Republicans has benefited the Latvala family (both Susan and her husband Jack). Melvin Sembler once boasted, You pay a little more, you get a little more. Indeed he gave so much to the Republicans that Congressman Bill Young appropriated $113 million to buy a monument to Sembler's Greatness!
Commissioners Karen Seel and Susan Latvala said there was "no pressure" when Sembler called. Commissioner Bob Stewart said it made him feel uncomfortable. "The significance of somebody like Mel Sembler calling and lobbying on an issue is not something that would go unrecognized or unheeded," Stewart said. We agree. We do not feel the commissioners would have handled a call from Charles Plancon the same way it did with Mel Sembler. We think it's high time for Sembler to answer up to his comment, "You pay a little more; you get a little more."
UPDATE 12-13-05:1400 EST. Wes Fager spoke to Kerrie Stillman of the Florida Commission on Ethics on Dec 13 at 1330. The commission comes under the legislature but is an independent body. Ms. Stillman advised him that the commission is not empowered to conduct grand juries or the like to ask questions of public officials like what gifts they may have received or whether they spoke to the wife of someone hoping to get a favorable ruling from a public official. A link to documents concerning ethics of state officials and employees is here. A link to forms, including Form 50 used to file a complaint, is here. The web page the Florida Commission on Ethics is here.
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Sembler personally lobbies Republican commissioners and wins another rezoning request
Sembler brought in a team of experts capable of beating the Indianapolis Colts. There was Florida's top-gun economist Dr. Hank Fishkind of Fishkind and Johnson to debunk the county's concerns of dwindling industrial-use property. Bill Oliver of Tindale-Oliver & Associates assuaged the commissioners' concerns over increased traffic. [Tindale-Oliver is the county's own transportation consultants.] Sembler Company CEO Craig Sher was there to report that the old man himself would have been there had not he been in Washington, "on more important business, presumably."
But some speculate that Sembler avoids announced public appearances these days because he is frequently protested by groups such as the Uhurus who call him a racist; St. Pete for Peace who call him a right-wing elitist; the anti-Straight crowd who say he is unrepentant for his involvement in organized child abuse; and a growing number of citizens disgruntled with Sembler business plans who feel he is not a good neighbor.
The hearing to decide on the rezoning of property in Seminole was held at the county courthouse in Clearwater. Heading up Sembler's show was local, blue-blood attorney Tim Johnson whose daddy had once been named Mr. Clearwater and whose uncle had once been named Mr. Seminole! Mr. Johnson crowed that though he is known for saying much in few words he asked for more time on this particularly important matter. But one of the commissioners opined that all matters that come before the commission are important. [Sembler frequently uses Johnson's law firm. He used Tim Johnson in the The Great Cooper's Point Land Scam.]
With such fire power boring down on them, the issue for the county's own technical staff seemed to be in doubt until Mike Meidel, the county's economic development director, took the floor. Mr. Meidel eloquently, and simply, told the assembled commissioners that the county has a plan; that in that plan there is a huge effort to attract industry to the area; that the type of industry he is talking about is not factories with ugly smoke stacks, but rather medical, engineering and computer technologies buildings that look from the outside like attractive, big boxes. Industries that do not need a major highway, airport or rails to ship out big boxes of goods. It comes down to this, Mr. Meidel stated, getting more unskilled, low-paid workers in the retail business of which there is already an abundance OR getting a thousand, highly paid, skilled workers working in an attractive box. The later, he claimed, would generate more revenue for the county. The latter, he claimed, is becomming a diminishing commoditiy in the county.
Johnson and team argued that the property had gone vacant for a long, long time; that industrially zoned property was not selling; that insurance companies do not want to insure a property rated as a high flood area. Mr. Meidel suggested that perhaps Essilor, the property's owner (also being represented by Tim Johnson) had not been too effective in trying to sell its property. He noted that the county uses CoStar when trying to attract industrial buyers and that the Costar listing for the property at hand shows a picture of the former building on the property. Mr. Meidel pointed out that the building has been razed, but Essilor has not bothered to upgrade the ad. [The ad simply states, "4900 Park St N - Essilor, St. Petersburg, FL 33709-2228 USA. This property is an industrial building with 160,000 SF of rentable building area located in St. Petersburg in the South Pinellas Industrial submarket of Pinellas county."]
