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Idaho businessman defends himself against Obama campaign

By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Newspapers –

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s campaign says a wealthy Idaho businessman and major fundraiser for Mitt Romney is “a bitter foe of the gay rights movement,” pointing to his effort to get a documentary on how teachers deal with gay issues pulled from public television in 1999.

The businessman, Melaleuca Inc. founder and chief executive officer Frank VanderSloot of Idaho Falls, charges that he’s being smeared. Blogs and pundits on the right have taken up his cause, accusing the Obama campaign of “terrorism” against him, while the left says VanderSloot’s record is being whitewashed.

VanderSloot is a national finance co-chairman for Romney, and his company gave $1 million to Restore Our Future, a political action committee created to support Romney. He was featured in an April 20 post on the Obama Truth Team website, under the heading “Behind the Curtain: A brief history of Romney’s donors.”

The post describes VanderSloot and seven others, saying VanderSloot is “litigious, combative and a bitter foe of the gay rights movement.” It makes reference to the 1999 effort spearheaded by VanderSloot to pressure Idaho Public Television to reverse its decision to show the documentary “It’s Elementary.” The documentary takes viewers into classrooms of children in the second through eighth grades to show how teachers deal with gay issues that come up.

“Why is public TV, paid for by our tax dollars, going to show this to our families, our children?” VanderSloot said at the time. “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 helped pay for statewide billboards declaring public television airing of the documentary was tax financing to “promote the homosexual lifestyle.”

VanderSloot said in an interview this week that he’s not anti-gay.

“I’ve got several gay friends, have traveled the world with gay people. I respect them, they respect and love me. For some I have great admiration for in regards to their work ethic,” VanderSloot said.

VanderSloot said that his position on the documentary has been mischaracterized by his critics. He said he didn’t have any problem with adults watching the documentary. “Showing it to children was our issue” he said.

VanderSloot has appeared over the last several days on multiple Fox News talk shows.

He told a supportive Fox host Bill O’Reilly on Monday that his company had lost a “couple hundred” customers following his mention on the Obama campaign website. But VanderSloot said in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers two days later that all the attention was turning out to be good for business.

“We’re getting a ton of national support, unbelievable, unexpected. The phones are ringing off the hook, everyone wanting to know about Melaleuca, people wanting to buy our product, they don’t even know what we’re selling,” he said.

An Obama campaign spokesman did not return a message seeking comment this week. But the liberal group Media Matters for America put out a statement saying O’Reilly whitewashed VanderSloot’s record, including an attack on an Idaho Falls Post Register reporter who wrote in 2005 that the Mormon church and Idaho Boy Scout officials were sheltering a known pedophile.

VanderSloot took out a full page newspaper ad that challenged the stories and said the reporter who wrote them is a “homosexual.” The reporter, Peter Zuckerman, no longer with the newspaper, recently appeared on the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC to say only a few people knew he was gay before the ad ran, that he received threats afterward, and that his boyfriend lost his job.

VanderSloot put out a written statement saying it was public knowledge that Zuckerman was gay, that Zuckerman had written it on a website, and that a local radio show had been “abuzz for several weeks” about his sexual orientation. VanderSloot said in the written statement that he felt it was unfair for the radio show to conclude Zuckerman had written the stories because he was gay and “we defended Peter Zuckerman and his motives.”

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