Thursday, June 21, 2007

Financial backer named in lawsuit

Utahn stays on campaign despite abuse allegations
Suit claims students at schools were sexually, physically exploited

June 21, 2007
By Thomas Burr
The Salt Lake Tribune

A Utah man remains on presidential candidate Mitt Romney's state finance committee despite his ties to an organization that a lawsuit alleges abuses children.

Robert Lichfield, who helped launch the Worldwide Association of Specialty Schools (WWASPS), held a fundraiser for Romney in southern Utah earlier this year that raked in more than $300,000 and has been a top financial supporter of the former Massachusetts governor and other Republicans in recent years.

Lichfield, meanwhile, is named in a federal lawsuit alleging that students of the schools associated with WWASPS were subjected to "physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse." An amended complaint in U.S. District Court in Utah lists 140 plaintiffs.

The suit, filed last year and now moving through the court system, contends students were forced to eat their own vomit, clean toilets with a toothbrush and brush their teeth afterward, were chained or locked in dog cages, kicked, beaten, thrown and slammed to the ground and forced into sexual acts.

Defendants in the suit deny any wrongdoing. Program officials say the plaintiffs don't have sufficient knowledge of the operation to claim such abuses and that neither WWASPS nor Lichfield operates or owns the schools involved. (Lichfield does act as landlord for some schools.)

Romney's campaign Ð which has accepted nearly $15,000 from the Lichfield family so far this year Ð says the campaign's "finance effort is done according to strict rules and is fully transparent."

"It's my understanding that these complaints are part of a civil lawsuit between two parties," Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said. "Questions regarding the nature of those civil lawsuits should be directed to the parties involved in adjudicating them."

Utah was the second-biggest state for Romney's first-quarter fundraising efforts. The former head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City drew nearly $3 million from the state in the first three months of the campaign.

Lichfield did not respond to a request for an interview through WWASPS, but the president of the organization, Ken Kay, says the lawsuit is bunk.

He called the allegations "ludicrous," adding, "We don't condone any type of child abuse and it's highly unlikely that any of the incidents ever happened."

Kay says the lawsuit Ð like those before it that were unsuccessful Ð come out of "opportunist" lawyers goading former students telling stories and also from students who want to hurt the schools because they were forced to go there.

The troubled teens making the allegations "are the trouble," Kay says. "They have a history of fabrication and out-and-out lying."

Kay, who said he was unsure where Lichfield was now, heralded Lichfield as a community-oriented person who gives more to education and health care than to political races. "He is a great man, and he does a lot of very good things," Kay said.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 17 former students and their parents, contends differently. The suit says Lichfield "directly or indirectly, owned, operated, or otherwise directed the conduct and activities of each and every other" defendant, including various schools in the United States and other countries.

The suit claims that minor children were subjected to abuse, and that "such abuses were inflicted on some children for several years."

"In many instances, the abuse could be accurately described as torture of children," the complaint says.

Thomas M. Burton, a lawyer in California and Utah who has sued WWASPS seven times unsuccessfully, says the "tough-love" programs are unconstitutional. He says he got involved in lawsuits against the schools when he saw two young girls, shackled hand and foot and taken to a house with blacked out windows. "There's something really, really wrong with that," Burton said.

"It appears to me that no one has a right to lock up a kid who has not been adjudicated for breaking the law," he said.

Romney and Lichfield also made the news in Maine recently when the Portland Press Herald reported that an organization affiliated with Lichfield was the top donor in the governor's race there. RECAF Inc., the paper reported, gave $250,000 to a political action committee set up by the Republican Governors Association to buy television time to support Republican Chandler Woodcock.

Romney was chairman of the RGA when the PAC was set up. WWASPS has no affiliated schools in the state.

Romney in Utah this weekend

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will return to one of his favorite - and most lucrative - fundraising spots this weekend: Utah. Romney has scheduled a $500-per-person fundraising breakfast Saturday in the EnergySolutions Arena, hosted by Jazz owner Larry Miller. Later that day he will hold a $1,000-a-plate luncheon in Logan at the home of Cache Valley Electric CEO Jim Laub. And that evening, Romney is hosting a $2,300-per-person fundraiser at his vacation home in Deer Valley.