Utahn stays on campaign despite
Financial backer named in lawsuit
June 21, 2007
by Thomas Burr
Romney / Lichfield news ...
Suit claims students at schools
were sexually, physically exploited
- 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 which has accepted nearly $15,000 from
the Lichfield family so far this year 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 – like those before it that were unsuccessful –
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,"
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
"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.