When Tim Johnson got a chance to rebut, he told the commissioners that Essilor uses LoopNet to list its American properties for sale. [I got an account with LoopNet at 1:41 PM EST, just after the commissioners voted, and did a search for the property, selecting every category, and found 12 properties in Seminole--but Essilor's was not among them.]
Frankly, we are confused about all the big fuss over the property being located in a high flood potential area. Consequently (it was stated over and over again) no one will insure it for industrial use. If the property is not insurable for industrial use, why would anyone insure it for commercial use? Why didn't one of the commissioners ask Craig Sher why Sembler is willing to build on such a risky location? Is Sembler going to inform the retailers who will lease his stores off Park Street that before they put hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of inventory in those stores, the area is an at- risk area? If Sembler is not going to tell them, should some informed, concerned citizen's group do it?
We are not hydrologists. We know nothing about flood plains. Perhaps there are economic or hydrological reasons why the matter is of no concern, or at least of lesser concern, to non-industrial businessmen. Unfortunately, we were not represented at the meeting--this time--to ask questions. From our map it looks like part of the property is on the water. Could that later be developed as high-priced, waterfront property for condos? Does Bill Young have a plan to build a flood retaining wall? If we are right in presumng that Sembler should have similar concerns as an industrialist, then why didn't Dr. Fishkind jump up and point out this anomaly. After all, was he representing the interest of the Sembler Company that hired him--or the interest of the citizens of Pinellas County?
We watched the entire proceeding on the Internet and thought that the county's team of Brian Smith (CPA staff), Mike Crawford (PPC staff) and Mike Meidel had proved their case for the county to deny Sembler's request. Robert Stewart made a motion to deny the request which was seconded by Ken Welch. But in the the end the commissioners decided against their own staff and voted for Sembler 4 - 3.
On Nov. 16 the Pinellas Planning Council voted 4 - 3, also against its own staff's recommendation, to side with Sembler in the Essilor matter. But Sembler is getting worse at this game. In 1988 Sembler tried to get a piece of property near Tyronne Village in St. Petersburg rezoned from industrial to commercial to build another shopping center. But the local citizens signed a petition against it; The Times noted that there was already 4 - 5 shopping centers in the area; and the planning staff for St. Pete advised against it citing increased traffic usage on streets already overused. So Sembler hired attorney Roy G. Harrell, Jr., immediate past president of the St. Pete Chamber of Commerce (who was friends with city Councilman Ron Mason) to lobby his case before the city's elected officials--just as he had hired Tim Johnson to lobby his case before the Pinellas commissioners in The Coopers Point matter. Those councilmen voted 9 - 0 for Sembler to build a shopping center that no one wanted! [See Sembler's long history of getting his way with elected officials even though their own staff's disagree with him.]
How they voted:
Email the commissioners: click individually above or email them all.
John Morroni (R) Chair.......no
Kenneth T. Welch (D) VC....no
Susan Latvala (R).................yes
Calvin D. Harris (D)..............yes
Robert B. Stewart (R)...........no
Ronnie E. Duncan (R)............yes
Karen Williams Seel (R)........yes
- SPT: "Sembler family is flexing its political muscles in city" link
- Special report by theStraights: Sembler's history of convincing elected officials link
- Special report by theStraights: Sembler contributions to local elected officials link
- Sembler Company CEO Craig Sher doesn't think $500 contributions can influence politicians. link indy vers
- The Republican Party and their lobbyists help normalize cults in Pinellas County, Fl. link
- Our article announcing that there would be a hearing on the matter on Dec. 6 link
- SPT: Power broker calls; land use plan changes on Dec 7. link
- Seminole Beacon 12-14-05
- Commissioners' agenda for meeting on Dec. 6, 2005 link
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
You don't send me flowers anymore: Is Sembler trying to buy off Tampa's ABC Action News too?
