Why did the FBI stop their investigation of Straight, Incorporated?

Editor’s Note: Today we welcome a post from Marcus Chatfield, who has spent years studying Straight, Inc. Chatfield is a recent graduate of Goddard College, where he received an Individualized Bachelor of Arts degree in the prevention of institutional child abuse. His undergraduate thesis, Institutionalized Persuasion, was self-published in December, 2014. He is a prospective grad student living in Florida. Enjoy!

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The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) recently arranged for the release of documents from the FBI’s investigation of Straight, Inc., a controversial teen treatment program. An initial Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the author in 2010 received no response and the collection was only released after subsequent requests and inquiries by the OGIS. After the FBI reviewed more than 1,224 pages in their possession, 970 were released with redactions and 254 pages were deleted, withheld by their Record/Information Dissemination Section. Almost all of these records were accumulated between 1992 and 1994 during a Grand Jury investigation that initiated in the Middle District of Florida. The investigation focused on fraudulent financial activities within the Straight, Inc. organization and the documents clearly state that federal authorities had evidence of criminal insurance fraud committed by Straight executives (p.55). Perhaps even more important, the documents seem to indicate that the FBI’s investigation was stopped before agents had a chance to review all of the evidence or explore all relevant leads (p.109-111).

This investigation was initiated soon after the United States Attorney’s Office (USAO) in Washington, D.C., filed a civil suit against Straight executives over an earlier matter. The USAO had sued Straight, Inc. in order to recover $950,000 that was mistakenly sent by Medicaid and then illegally pocketed by program administrators (p.27). When news reports about this civil suit reached the public, the FBI began to receive new complaints of fraud committed by Straight administrators. The Grand Jury’s criminal investigation was prompted by these additional complaints from the public. Although the scope of the FBI’s criminal investigation was not intended to review quality of care complaints or to investigate claims of abuse, their documents do note that state officials were aware of a “definite pattern of abuse” in Straight facilities (p.18).

Included in this collection are detailed transcription reports from 66 investigative interviews between FBI agents and Straight executives, staff members, program parents and state licensing officials. Also included are the FBI’s investigation summaries, hundreds of pages of original field notes, relevant news clippings and examples of Straight’s financial records, administrative memos, bank statements, program literature and corporate documents. At least thirteen different FBI division offices were involved nationally, gathering multiple collections of evidence which were destroyed soon after the case was closed.

One of the most important findings in these documents is that the decision not to prosecute Straight’s executives was apparently made before FBI agents had completed their investigation. The Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) office for the Middle District of Florida informed the FBI that there would be no criminal prosecution, stopping the acquisition and analysis of evidence. Inexplicably, the rationale for the decision was later explained as a lack of evidence. The premature nature of the decision is implied in two documents referring to a pending request for computer assistance with the retrieval of records, stating that the information is “no longer needed due to the declination of prosecution” (p.109-110). The agent also states that the “lead set” regarding the matter, was to be closed.

Not mentioned in these reports is the fact that the decision to stop the investigation was rather quietly handed down while the Assistant Attorney’s office was in the midst of a dramatic scandal. Turbulence within the AUSA office during that time makes it difficult to see who would have had the authority to actually make or oversee the decision. And seeing how closely the scandal coincided with the investigation, it’s easy to wonder how the distracting drama may have influenced the course of justice. During the 27 months that the FBI was investigating Straight, there were three different Assistant United States Attorneys for the Middle District of Florida in succession, all of whom would have been responsible for overseeing the Grand Jury and the FBI’s work while they were in office. It was the second one in this succession, Larry Colleton, who was at the center of the scandal.

Larry Colleton was sworn into office in November 1993, and served as the Middle District’s federal attorney until May 1994. He had been in office for just five months when he lost his temper with a television reporter, grabbed him by the throat and pushed him away. Amazingly enough, this event was filmed by the reporter’s camera crew. After the event, Colleton placed himself on a paid leave of absence while the Justice Department looked into the matter. They soon announced that no charges were warranted and none were issued. He simply apologized to his victim, saying, ”I had no intention of having any physical contact with you and that which occurred was unintentional.” Colleton’s supporters, which included the NAACP, accused officials within the Department of Justice of intentionally provoking him, plotting to disgrace him because of unpopular decisions made in his office.

By July, the repercussions were culminating and Colleton was to be transferred to a different position. As these changes were made public, the Straight investigation quietly stopped. Although most names have been redacted we can be fairly sure it was Larry Colleton who, on Monday, July 25th, informed a special agent of the decision declining prosecution (p.109,111). The decision was made by “his office” during his leave of absence but this is only clear when reading the FBI memos with prior knowledge of relevant dates and events described in news articles. On Thursday, July 28th, in a letter to President Clinton, he announced his resignation and by Friday, US Attorney General Janet Reno had confirmed Colleton’s transfer to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to serve as Counselor to the Administrator. Commending his work in the Middle District, she said, ”Mr. Colleton has done remarkable work in the community and outreach in crime prevention, and we feel that he can perform a very valuable service here.” The change in position would not affect his $111,000 per year salary.

