One of Mitt Romney's biggest supporters this election cycle and last has been Frank VanderSloot, a powerful Mormon businessman in Idaho. VanderSloot is national finance co-chairman of Romney's campaign, as he was in 2008, and he has hosted a number of fundraisers for Romney over the years. Subsidiaries of VanderSloot's multi-level marketing company Melaleuca, of which he is CEO, have poured a combined $1 million into Restore Our Future, the main super PAC associated with Romney.
VanderSloot is a major player in Idaho politics, but as his profile rises with the Romney campaign, his controversial background in Idaho is making him a target. Salon's Glenn Greenwald wrote about him in February, Democrats have begun to circulate snippets of his history online, and a gay rights group is sending around a petition urging the Romney campaign to cut ties with him.
Melaleuca Inc., which produces green cleaning products, cosmetics, and vitamins, was accused in one lawsuit by distributors of being a pyramid scheme, which it strenuously denies. Vandersloot's lawyers have threatened multiple lawsuits against bloggers and journalists who criticize him, and he, his wife, and his company have engaged in the kinds of bitter disputes over gay rights that Romney has sought to avoid, including billboards in Idaho paid for by VanderSloot and Melaleuca that attacked state public television for airing a gay-related documentary.
VanderSloot is based in Idaho Falls and is the patriarch of a large family there. He's supported Republicans in races all over Idaho and has been fundraising for Romney since 2007 and most recently on February 17, when he attended a fundraising lunch in Boise for Romney hosted by Idaho Governor Butch Otter.
Of his company Melaleuca's four donations to Restore Our Future, VanderSloot told the Washington Post in February that "We don’t like to rile people up, but if you’re afraid to take a stand then you probably don’t deserve the benefits of good government."
And Romney, for his part, has praised VanderSloot, writing on Melaleuca's blog that “Under the leadership of Frank VanderSloot, Melaleuca has delivered on its promise of enhancing the lives of people. Frank’s vision and sense of social responsibility is second to none and he never ceases to amaze me."
Melaleuca was described in a Forbes article from 2004 as a "pyramid selling organization, built along the lines of Herbalife and Amway"; it's a "multilevel marketing" organization in which distributors sell its products, all the while recruiting other distributors. It calls the vendors who sell its products on commission "marketing executives," but the average wage for a Melaleuca marketing executive is $85 a year, Mother Jones reported. The company pitches itself to stay-at-home moms as a source of extra income, but the vast majority of the money goes to VanderSloot himself, who Forbes estimated in 2004 was worth $700 million.
Critics of Melaleuca's marketing strategy have sometimes faced aggressive blowback from the company, and in some cases been threatened with a lawsuit. Idaho blogger Jody May-Chang received a threatening letter in February from Melaleuca's counsel, over a four-year-old post on her blog that referred to Melaleuca as a pyramid scheme.
Melaleuca's lawyer Michael LaClare wrote to her accusing her of "inflammatory rhetoric" and demanding that the offending post be taken down. A similar letter had been sent to May-Chang back in 2008, though she says she never saw it because it went to a P.O. box she had closed out.
VanderSloot's company "goes after anybody who speaks critically of them," May-Chang said. That includes a number of other outlets, including Mother Jones, which took down an article at the behest of Melaleuca's lawyers. Washington bureau chief David Corn said they took it down in order to re-report the story, and re-posted with corrections a week later. (Corn noted that "We’ve done this in the past with other stories where there have been issues.")
Other targets also includes writers like James Tidmarsh, who runs a gay blog called The Idaho Agenda and who took down a post on VanderSloot's opposition to gay rights after he, too, received a cease-and-desist letter and a series of emails from Melaleuca's lawyer. Melaleuca's letter to Tidmarsh, dated February 7th, says that Melaleuca "recognizes the potentially valuable service that The Idaho Agenda website ("Website") provides to Idaho's LGBT community" but that "it is wrong, however, for you to use false, misleading, and/or defamatory statements to support your opinions or objectives."
"The letter caught me totally by surprise," Tidmarsh told BuzzFeed. "Everything I wrote has been out there for years. It’s widely known in Idaho. It’s not like it was big secrets I’d uncovered."
Still, Tidmarsh chose to take the post down.
"I started the blog as an events type of a blog to support the LGBT community here in Idaho," he said. "It’s not going to be supporting anybody if it’s tied up in litigation."
The Tidmarsh post that raised Melaleuca's ire pinpointed three incidents: when VanderSloot paid for a full-page newspaper ad that outed a reporter, Peter Zuckerman, who had exposed sexual abuse among Boy Scout troops in a Mormon area in Idaho; when VanderSloot paid for billboards that criticized Idaho state television for running "It's Elementary," a documentary about discussing gay issues with schoolchildren; and third, the article mentioned the fact that VanderSloot's wife Belinda donated $100,000 to support Proposition 8 in California.
VanderSloot's history has begun to mobilize segments of the left to use him as ammunition against the Romney campaign, like Human Rights Campaign, the gay advocacy group. HRC has started a petition called "Fire Frank," calling on Romney to "Fire Frank VanderSloot immediately and return the money he has donated to your campaign." The group says that nearly 40,000 people have signed the petition so far.
HRC spokesman Dan Rafter told BuzzFeed that "Mitt Romney can't have it both ways - saying repeatedly he opposes discrimination against gay Americans but then employing Frank VanderSloot, whose harsh anti-gay views are quite clear. The Republican hopeful should immediately fire VanderSloot to show the country he means what he says."
A spokeswoman for the Romney campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
It's possible that the media attention coming their way because of VanderSloot has quieted him somewhat; Jody May-Chang says his company's lawyer's haven't followed up on their letter.
"My feelings on that is it’s about the political campaign and exposure he’s getting," she said. "I’m small potatoes right now."
Regardless, she says, "He has a lot of influence. A lot of people are not willing to speak up and talk against him."