Now this was devastating news for the Semblers because it started a bufooning snowball. Their hometown newspaper, The St. Petersburg Times (which is in Sembler's pockets), had decided against doing a story. But with Robin Guess airing the story to millions of Bay area viewers The Times was forced to report too. And of course something this bizarre, this unusual concerning Florida's most powerful politician had to make front page news in The Times. These local reports did not go unnoticed by a national-level newspaper--The Washington Post. And while Tampa's ABC News and The Times were generous to the ambassador calling the pump a "medical device" as he alleges it is, the Post was not so intimidated by Tampa Bay's Republican Party machine. Since Sembler's own attorney had called it a "penile pump" in a court document, The Post rightfully called it a penis pump. And once The Post ran its story, Ana Marie Cox, Washington's premiere gossip columnist (who also goes by the name Wonkette) jumped upon it under the heading PumpGate and the story is now all over the international Internet.
So you see what a thorn Robin Guess had become to Mel Sembler. Worse still for Sembler, Robin promised to follow PumpGate through the courts. What do you think Big Mel Sembler did? Early on Lenny Englander, Mel's attorney, had threatened that the Semblers were going to drag anybody into their lawsuit who had colluded with Bradbury. Apparently ABC Action News had not gotten the word. You don't mess with Tammany Hall South--Tampa Bay's powerful Republican Party machine. Almost immediately Mel had Robin Guess subpoenaed and sent her through a grueling deposition to find out what she knew. Sembler's forces had already had a judge illegally gag Bradbury and he had the Sheriff and the states attorney looking for ways to jail Bradbury. And now he had a reporter under the microscope to see, perhaps, if there was anything he could nail her on.
But Papa Joe is not really a bad man. He likes to help people. Robin Guess donates time to a worthy charity--The Academy Prep Foundation. The stated mission of Academy Prep is, "To promote the educational, social, and ethical development of middle school students who qualify for need-based scholarships and have the ability and desire both to succeed in a rigorous academic program and to become positive, productive members of society." If you look at the foundation's annual report for 2003 - 2004 and search separately on "Sembler" and on "Robin Guess" you will see that The Sembler Company gave at least $5,000 in cumulative gifts which includes $2,000+ as a Table Top sponsor.
We're reminded of another era, another time when some politicians were truly mean spirited. A time when this newspaper editor in Cicero or Peoria Illinois wrote an unflattering piece on Al Capone. Capone sent over a couple of his thugs who beat the editor severely. And then good ole' Al stepped in and paid the man's medical bills!
One would like to dismiss this Academy Prep thing as a mere coincidence, but then Melvin Sembler has made his bones in life by making small monetary contributions in return for hopes of greater wealth and power. Furthermore, the Semblers' have a poor record in dealing with minorities as documented here. Since Academy Press is geared towards helping inner-city black kids it's difficult to imagine the Semblers supporting this worthy charity without having some ulterior motive.
Anyway ABC Action News has removed both its video segment and the printed transcript from its web page. And ABC Action News has not reported on any PumpGate court proceedings since Ms. Guess vowed to see the matter through the courts. ABC has not reported on the cronyism of Judge Logan or on Judge Rondolino's failure to order the Sembler's to be evaluated by Bradbury's independent medical examiner after he had order Bradbury to be evaluated by the Sembler's medical examiner--even though it is not Bradbury who is claiming (at least for now) any medical sufferings. ABC did not even report that the Semblers appear to have misrepresented themselves stating they were not available for depositions when actually they were. Nor did ABC report that in the midst of all this the ambassador conspired with Congress Bill Young to get federal taxpayers to hand over $50 million to repair the causeway out to Sembler's home on Treasure Island, or that the duo conspired to purchase a $113 million monument to themselves in Rome. The Washington Post broke this story. Why hasn't ABC News Tampa carried it--after all he is a local boy?