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Profile: Marissa Bodnar
Marissa Bodnar was a participant or observer in the following events:
Graphic of Frank VanderSloot, appearing on Fox News. [Source: Fox News Insider]Salon’s Glenn Greenwald reports that Idaho billionaire Frank VanderSloot, the CEO of Melaleuca, Inc. and a prominent donor for the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney (R-MA), apparently objects to media reports about his financial and corporate practices, issuing threats against those who report on him and his company. VanderSloot is the national finance co-chair of the Romney campaign and a longtime Republican donor. Like Romney, he is a devout Mormon and an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Accusations of Wrongdoing - VanderSloot and Melaleuca have donated at least $1 million to the “independent” super PAC supporting Romney, Restore Our Future (ROF—see June 23, 2011). Melaleuca, which manufactures and distributes dietary supplements and cleaning products, was described by Forbes magazine in 2004 as “a pyramid selling organization” comparable to Amway and Herbalife. Melaleuca has been sanctioned by Michigan regulatory agencies, and agreed to refrain from “engag[ing] in the marketing and promotion of an illegal pyramid” in that state. It entered into a separate agreement with the Idaho attorney general’s office after that office found that some Melaleuca executives had broken Idaho law. And the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has accused Melaleuca of deceiving customers about its supplements.
Threats of Lawsuits - VanderSloot counters media reports of Melaleuca’s alleged wrongdoing with what Greenwald calls “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.” His threats have forced Forbes, Mother Jones, and a gay blogger in Idaho to remove material that was critical of his political and business practices, though Mother Jones reposted its article after revisions were made. Greenwald reports: “He has been using this abusive tactic in Idaho for years: suppressing legitimate political speech by threatening or even commencing lawsuits against even the most obscure critics (he has even sued local bloggers for ‘copyright infringement’ after they published a threatening letter sent by his lawyers, and demanded the public outing of some bloggers’ identities). This tactic almost always succeeds in silencing its targets, because 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 reports that VanderSloot’s tactics have had a chilling effect on Idaho journalists and bloggers, who routinely refuse to write critically about VanderSloot’s fundraising for conservative causes. And now that VanderSloot is a senior official in the Romney campaign, Greenwald writes, he is expanding his tactics beyond Idaho. “To allow this scheme to continue—whereby billionaires can 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,” he writes. “It’s almost impossible to imagine any more thuggish attempts to intimidate people from speaking out and criticizing VanderSloot,” he adds. “The effect, if not the intent, of these frivolous threats, pure and simple, is to intimidate those who cannot afford to defend themselves from criticizing the very public, politicized acts of Frank VanderSloot and his company. That’s why one no longer can even read most of the criticisms that prompted these warnings.”
Anti-Gay Activism - Greenwald writes that VanderSloot has a history of anti-gay activism, citing his funding of a billboard campaign that condemned Idaho Public Television for showing a documentary that reported on the effects of addressing lesbian and gay issues inside elementary classrooms. Though the documentary reported that working with such issues in an age-appropriate fashion was generally positive, VanderSloot accused IPT of promoting a threat to children, saying, “[I]f this isn’t stopped… little lives are going to be damaged permanently.” His wife Belinda donated $100,000 to California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 campaign in 2008. And when the Idaho Falls Post Register reported on a pedophile preying on local Boy Scouts, a Mormon bishop’s alleged complicity in the matter, and the network of pedophiles that was behind the original allegations, VanderSloot attacked the newspaper and the principal reporter, Peter Zuckerman. (The six-part series won the Scripps Howard Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment.) VanderSloot bought full-page ads in the Post Register attacking the story and outing Zuckerman as “a homosexual,” a fact that Zuckerman had not advertised since moving to Idaho years before. VanderSloot’s ads asked if Zuckerman’s sexual orientation made him hostile to the Boy Scouts and the Mormon Church. The damage to Zuckerman’s professional and personal life was severe, including physical threats and his longtime partner being fired from his job. [Salon, 2/17/2012]
Response - VanderSloot responds in a subsequent interview with local Idaho reporter Marissa Bodnar. After the Greenwald report, MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow devotes a segment to VanderSloot based largely on Greenwald’s article. According to VanderSloot, Greenwald “quotes what others have wrongfully said about us and then taunts us to do something about the fact that he repeats it.” Idaho independent journalist and blogger Jody May-Chang, who has also been threatened with lawsuits by VanderSloot’s lawyers, says in response: “Mr. VanderSloot is a public political figure. They’re fair game… especially when you’re talking about behaviors and actions and things done in public light that are well known.” VanderSloot denies harboring an anti-gay agenda, saying, “I have never spoken out against gays or against gay rights,” though Bodnar notes, “[S]ome said money speaks louder than words.” VanderSloot admitted to contributing money to a group that challenged a pro-gay marriage documentary aired on Idaho public television in 1999; May-Chang says, “I’m not sure how anyone else could not characterize those as anti-gay.” For his part, VanderSloot says, “I believe that gay people should have the same freedoms and rights as any other individual.” His main objection to the Idaho Public Television program about addressing gay issues in schools, he says, was that it was being aired during prime time, “when it would attract the most children,” and the use of tax dollars to fund the program. He contends that his status as a “billionaire” is “greatly exaggerated,” and though he owns a controlling interest in Melaleuca, he is not “cash-rich.” He defends his attacks on the Idaho Falls Post Register, saying that he deplores the pedophiles who were preying on children but found the story to be “unfair” in its coverage. He was merely defending people who had been unfairly portrayed as being involved in the affair, he says, and notes that he “would use a much different approach were this to happen again.” He denies outing Zuckerman as a gay man, claiming that Zuckerman’s sexual orientation was public knowledge, and saying that contrary to Greenwald’s reporting, he defended Zuckerman in the Post Register advertisements. He denies that Melaleuca’s business model is anything like those used by Amway or Herbalife, and says Melaleuca does not employ a “pyramid scheme” to make its profits. VanderSloot says Melaleuca “will continue to use whatever legal means are available to us to defend the truth and to request corrections where false allegations have been made.” He is strongly critical of Greenwald’s article, and accuses Greenwald of deliberately repeating “the original false allegations” against him and Melaleuca. He concludes: “We can disagree on issues and argue those issues in honest and open debate. You can count on us to not smear or attack the messenger. We will defend their right to disagree. But we do ask even those who disagree with us to tell the truth about who we are and what we do. We will continue to ask that of people. That is not going to change.” [KIFI Local News 8, 3/1/2012]
Entity Tags: Idaho Public Television, Idaho Falls Post Register, Frank VanderSloot, Forbes magazine, Food and Drug Administration, Willard Mitt Romney, Restore Our Future, Rachel Maddow, Peter Zuckerman, Melaleuca, Inc., Mitt Romney presidential campaign (2012), Marissa Bodnar, Jody May-Chang, Mother Jones, Glenn Greenwald
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
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