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The penis pump, torturing kids and an Italian palace 

Some things to think about when Mel Sembler comes to town with a billion-dollar development

This is a shocking story about child torture and a worrisome tale about a billion dollars in homes, offices and big-box stores a Florida developer wants to shoehorn into the heart of DeKalb County.

For those who love – or loathe – Vernon Jones, this epic also features the DeKalb CEO, a Democrat whose race for the U.S. Senate is being bankrolled by arguably the most orthodox Republican plutocrat in America.

The man in the middle of these controversies is Florida developer Mel Sembler. I last saw him in 2001 at Centro Ybor, a Tampa entertainment project he developed. He later dumped Centro Ybor – which the Tampa Tribune called "a financial flop from the start" – on taxpayers who, in an ill-conceived deal, had guaranteed $9 million of Sembler's financing.

Sembler generally gets what he wants, and he's been doing it for years. Two decades ago, he paid $1 million for some swampland in Clearwater, Fla. After partnering with the city's former environmental chief and hiring politically connected insiders to tout the deal, Sembler a few months later sold the wetlands to local government for a cool double what he paid for it. And, in a first for a living diplomat, Sembler had an annex to the U.S. embassy in Rome, an Italian palace no less, named after him. Florida Congressman C.W. "Bill" Young, long a recipient of Sembler cash, engineered that tribute. Cost to taxpayers for buying and redoing the manse: $113 million.

Community planning shouldn't be calculated on political affiliation, or whether a developer is a nice guy. But when a developer asks for far more than what is considered normal, residents should demand that officials exercise extreme diligence.

Sembler's gargantuan DeKalb project envisions 3,700 condo units and apartments, two hotels, 300,000 square feet of office space and 1.5 million square feet of stores. It would increase traffic in the area by an estimated 140 percent – and the roads are already clogged. Sembler has a record for controversial projects in Atlanta – from using divisive tactics among neighborhoods to push Brookhaven to inserting big boxes on Moreland at his Edgewood Retail District.

Sembler, who lives, appropriately, on Treasure Island (St. Petersburg), Fla., is prolific in his political giving. The list of recipients of hundreds of thousands of dollars reads like a Republican Who's Who. Almost every important Florida GOPer is there. Georgians also make the list -- Johnny Isakson and Newt Gingrich, for example. George Bush, GOP governors, congressmen and senators across America, as well as the national and state parties, pocket Sembler cash. The largesse comes not only from Mel, but also from his wife, other relatives and a large number of his companies and executives.

His contributions have had ego payback. He has twice served as an American ambassador, to Australia under Bush 41, and Italy under Bush 43. The Italy post came after he kicked in $127,600 to the GOP, which prompted the "Doonesbury" cartoon strip to poke fun at his pay-for-play statesmanship. George Bush has called Sembler "my buddy" and Mrs. Sembler "ambassadorable."

Democrats almost never get Sembler cash, but there is one exception: The Georgia 2008 race for the U.S. Senate. Among Sembler's predictable gifts this year to Republicans is the name of Vernon Jones, who has announced plans to unseat incumbent Bush supertoady Saxby Chambliss. The Sembler family and top associates – such as Jeff Fuqua, who is spearheading the DeKalb project – have ponied up $18,400 to Jones.

And 25 lawyers from Sembler's law firm in Atlanta, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, have anted more than $8,000 in amounts ranging from $200 to $1,000, according to Jones' campaign reports.

Eight Sembler kin and company execs each gave $2,300, by far the largest group among 31 contributors who gave the maximum donation. No other corporate group rivaled Sutherland Asbill & Brennan in the number of contributors.

One theory is that Jones, who has long flirted with the GOP, has a stealth agenda to sabotage efforts by serious Democrats seeking to oust Chambliss. Curiously, Jones huddled with Chambliss before announcing his candidacy. Another theory making the rounds is that Jones could land a plush federal job – engineered by two heavyweight Republicans, Chambliss and Sembler. (Sembler hasn't kicked in to Chambliss' current Senate campaign.)

Sembler spokesman Angelo Fuster says Jones has no direct vote on the billion-dollar project at Briarcliff and North Druid Hills. True, but Jones has considerable clout, and sets the agenda in DeKalb government. Fuster also has worked for Jones in the past, adding a little coziness to the affair.

As to why Sembler contributes, he put it best in 2000, while chief fundraiser for the Republican National Committee: "You pay a little more, you get a little more."

The most stunning stories about Sembler involve Straight Inc., a nationwide drug-rehab outfit he founded in 1976 that treated more than 12,000 addicts. The U.S. Senate – citing "cruel and inhuman" procedures – in 1993 shut down Straight by making it ineligible for federal subsidies. In media reports, books, numerous lawsuits and in testimony to the Senate, Straight was accused of utilizing beatings, starvation, sleep deprivation and locking children in closets for days dressed in clothes soaked in their own excrement. At least 40 people have committed suicide related to Straight "treatment," according to ex-patients.

A state of Florida audit of Straight pointed to typical Sembler style: "It appears that pressure may have been generated by Ambassador Sembler and ... state senators" to avoid scrutiny, the audit stated.

Hatred of Sembler is so intense, activists still demonstrate at his home. One of the most vocal, Richard Bradbury, has spent years picketing and protesting Sembler – and rummaging through the ambassador's garbage. In 2003, he found a penis pump in Sembler's trash, and offered it for sale on eBay for $300,000. Sembler sued, but that only attracted media attention in Florida newspapers and the Washington Post.

Those are bits of Sembler lore to think about. In a few years, will angry Atlantans be digging around in Mel's trash – or Vernon's – looking for little embarrassments?

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