Meet Mitt Romney’s Billionaire “Bully”

To look at Mitt Romney you might think he’s really rather harmless. He wears clean clothes, keeps his hair neatly combed and has that reassuring touch of gray at the temples. Central Casting might choose him as a kindly surgeon in a TV soap opera. He doesn’t look like someone who could get really mean.

The people backing him are a different story. As you could tell from those Super PAC ads that smeared Newt Gingrich into oblivion, some of Romney’s supporters can be mean indeed.

Take the national finance co-chair of the Mitt Romney presidential campaign. His name is Frank VanderSloot and he made his billions by persuading hordes of people to peddle a vast array of products – from vitamins to household cleaners – or to recruit others to do the peddling for them.

You may have come across VanderSloot’s merchandise. They’re marketed under the Melaleuca label, and I have a relative who swears by the stuff. Of course, she also happens to be selling it.

But a Salon.com article by Glenn Greenwald isn’t so enthusiastic about the Idaho billionaire’s operation.  The piece reports that:

Melaleuca’s get-rich pitches have in the past caused Michigan regulators to take action, resulting in the company’s entering into a voluntary agreement to “not engage in the marketing and promotion of an illegal pyramid”‘; it entered into a separate voluntary agreement with the Idaho attorney general’s office, which found that “certain independent marketing executives of Melaleuca” had violated Idaho law; and the Food and Drug Administration previously accused Melaleuca of deceiving consumers about some of its supplements.

It’s not the 62-year-old billionaire’s marketing tactics that inspired Greenwald’s article, however; it’s his way of silencing critics. According to the Salon article:

It is VanderSloot’s chronic bullying threats to bring patently frivolous lawsuits against his political critics — magazines, journalists, and bloggers — that makes him particularly pernicious and worthy of more attention.

Greenwald cites Forbes, Mother Jones and “at least one local gay blogger in Idaho” as victims of VanderSloot’s bullying. He reports that “even journalists and their employers who have done nothing wrong are afraid of the potentially ruinous costs they will incur when sued by a litigious billionaire.”

Greenwald relates the following anecdote to illustrate how vindictive VanderSloot can be:

The Post Register, a small, independently-owned newspaper in Mormon-heavy Idaho Falls, …. unearthed the story of a pedophile in the local Boy Scouts troop who had molested dozens of scouts (the national Boy Scouts of America had succeeded in having the subsequent civil case sealed from public view). The Post Register sued to obtain those sealed records, and then detailed how a Mormon bishop knew of his pedophile history yet still recommended him as a Scout master, how he was protected by several Boy Scout lawyers who were aware of more abuse but did not tell the boys’ parents, and how top-level local and national leaders of the Mormon Church had also received warnings. The newspaper then began uncovering the presence of several other scout-master pedophiles….

In response, the billionaire – a devout Mormon…

bought numerous full-page newspaper ads in The Post Register that attacked the story and explicitly identified the reporter, Zuckerman, as “a homosexual” (Zuckerman had previously written for a small Florida paper about being gay when he lived in that state, but had kept his sexual orientation largely a secret since he moved to rural Idaho).

Post Register Managing Editor Dean Miller told Salon that because of the ad,  strangers started ringing Zuckerman’s doorbell at midnight and the reporter’s partner of five years was fired from his job.

Greenwald says VanderSloot has a history of virulent anti-gay activism. He says the  billionaire spearheaded “a despicable billboard campaign condemning Idaho Public Television for a documentary, entitled It’s Elementary, that was designed to provide ‘a window into what really happens when teachers address lesbian and gay issues with their students in age-appropriate ways.’ “

VanderSloot is not unique – or even unusual – among the zealots who back the Romneys of the world. It has become part of the far-right playbook. They make a practice of cowing the media into airing their views and suppressing dissent. Think of the change in CNN since the days of Ted Turner, for example.

As Greenwald points out:

To allow…. billionaires to use their bottomless wealth to intimidate ordinary citizens and media outlets out of writing about them is to permit the wealthiest in America to thuggishly shield themselves from legitimate criticism and scrutiny.

But with the recent Supreme Court decision unleashing the corporate elite’s billions for political campaigns, we can expect more of this kind of bullying. Much more.

Click here for the Salon article.

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