Don't let Mitt Romney's anti-gay billionaire backer whitewash his intimidation of critics

Billionaire anti-gay campaigner and Mitt Romney campaign co-finance chair Frank VanderSloot is whitewashing his tarnished image with a public relations campaign. After years of trying to silence journalists critical of him and his record, all that's left to do is dodge the difficult questions.

After a recent scathing commentary from Salon's Glenn Greenwald, echoed nationwide on MSNBC by The Rachel Maddow Show, VanderSloot's history of threatening critics was exposed. The game changed. But his efforts only highlight a long record of local campaigning whose dirty tricks and litigious tactics now deserve national attention.

The many companies run by VanderSloot, a Mormon family-values man on his fourth marriage, include Riverbend Communications, which operates a number of radio stations in his home state. But he is perhaps most widely known as the CEO of Melaleuca, a multi-Level network marketing company that sells household and nutritional products.

In Feb. 2012, I received a letter from Melaleuca accusing me of making “repeated characterizations” of Frank VanderSloot and his company “as anti-gay” on my website. Among other claims, it said these references “are inaccurate” and “mislead readers.” It said my blog contained “infringing material,” “defamatory statements” and suggested that I would be held responsible for mainstream media coverage which was “increasing the unlawful reputational damage” sparked by my reportage.

Mother Jones and Forbes published stories in early February about VanderSloot, both of which linked back to a four-year-old post I had written on my old blog PrideDEPOT. This prompted Melaleuca’s threatening letter to me, which included a copy of a similar legal threat, apparently addressed to me in 2008, which I did not receive.

The day after Maddow reported on Greenwald’s story, the Melaleuca CEO released a prepared 4-page statement to the media which painted himself as the victim: “Since I seem to be the main topic of the ‘story,’ I fully expect my comments here will be twisted and mocked, because there are some who want to believe that people who have been successful in business or who disagree with them are evil or should be made out to appear evil.”

VanderSloot's recently-launched site consists of a media statement; a letter from the Idaho Attorney General’s Office; and comments from Post-Register publisher Roger Plothow. None of it addresses the key issues raised in Greenwald’s reporting, the take-down letters sent to James Tidmarsh at Idaho Agenda, or the legal threats sent to me.

As a public figure, VanderSloot promotes a remarkable political and social agenda. Through his lawyers, he is not shy in attacking these who taking issue with his words. His actions against gay people go back years, and they're more than worthy of examination.

“It’s Elementary” Protest Billboards

In 1999, VanderSloot financed a billboard campaign against a documentary film about homosexuality intended for teachers. He described it as “child abuse” and deceptively claimed it was propaganda aimed at first-graders.

Idaho Public Television, along with hundreds of other public television stations across the country, planned to air the documentary film, It’s Elementary. Produced for school staff as a how-to guide for addressing issues of homosexuality in age-appropriate ways, the film and IDPTV were aggressively targeted by VanderSloot, who funded 25 billboards across the state that read, “Should public television promote the homosexual lifestyle to your children? Think about it!”

The Post Register’s Gene Fadness reported in August 1999 that VanderSloot spearheaded the billboard marketing effort. Despite claiming there were “others” who contributed, VanderSloot did not name them.

“I'm really concerned that if this isn't stopped, a lot of little kids will watch this program and create questions they've never had, raise curiosities that they shouldn’t have at those ages,” VanderSloot told Fadness. “Little lives are going to be damaged permanently because of the recklessness of airing this program … I hope that this form of child abuse will not be accepted in our community."

Even recently, VanderSloot claimed that the program's purpose was to 'indoctrinate' children as young as 6 and 7 years old.

“Fourteen years after my film … aired in Idaho, Mr. VanderSloot is STILL mischaracterizing it,” said director and Academy award-winner Debra Chasnoff, in a comment on KIFI’s website.

“It's Elementary is not a film made for children,” Chasnoff told me. “It is a film that was made for adults who care about and work with children. The point of view in the film is to help audiences understand that all kids are affected by anti-gay stigma in some way, and that all adults have the responsibility and ability to address that stigma so that everyone can be safe and successful in school.”

Chasnoff took exception to the billboard’s message that her film—intended to help prevent bullying in schools—was designed to “promote the homosexual lifestyle to children”

“Can you imagine if he put up billboards saying ‘Should public television promote the Asian lifestyle to your children?’ ‘The Jewish lifestyle?’ ‘The east coast lifestyle?’” Chasnoff said. “His comments reek of the ‘some of my best friends are black’ rationalization for racist behavior.”

VanderSloot, in his Feb. 21 statement, claims that “many members of the gay community agreed with me” on the documentary. But who? Most lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered Idahoans viewed his billboards as disingenuous, despicable and designed to generate fear.

The impact of the film even inspired a documentary about the documentary, 2008's “It’s STILL Elementary,” which examines the impact of the first film and follows up with the now grown students that were featured. It’s STILL Elementary also takes a deep look at what happened in Idaho and includes interviews with IDPTV’s General Manager, Peter Morrill and Program Director, Ron Pisaneschi.

In the summer of 2010, however, Chasnoff said she found it “striking” that IDPTV didn't respond to her after the new film was finished, and did not air it—and that it pained her to think anything negative might have happened to staff there for participating in the film: “I have no way of knowing what the explanation is. But it certainly gives me pause and makes me wonder what really was at play.”

