Children of Synanon

The story sounds diabolical.
For more than a decade, a Tucson nonprofit drug-treatment center called Amity, Inc., had slowly developed a glowing international reputation for helping drug addicts.

Amity's apparent success was cited in a 1995 front-page story in the New York Times. Walter Cronkite waxed eloquent about the program in a broadcast last year.

Amity's leaders have testified before Congress and been named to White House panels. Only last month, a major Japanese television network featured Amity's intense therapy, including gut-wrenching, emotional encounter sessions.

Now despite such public success, Amity has gone into bankruptcy. Its records have become the focus of a series of private and government investigations, and its management has conjured up a peculiar conspiracy theory in which Amity's own board members are accused of destroying the program in a real estate scam.

Amity's managers had commonly provided services to anyone in need, but current and former managers admit they long had been overwhelmed when it came to financial matters.

In the early 1990s, Amity's management sent out a plea for help. Tucson's business community responded, with prominent attorneys, bankers, legislators, educators, business persons, religious leaders and accountants agreeing to serve on Amity's board of directors.

At first Amity's management was delighted to have such outside expertise on its board; because of its apparent clinical success, the center had grown and was now handling an unwieldy $6 million a year in state and federal grants. But soon, the honeymoon ended.

In September 1994, Amity's top managers were told by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that the organization had improperly, and possibly illegally, spent about $517,000 of federal money. This was a catastrophic mistake that forced drastic reductions in staff and programs.

It was so serious that in November 1995 Amity filed for bankruptcy.
Although two of Amity's three top managers have since resigned, the former leaders continue loudly to lay the blame for Amity's financial collapse on former members of Amity's board of directors.

In fact, Amity's former executive director, Rod Mullen, and his wife, former deputy director Naya Arbiter, claim several former board members and their agents executed an elaborate scheme to destroy Amity and gain control of Amity's 53-acre ranch in east Tucson.

"We are pretty convinced we were forced into bankruptcy because some developers wanted our land," Mullen says.

Arbiter filed a formal complaint with the Arizona State Accountancy Board in October 1995 accusing Tucson accountant Jon Young of misconduct in his role as a director and member of the board's finance committee. The accountancy board is continuing to investigate the charges.

Arbiter and Mullen are armed with reams of documents and an array of convincing tales to support their accusation. Even more alarming is their claim that some of the board members who supposedly undermined Amity had relatives successfully complete its drug-treatment program.

Could it be true that members of Tucson's business elite coldly executed a plan to destroy one of America's most successful drug-treatment centers--a facility that had helped some of their own children--simply out of greed? Could it be true that Tucson's business elite would choose an easily detected and hardly sure-fire accounting gambit in order to accomplish that plan?

Both are very, very unlikely.
The accusation has enraged and confounded many volunteer board members who have spent years helping Amity. Most say Amity's financial collapse was caused by Mullen's incompetent management. Thousands of pages of Amity documents--and Mullen's own statements--strongly support that view.

So why raise such an outlandish accusation at this time?
One reason might simply be money. Amity's financial collapse left Mullen and Arbiter unemployed.

Their best hope for a job right now is landing a $1 million-a-year California state grant to manage a drug-treatment program in a San Diego prison that Amity started in 1990. Part of the criteria for awarding the grant will be the financial acumen of the applicants.

Muddying the waters with a story outlining their conspiracy scenario could take some of the sting out of Amity's bankruptcy, says accountant Young.

Whatever the reason, Arbiter and Mullen, and to a lesser extent Amity's current executive director Bette Fleishman, have launched a powerful campaign to discredit many of Amity's former board members.

Relying heavily on character assassination, innuendo and repetition to build their case, the trio is using techniques mastered years ago while participating in another drug-treatment program that was hailed, much like Amity's is today, as a miracle cure for drug addicts.

Arbiter, Mullen and Fleishman each spent more than a decade living at the now-infamous California-based cult called Synanon. During their stay throughout the 1970s, they witnessed and participated in a program that evolved from treating drug addicts, to declaring itself a religion to avoid taxes, to developing a paramilitary organization bent on violence.