Thursday, September 6, 2007

UPDATE: Romney Cans Golden Goose Over Abuse

September 5, 2007
John Cook

Mitt Romney has asked his Utah finance committee co-chair, Robert Lichfield, who is affiliated with a controversial network of schools for troubled teens and has been dogged by allegations of abuse and fraud, to step down, Radar has learned.

Ken Kay, the president of the Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs (WWASP), a nonprofit group co-founded by Lichfield that provides consulting services to schools specializing in "behavior modification" for wayward teens, said in an e-mail that Romney has asked Lichfield to stop participating in fundraising activities for the campaign.

Lichfield was named in a June 2007 complaint filed in federal court in Utah by the families of 133 children who have attended schools associated with WWASP, alleging that they were subjected to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. One plaintiff, Chase Wood, claims he was fondled, forced to eat his own vomit, and locked in a dog cage at the Cross Creek Center for Boys, a school that Lichfield founded in the late 1970s.

"Gov. Romney has asked Mr. Lichfield to step down and not be involved in any more fundraising until the lawsuit is resolved in the positive, which we are confident will happen," Kay said.

Lichfield is Utah's largest political donor. He organized a fundraiser in February in his hometown of St. George that netted nearly $300,000 for the Romney campaign, and members of the Lichfield family have donated $17,000.

According to a class-action lawsuit filed against him in New York in 2006 for fraud, Lichfield makes $90 million a year through a complicated network of businesses based around behavior modification and has owned or operated a total of 26 schools worldwide, some of which have been closed by local authorities for mistreatment. The lawsuit claims that the Academy at Ivy Ridge, a school that sits on land owned by Lichfield and for which he has provided consulting services, admitted students for five years without any accreditation as an educational institution from the state.
Last week Randall Hinton, an educational counselor who has worked at Cross Creek and many other schools affiliated with WWASP, was convicted of third-degree assault and false imprisonment for slamming the head of a 15-year-old student at Royal Gorge Academy in Colorado into a stairwell and forcing a 17-year-old to lie flat on his stomach for so long he had to vomit. Hinton faces up to three years in prison.

Kay, a longtime associate of Lichfield's, says WWASP simply provides marketing and other business services to schools, does not deal directly with students, and is not responsible for any mistreatment.

Lichfield could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for the Romney campaign did not immediately return messages.