“The efforts to censor the broadcast in Idaho were in an entirely different league than anything we saw anywhere else in the country”. Chasnoff added, “It was quite evident that Mr. VanderSloot was instrumental in creating the level of misinformation and hysteria surrounding the broadcast there and I can only imagine the pressure the station management might have felt once we told the story of their courage in It's STILL Elementary.”

But there's more than one way to make life difficult for queer people. You could, for example, pay a newspaper to run an advertorial feature article that revealed a critic's homosexuality.

Gay Reporter Outed in Newspaper

Peter Zuckerman was a young reporter at the Idaho Falls Post Register. In 2005 he wrote a 6-part, award-winning investigative series titled “Scouts Honor.” The stories exposed an attempted cover-up of Boy Scout leader Bradley Stowell's sexual abuse of young children, a scandal which involved Mormon Boy Scout leaders.

VanderSloot, an ardent supporter of the Boy Scouts, went on the attack.

A long-time buyer of full-page Post Register advertorials--which carry Melaleuca branding and are typeset to resemble editorial content--VanderSloot was able to use the paper's own newsprint to hound its staff.

On June 5, 2005, the Melaleuca “Community Page” outed Zuckerman as a homosexual in his small, religious community. It pre-emptively tried to justify this act by pointing to a posting on an obscure website written years earlier as part of a 6-week summer journalism fellowship. From this, Melaleuca’s ad spun that Zuckerman “declared to the public he is homosexual.”

Though the source link Melaleuca provided is no longer active, I obtained a copy of Zuckerman’s 2003 piece. The ad grossly mischaracterized Zuckerman’s words, claiming that he “admitted that it is very difficult for him to be objective on things he feels strongly about” despite his saying no such thing.

The Melaleuca ad claimed that Zuckerman's homosexuality gave him an ax to grind with the Boy Scouts, which does not allow gay scout leaders, and with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, because of their opposition to gay marriage.

What Zuckerman actually talks about in his 2003 article, however, are the complexities of coming out and the responsibilities of reporting: “As a journalist, it’s not my job to make everyone agree with me”, he wrote. “ … Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can smash our souls.”

“The attacks started before the series ran,” Zuckerman wrote later, in an article about the scandal for the National Lesbian & Gay Journalist Association. “My office, home and cell phones rang through the night. Twice someone ringing the doorbell to ‘find out the truth’ disrupted my sleep. Local talk radio devoted perhaps 12 hours to just one subject – my ‘sinful’ sexual orientation.”

Then Post Register editor Dean Miller wrote of the outing in Harvard’s Nieman Reports: “Our reporter, Peter Zuckerman, was not ‘out’ to anyone but family, a few colleagues at the paper (including me), and his close friends. … [VanderSloot] began buying full-page critical ads in our Sunday paper. He devoted several paragraphs to establishing Zuckerman is gay. … Strangers started ringing Peter’s doorbell at midnight. His partner of five years was fired from his job.”

VanderSloot is no dummy. Whoever wrote Melaleuca’s advertorial knew exactly what they were doing by attacking

Zuckerman's homosexuality instead of addressing the Scouts Honor story on its journalistic merits. In an effort to whitewash a scandal involving the Boy Scouts and the LDS Church, it sought to make the reporter—instead of a pedophile and his associates--the story.

VanderSloot’s public anti-gay efforts do not stop there.

Proposition 8 and Supporting Discrimination

Public records indicate that VanderSloot and his current wife provided significant monetary and material support of the “Yes on Proposition 8” ballot initiative campaign. Public election records indicate Belinda VanderSloot was a “major donor,” giving $100,000 to the anti-gay marriage campaign.

Passed in Nov. 2008, Prop 8 removed existing marriage rights from California gay and lesbian couples, but only after 18,000 legal marriages had already taken place. Since then, Prop. 8 has been found to be unconstitutional by two federal courts, and is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme court.

In an article published in the Boise Weekly in October that year, Ray Ring examined the LDS Church’s stand on culture war issues and its involvement in the Prop. 8 campaign—and found that its leaders encourage all Mormons to be active in politics and to take stands on issues such as homosexuality.

“That helps explain why Thursday evenings in the downtown building of Melaleuca, a health-products company owned by Frank VanderSloot, one of Idaho's richest Mormons, groups of Rexburg college students and townies get together,” Ring reports. "They're using the company's call center to make call after call to California voters, trying to persuade them to pass a ballot measure in the November election. It's titled Proposition 8—the California Marriage Protection Amendment—and it aims to prevent gay and lesbian people from getting married in that state.”

Five days later, references to “Melaleuca” and “VanderSloot” were removed when the article was reprinted in High Country News.

Attempting to suppress the First Amendment rights of bloggers and journalists by threatening and badgering them is deceitful and immoral.

Mr. VanderSloot has deliberately positioned himself as a high-profile figure and sought to gain political influence.

It is only fair that his public actions, business practices, and reputation are scrutinized.

If GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney secures the Republican nomination, the mainstream media must ask him harder questions about his association with VanderSloot.

Does Romney support VanderSloot's use of the legal system to try to intimidate journalists? Does he support VanderSloot's targeting of gay critics on the basis of their sexual orientation? Does he support his anti-gay political campaigns and tactics?

Will Romney ‘choose the right’, or is VanderSloot’s money and influence just too hard to turn down?

Jody May-Chang is an independent journalist covering LGBTQ and human rights issues.