By piecing together FOIA documents, newspaper articles and a calendar from 1994, it appears that it was Larry Colleton who informed an FBI agent of the decision against prosecution but that his successor, Donna Bucella, was the acting authority when the decision was made and the investigation was stopped. This is also confirmed in a letter from special agent Allen H. McCreight to the acting AUSA, Honorable Donna A. Bucella, clarifying the decision (p.111).

Donna Bucella had been the Director for the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys (EOUSA), Office of Legal Education since 1993. In May of 1994, immediately following Colleton’s throat grabbing event, she was chosen to replace him as an interim acting AUSA. It was quite a time for Bucella, who also in May 1994, was promoted to the position of Principal Deputy Director for the EOUSA. She returned to the position of Deputy Director sometime in September 1994, soon after the Straight case was closed and the evidence from the investigation had been destroyed (p.3-16).

She went on to some of the most powerful positions within the Department of Justice and her career has been extremely impressive. After being reinstated to the Middle District in 1999, she resigned amid amid controversy in 2001 but was then appointed by President George W. Bush and the director of the FBI to create and lead the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center. As the center’s founding director, she built and developed the operations there and was responsible for creating “terrorist watch-lists,” hundreds of thousands of names long. In addition to the high-level positions within the EOUSA mentioned earlier, she is a former Director for U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), where she was responsible for the operations of 80 federalized airports in the Southeast. She was one of the most adaptable and trusted within the Justice Department and a very competent go-to person in times of crisis. While serving as the Director of the Executive Office for the United States Attorneys, she was sent by Janet Reno to initiate and supervise the FBI’s investigation of the Oklahoma City Bombing (p.17). She also served as the Assistant Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Office of Intelligence and Investigative Liaison. Aside from these noteworthy positions in the federal government, she is a former Vice President of Bank of America and is currently employed by Guidepost Solutions, an international intelligence services contractor.

Donna Bucella was responsible for the functions of Larry Colleton’s office when the decision was made against prosecution, but there are no further explanations given for the decision and almost no mention of the Grand Jury’s process. Lack of evidence or not, there would have been grave political consequences if the Justice Department had continued the investigation and had decided to bring a federal criminal case to trial. During most of the investigation, two of Straight’s most powerful founding members, Melvin Sembler and Joseph Zappala, were U.S. Ambassadors, appointed by President George H. W. Bush. Mr. Zappala was the President of Straight until he was appointed as United States Ambassador to Spain from 1989 to 1993. And Mr. Sembler, Straight’s founding President and extremely powerful GOP fundraiser, was the U.S. Ambassador to Australia and Nauru from 1989 until 1993 and appointed again as Ambassador to Italy in 2001. It seems possible that the privileges associated with these prominent positions may have influenced the investigation, especially if we consider state reports that at least one of Straight’s founding members applied pressure and pulled strings to protect the program’s reputation during an earlier investigation in 1989.

The documents in this FOIA collection include a report from Florida’s department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS), Inspector General’s Office, describing political pressures put on state licensing officials who had investigated Straight, Inc. facilities and found numerous violations (p.16-17). The report states that in 1989, HRS inspectors were pressured by State Senators and by one of Straight’s founders, to keep the program licensed “no matter what they found.” We don’t know which founding member this may have been but newspapers reported in 1993 that it was U.S. Ambassador, Melvin Sembler.

The late Richard Bradbury, a former staff member at Straight and probably the first to publicly protest ongoing abuses in the program, accused Mr. Sembler of contacting the Assistant U.S. Attorney’s office in an attempt to stop the FBI’s investigation in 1994. However, FOIA redactions and deleted pages prevent us from knowing with certainty who actually made the calls. It often seems as if it’s the most important facts that are blotted out, shrouding the specifics about the ways political corruption may have contributed to institutional child abuse in these infamous treatment settings.

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From an Atlanta Straight brochure

Until more information is made available, we won’t know exactly what or who stopped the FBI’s investigation of Straight and we won’t know the full extent of the reasons why. But in the testimony of victims, we do have very specific and painful details that federal agencies can’t redact or delete. It’s not just human error that leads to harm; there is a great deal of intent involved in the political and professional maneuvering that has enabled these abusive institutions and their executives. Many survivors of coercive teen treatment programs (KIDS, ELAN, WWASP, CEDU, New Bethany and The Family Foundation School, among many others) wonder why the criminal justice system seems to fail when it comes to institutional child abuse.

As we puzzle-fit these rather cryptic FOIA documents together with eyewitness accounts, we can see some of the ways institutional child abuse was enabled through human error and corruption. But it seems we only learn about them once it’s already too late, while these ways have become legacies, shrouded by redactions and controversy, rather than stopped.