A bill permitting state regulation of boarding schools for troubled teens was quietly smothered in the Utah Capitol this year after the founder of a chain of controversial schools, who is a major Republican donor, lobbied key lawmakers.
Campaign donations by Robert Lichfield and his family or business associates during the 2002 and 2004 elections total $1,016,607.
*Utah congressional candidate
- Republican National
- Utah Republican Party........$165,900
- Arizona Republican Party...$150,000
- John Swallow*......................$118,000
- Sen. Bob Bennett, R-UT........$68,500
- Jon Huntsman, Jr.**................$65,000
- Jim Hansen**..........................$47,433
- New York Republican
- Marty Stephens
(Utah House Speaker)...........$31,500
- Geoffrey Davis***....................$14,000
**Utah gubernatorial candidate
***Kentucky congressional candidate
Source: Federal Elections Commission. Utah State Elections Office. New York State Elections Office.
The Salt Lake Tribune
Powerful legislators, including House Speaker Marty Stephens, held back the measure until the Legislature's clock ran out at midnight on March 3 - the final day of the session.
Six days later, the bill's biggest opponent, World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools founder Robert Lichfield, presented a $30,000 check to Stephens' campaign for governor.
Since then, one of the handful of Utah boarding schools, which would have been regulated under the bill, Majestic Ranch, near Randolph, Utah, has been investigated three separate times for alleged abuse, according to state Human Service officials. Only one ended in a criminal charge and conviction when a staffer - no longer employed there - pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault.
Majestic Ranch is owned by Lichfield's brother-in-law, Dan Peart, who donated $500 to Stephens. The ranch is among seven troubled-teen schools affiliated with World Wide in four states and two foreign countries.
Several others have been shut down amid allegations of abuse or squalid living conditions, including the Casa by the Sea facility near Ensenada, Mexico, closed last weekend by government officials. More than 500 students were returned to the United States from the program.
Ken Stettler, director of the Utah Office of Licensing, remains convinced he had the votes to pass Senate Bill 140, giving his office regulatory authority over Majestic Ranch, if only Stephens and others had allowed it to come up for a vote.
"It still goes back to the old deal that, you know, if you are giving political contributions, then when the time comes and you need to call in your chips, you're going to have a listening ear, which is more than a lot of the citizenry has," says Stettler.
If cash is the secret to opening political doors, Lichfield and his profitable network of schools are well on their way to securing the master key.
Other Lichfield-related donation recipients
Rep. Bob Bishop, R-UT..................$8,000
Rep. James Barrett, R-SC.............$7,550
New York Gov. George Pataki.......$5,000
Utah Rep. Richard Burr, R-N.C......$4,000
Utah Rep. Steve Urquart,
Utah Rep. David Clark,
(Utah gubernatorial candidate)......$2, 384
Patricia Ritchie (New York state
New York State
Sen. Jim Wright, R-Watertown.......$1,500
Rick Clayburgh (North Dakota
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT...................$1,000
Utah Sen. Bill Hickman,
New York Supreme Court................$200
Source: Federal Elections Commission. Utah State Elections Office. New York State Elections Office.
The Salt Lake Tribune
The La Verkin entrepreneur, his family members and business associates have poured more than million into political campaigns during the 2002 election and so far this year. The contributions - all to Republican candidates, and many to Utah politicians - have come like a desert downpour: fierce and sudden.
The family donated no more than a couple of thousand dollars prior to Jan. 1, 2001.
Lichfield told The Tribune there was nothing nefarious about his sudden plunge into the political arena.
"We've been abundantly blessed, and when you're blessed, we feel you have a responsibility to bless others," he said, confirming that World Wide member schools gross more than $70 million annually.
The family's charitable contributions dwarf political donations, Lichfield added, putting the former donations at $3 million last year.
Utah politicians who were among the biggest benefactors of the Lichfield election-year largesse insisted they never had discussed issues with their patron.
U.S. House candidate John Swallow has received 18,000 from Lichfield and his associates, more than any other candidate.
Swallow's campaign manager, Tim Garon, said Swallow had not met Lichfield until 2002, when the Lichfield family handed over 30 checks on a single day totaling $30,000 to Swallow's campaign.
"John and I are close friends," said Lichfield. "We just connected as families."
After his 2002 election loss, Swallow did legal work for a Lichfield company in Nevada. As a state representative, Swallow had twice sponsored legislation that would have allowed parents to get a tax break for enrolling their children in a private school.
Lichfield said he has "mixed emotions" about tuition-tax credits, although "you obviously see I have an incentive to be for them." Although such tax breaks would benefit private schools, including World Wide members, he said he has reservations about hurting public schools by draining resources.
As with Swallow, Sen. Bob Bennett met Lichfield just a few years ago, but has become a friend. They don't discuss policy, said Bennett's spokeswoman, Mary Jane Collipriest.
Last year, Lichfield sent Bennett a form letter supporting a Medicare reform bill, according to Collipriest. The bill expanded Health Savings Accounts, which allow parents to make tax-free contributions to an account that can be used for medical costs, including the type of residential treatment provided by schools affiliated with World Wide.
