Monday, February 20, 2012

Billionaire Romney donor uses threats to silence critics

Billionaire Romney donor uses threats to silence critics
FEB 19, 2012

Frank VanderSloot is an Idaho billionaire and the CEO of Melaleuca, Inc., a controversial billion-dollar-a-year company which peddles dietary supplements and cleaning products; back in 2004, Forbes, echoing complaints to government agencies, described the company as “a pyramid selling organization, built along the lines of Herbalife and Amway.” VanderSloot has long used his wealth to advance numerous right-wing political causes. Currently, he is the national finance co-chair of the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, and his company has become one of the largest donors ($1 million) to the ostensibly “independent” pro-Romney SuperPAC, Restore Our Future. Melaleuca’s get-rich pitches have in the past caused Michigan regulators to take action, resulting in the company’s entering into a voluntary agreement to “not engage in the marketing and promotion of an illegal pyramid”‘; it entered into a separate voluntary agreement with the Idaho attorney general’s office, which found that “certain independent marketing executives of Melaleuca” had violated Idaho law; and the Food and Drug Administration previously accused Melaleuca of deceiving consumers about some of its supplements.

But it is VanderSloot’s chronic bullying threats to bring patently frivolous lawsuits against his political critics — magazines, journalists, and bloggers — that makes him particularly pernicious and worthy of more attention.

In the last month alone, VanderSloot, using threats of expensive defamation actions, has successfully forced Forbes, Mother Jones and at least one local gay blogger in Idaho to remove articles that critically focused on his political and business practices (Mother Jones subsequently re-posted the article with revisions a week after first removing it). He has been using this abusive tactic in Idaho for years: suppressing legitimate political speech by threatening or even commencing lawsuits against even the most obscure critics (he has even sued local bloggers for “copyright infringement” after they published a threatening letter sent by his lawyers). This tactic almost always succeeds in silencing its targets, because even journalists and their employers who have done nothing wrong are afraid of the potentially ruinous costs they will incur when sued by a litigious billionaire.

Numerous journalists and bloggers in Idaho — who want to write critically about VanderSloot’s vast funding of right-wing political causes — are petrified even to mention his name for fear of these threats. As his work on the Romney campaign brings him national notoriety, he is now aiming these tactics beyond Idaho. To allow this scheme to continue — whereby billionaires can use their bottomless wealth to intimidate ordinary citizens and media outlets out of writing about them — is to permit the wealthiest in America to thuggishly shield themselves from legitimate criticism and scrutiny.

* * * * *

VanderSloot is a devout Mormon and has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) since 1965. Over the last decade, he has continuously inserted himself into the political realm in all sorts of inflammatory and influential ways, clearly making him a public figure and fair game for scrutiny...

Then there was VanderSloot’s behavior in response to an award-winning investigative series by The Post Register, a small, independently-owned newspaper in Mormon-heavy Idaho Falls, which unearthed the story of a pedophile in the local Boy Scouts troop who had molested dozens of scouts (the national Boy Scouts of America had succeeded in having the subsequent civil case sealed from public view).

The Post Register sued to obtain those sealed records, and then detailed how a Mormon bishop knew of his pedophile history yet still recommended him as a Scout master, how he was protected by several Boy Scout lawyers who were aware of more abuse but did not tell the boys’ parents, and how top-level local and national leaders of the Mormon Church had also received warnings.

The newspaper then began uncovering the presence of several other scout-master pedophiles. As the Post Register‘s courageous Managing Editor, Dean Miller, detailed here, the backlash against the paper, its editors and reporters was severe: the Boy Scouts in that part of Idaho is associated with and heavily supported by LDS, and “some counties that [the] newspaper serves are more than 70 percent Mormon, and for generations scouting has been the official youth program for Mormon boys.”

In response to this six-part exposé — which won the Scripps Howard Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment – VanderSloot went on a virtual jihad against the newspaper and the principal reporter who exposed the scandal, Peter Zuckerman. VanderSloot bought numerous full-page newspaper ads in The Post Register that attacked the story and explicitly identified the reporter, Zuckerman, as “a homosexual” (Zuckerman had previously written for a small Florida paper about being gay when he lived in that state, but had kept his sexual orientation largely a secret since he moved to rural Idaho). Vandersloot’s full-page ad expressly described the “speculation” that Zuckerman’s homosexuality had made him hostile to the Scouts and LDS: “the Boy Scout’s position of not letting gay men be Scout Leaders, and the LDS Church’s position that marriage should be between a man and a woman may have caused Zuckerman to attack the scouts and the LDS Church through his journalism.”...

No comments: