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

By Jody May-Chang

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.

Published 10:47 am Wed, Mar 21, 2012

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About the Author

Jody May-Chang is an independent journalist, activist and public speaker who has written for Religion Dispatches, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s magazine Extra!, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s magazine The Intelligence Report, and Windy City Times. She has been a regular contributor to the Boise Weekly and received a second place award from the Idaho Press Club for her watchdog/investigative report “Exposing Homophobia” about the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009. May-Chang lives in Boise, Idaho with her wife of 16 years and their son. She blogs on “As I See It” on May

66 Responses to “Don't let Mitt Romney's anti-gay billionaire backer whitewash his intimidation of critics”

  1. millie fink says:

    Excellent reporting, thank you! This kind of scurrilous bigotry needs more disinfecting sunlight.

    I hope, and suggest, that BB will offer similar insight into the Koch Brothers’ funding of that more subtly toxic right-wing propaganda outlet, Reason (tv and magazine) . . .

    • Mordicai says:

       This guy is a prime example of why we need massive campaign reform.  Theocracy plus plutocracy mixed into a disgusting cocktail.

    • Stanley J says:

       MY ‘real catholic and social justice friend told me that he is also a racist.  Not surprising, hate of gays and blacks seems to be the backbone of the repub party.

      • Kristofer Peterson says:

        You forgot Mexicans.  Republicans really hate all those lazy Mexicans stealing our jerbs.

  2. Teller says:

    On the plus side, he makes gluten-free vitamin supplements!

    • HerkyDerky says:

      And vitamin supplements do what exactly?

      • Teller says:

        They exit your body first chance they get.

        • Cognitect says:

           Most vitamin supplements do seem to be pretty useless and can even have harmful effects. However, assuming all supplements are pointless is unwise. For example, Vitamin D supplementation can provide significant health benefits if (like me) you live in a northern area with a long, dark winter.

      • Andy Havens says:

        Hey… placebos work. I just read about it in a placebo science article.

  3. sinsara says:

    This is a great article!  Thanks for posting it!  Sharing it with all of my FB friends too!  Nicely done! 

  4. Why Rosemary, he has his FATHER’s eyes…

  5. Brainspore says:

    It’s hard to see the big picture with such wee beady eyes.

  6. Guest says:

    Fricking hilarious!

  7. Lobster says:

    Wonder if he has a son named Joran.

  8. thecleaninglady says:

    Anti-gay often turns out ot be suppressedly-gay or secretly-gay. Poor man. If everyone could come out without fear, what a wonderful world would it be!

    • Andrew Singleton says:

      The more i see the most ardently homophobic turn out to have gay or bisexual habits the more I want to try to pity them. The sheer amounts of self loathing going on there must be soul crushing.

      However to earn my forgiveness they must repent of their wickedness and truely want to put the crushing of fellow human lives behind them. Til then they are just another obsticle to be gotten over.

  9. SamSam says:

    Jesus, that “advertorial” is so transparent and disgusting. It’s almost exactly what you’d expect to read in a bad pulp novel: 

    “We think it would be unfair for anyone to conclude that Mr X is a psychopathic Communist who once murdered a hooker for her shoes. It would be wrong to do so. The only known facts are that, for whatever reason, he wove his story unfairly.”

  10. adamrice says:

    What really mystifies me about this guy is not that he’s a homophobe—which he clearly is—but that he doesn’t want to be perceived as a homophobe, and will go to some lengths to quash that perception.

    • Marja Erwin says:

      He could have quashed that perception much more easily by *not* promoting bigotry, and *not* threatening lgbt folks, than he has by threatening reporters who note how he is promoting bigotry.

    • Christopher says:

       I’m honestly not trying to sound sarcastic, but have you met many homophobes? I’ve met several and they all objected to being labelled either a homophobe or a bigot. They seem to understand that it’s wrong and object to being identified as such a person, but aren’t willing to change the attitudes/behaviors that result in being called a homophobe.

      • Brainspore says:

        Also see: racists. It’s rare to find a bigot who thinks of themselves as a bigot even if they are a walking textbook example of bigotry. They tend to say things like “I don’t have a problem with [group], I just don’t want them [associating with/sharing the rights of my group].”

  11. With original journalism like this, I’d love to see BB become the Rolling Stone of its generation.

  12. TheMightyMona says:

    I loved that article, and this one, makes me proud of BoingBoing and my Boise Weekly.

    • nesnora says:

      Boise Weekly always has stunning designs and illustrations for their covers… I always pick them up to save when I’m visiting out west. :)

  13. Don’t forget about the other 10 grand the Frank donated to Prop H8te directly from Idaho Falls. . 

  14. Grambo says:

    Nice job doctoring the painting to make the guy look extra creepy.

    Original:
    http://chiromwm.smugmug.com/keyword/frank/1/915520005_zUq9J#!i=915520005&k=zUq9J

    • RedShirt77 says:

      I imagine, as a good billionaire   he has copy-write on all public images , so you have to alter to use.  And there was  no motivation to make  him look better.

    • In what universe is our pic not obviously and intentionally a caricature of that photo?

      • benher says:

        For caricature, I feel you should have chosen VanderSloot’s saucy cowboy ensamble personally. ;)

      • mlw99 says:

         Well, Rob, since you asked, in the universe that I inhabit, I didn’t “obviously” realize that it was “intentionally a caricature of that photo.”  I didn’t even realize from the post that there was “that photo.”  Just to make it clear, I despise what this guy stands for and his actions and conduct as described.

      • invictus says:

        The one where not everyone has spent time staring at the guy’s actual photo? You know, the one where most people haven’t been involved in preparing this article/image?

        I certainly had no reason to know the photo was altered — tiny copyright text in the corner notwithstanding. And at least two other people have commented on the photo with no hint of their realizing it was a caricature.

        So, what universe? Sure looks similar to this one.

        • Grambo’s ire at ‘doctoring the painting’ at least understands that it is doctored and that it is a painting. If you looked at this and thought it was an unaltered photo, there’s really no helping you, whichever universe you inhabit.

          • invictus says:

            Oh, *now* I’ve been told!
            I guess in your universe, Photoshop is unheard of, making oil painting style filters a mythical, mysterious power.

            But you’re right, the use of the term “photo” was ill-advised. I guess I wasn’t giving this masterpiece of visual humour the proper attention it so clearly deserved.

            Oh, wait. I was.

    • Fnordius says:

      I think Rob did a good job myself. Really captured the soul of the guy without going all Dorian Grey and showing how ugly his soul really is.

      Oh, and I don’t think the term “doctoring” is warranted. It’s Rob’s own artwork, though I suppose if the HOPE poster could be litigated Rob might be facing a lawsuit no matter how satirical the painting is.

  15. goopy says:

    If he hates gay that much, he should move to Iran or whatever homophobic country and leave US for those who believe in equal right. Or get use to 21 century.

  16. fergus1948 says:

    I hate to lower the tone but I do sometimes get joy from people’s names and how nominative determinism can sometime kick in.

    How cool would it be if gay guys or girls invented a really kinky new sex act and called it Vanderslooting?

    “I met this guy/girl last night and he/she gave me the hottest vandersloot of my life!”

    “Vanderslooter, 24, seeks similar, into extreme Limbaugh.”

    • Cynical says:

       I hereby nominate “to accidentally (or otherwise) defecate while involved in the act of anal sex” as the new meaning of “Vandersloot.”

      “Man, it was all going so well and then I vanderslooted all over the sheets. Totally killed the mood.”

      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        Which party does the accidental defecating?

      • fergus1948 says:

         ‘It happened as soon as I had my rums felt. Jeeez, it was all over my romney!’

        • Cynical says:

          There’s no way I would refer to my John Thomas as my Romney. He’s a frenulum, at best: a useless, inconsequential waste of skin that mostly just gets in the way, but has the potential to cause pain, suffering and bloodshed in a worst-case scenario.

          Plus, the headlines write themselves: “Romney snap election shock!”

  17. solid_ekans says:

    I lived in SE Idaho a few years ago. VanderSloot is a huge fish in a little pond there. He throws around his weight any chance he gets. He pays for the annual July4, American Independence day fireworks show. It’s a big deal. Cool display.  The year July 4 fell on Sunday, he moved the fireworks show to Saturday or Monday.( I forget which.) Lots of people wanted it on THE DAY YOU CELEBRATE JULY 4TH! But VanderSloot wouldn’t budge. Sunday is a big deal to Mormons. Vandersloot just gave everybody the finger. “I pay. The fireworks happen whenever I want.”
    It’s hard for the locals to badmouth the man. He employs a ton of people in SE Idaho. Chances are you know someone or are employed by Melaluca if you live there.

    I’m disappointment that his influence is getting bigger and bigger.

  18. Palomino says:

    I hope he chokes on one of his own pills. 

  19. Kristofer Peterson says:

    “I know that politics bore you but, I feel like a hypocrite talking to you, you and your racist friend. ”  Honestly I’ve always followed the TMBG method of dealing with bigotry.    In short, shun the bigots.

  20. buster_friendly says:

    I think the eyes in the painting need to be just a tad bit closer together. Don’t you?

  21. alphabomb says:

    What nobody noticed?  Glistening forehead phallus for the win!  Clearly this guys a total dickhead.  It’s not just me right?  Right?

  22. WinstonSmith2012 says:

    In our absolute farce of a representative democracy, here are your potential choices for the next corporate front man in the Oval Office. 1 & 2 will fight it out at their convention for the Repug nomination:

    1. A Mormon and his Mormon pals who hate gays so much I’m sure many of them will turn out to be closeted gays.
    2. A nut that evangelicals absolutely love (enough said).
    3. A “Yes, we can!  CHANGE!” candidate who, surprise, surprise, turned out to be nothing of the sort which is not at all surprising since all major party candidates once elected answer only to the moneyed special interests who fronted the money to get them elected.

    I’m not playing their game any more and validating ANY of them with my vote.  George Carlin is absolutely  correct (NSFW – that acronym also says something about our “free” country):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efKguI0NFek

  23. johnny says:

    Countdown ’til Vandersloot is publicly humiliated because some rent boy comes forward with photos of their lovemaking…  10, 9, 8…….