Lichfield said he doesn't remember the letter or the issue.
He said he hasn't pressed his issues on Bennett nor any of the Utah gubernatorial candidates who have received 40,000 so far this year from the Lichfield family and business associates.
"I don't think I've ever sat down and given them a litmus test," Lichfield said. "There were so many good candidates."
Republican gubernatorial nominee Jon Huntsman Jr. concurs.
"We have not talked about any of his issues. I do not know a whole lot about his business," said Huntsman, who accepted $60,000 from Lichfield and $5,000 from Majestic Ranch. "What business is he in?"
Former U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen took more than $45,000 from Lichfield for his unsuccessful campaign for governor this year.
"Bob Lichfield is a great American," said Hansen. "I don't know a thing about" the string of schools for troubled youth.
Stephens, the outgoing House speaker whose bid for governor ended unsuccessfully in the May 8 Republican State Convention, did not return eight messages for comment over a period of more than two weeks.
"Believe me, the check had nothing to do with SB140," said Lichfield. "Marty Stephens was going to get a donation from me no matter what happened to SB140. Marty Stephens is a quality guy."
Lichfield shrugs off any suggestion he has, in just two years, become a political power broker.
"I'd like to use my means and resources to bless peoples' lives. Does that also imply influencing policy-makers to make good policies that support good family values, quality education and the things I believe in? Definitely. I'd like to have some influence in that," he said.
Reps. Steve Urquhart and Dave Clark, both St. George Republicans, helped stall SB140 in the Legislature's House Rules Committee after consulting with Lichfield family members and their business associates. Each received $2,500 in donations in 2002 from Lichfield.
Urquhart, who said he was representing a constituent and his philosophy of limited government, acknowledged consulting with Stephens.
Stettler identified Stephens as a key player in the demise of SB140 - a claim confirmed by bill-sponsoring Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan.
"He was determined it wasn't going to pass," said Buttars.
Buttars, who shepherded the bill through the Senate, came under attack himself because he is the head of Utah Boys Ranch, which also treats troubled youth.
"Mine is a full, licensed residential program and I think that makes me a better facility," he said. "I'm prejudiced and I admit that. I think every kid deserves to have his food, safety and shelter guaranteed by oversight."
Buttars declined to comment on Lichfield or his affiliated companies directly.
"There are some huge forces that I took on there. . . . I really don't want to talk much about that," he said. "This is a mean, ugly game with money going in lots of directions."
Ken Kay, World Wide's president, questioned Buttars' sponsorship of a bill that would affect his competitors.
"Personally, I found that dazzling that here's a guy that has something to do with this Utah Boys Ranch in there trying to do this," said Kay.
He dismisses as "baloney" the claim by Stettler and Buttars that the bill simply would have allowed state licensing officials to inspect Majestic Ranch twice a year - including once in an unannounced visit.
Kay said the legislation would have required professional diagnoses of the 65 youngsters at Majestic Ranch and allowed regulators to pore through "private financial records" and dictate "how you conduct [operations] and train staff and who they are."
Kay said there is simply no need for the state to have such a strong hand in the boarding schools' operations.
"We see certain bureaucrats that want more control. I think it has a lot to do with power," said Kay. "I think we are every bit as sensitive, if not more sensitive, to children's rights and safety. We have a total anti-abuse stand - 100 percent."
But the Association-affiliated schools have a checkered record. Government agencies in the Czech Republic, Costa Rica and, most recently, Mexico have shut down schools.
In South Carolina, inspectors put Carolina Springs Academy's license on probation after administrators failed to report child abuse. They also found students sleeping on stained, torn mattresses in unfit dormitories and problems with how students were restrained.
Regulators also banned Lichfield's brother, Narvin, from the facility based on his operation of the Costa Rican school.
Congressman George Miller, D-Calif., has twice asked the Justice Department to investigate the schools, and more recently Rep. Jack Quinn, R-N.Y., made a similar request. The Bush administration has said it lacks the authority to initiate such a probe.
The Justice Department said it has forwarded the complaints to the U.S. Attorney for Utah and the FBI field office, but a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney said nothing has come of the referral.
Meantime, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, whose office two years ago unsuccessfully prosecuted the director of Majestic Ranch on abuse charges, as recently as last week toured one of the affiliated schools in St. George with Urquhart.
Shurtleff's campaign has received no Lichfield contributions, a spokeswoman said.
Lichfield said in his two or three meetings with Shurtleff, he has never attempted to get Shurtleff to rein in investigators or prosecutors. He said he doesn't have that kind of influence and wouldn't use it if he did.
Scott Simpson, a former executive director of the Utah Republican Party, spoke with Lichfield often during the 2002 campaign.
"From my perspective, it seemed based on ideology," said Simpson. "There are a few ways you can get involved in politics. You can run for office, you can be the grass-roots guy pounding in the lawn signs or you can be the guy who writes the check."
See related: Psychologist's View of Casa By The Sea
See related: Correspondence between Congressman George Miller and Attorney General John Ashcroft about alleged human rights violations of children in WWASPS facilities , 2003 - 2004
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