Tea Parties Aren't Cheap

| Mon Jul. 11, 2011 6:24 PM EDT

For about nine months now, Mother Jones has been trying to get a sense of just how much money might be behind parts of the tea party movement. Specifically, I asked one of the largest umbrella groups, the Tea Party Patriots, for a copy of its federal 990 forms. As a 501 (c)(4), the group is required by law to file the form each year with the IRS and make it public. TPP did not respond to some initial requests. Finally, in January, a spokesman for the group explained that the reason we hadn't been able to get the form is because the organization hadn't filed a return, despite being in existence for almost two years.

The group, which made a name for itself by calling for more government transparency, had tinkered with its filing date in order to avoid public disclosure as long as possible. As a result, it wasn't required to file a return until April 2011—for tax year 2009. So when April rolled around, I asked again. Again, no response. I even asked Mark Meckler, the group's chief financial officer and national coordinator, in person for a copy when he was speaking at Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Conference in DC in June. He promised that the return had been filed and that I could get a copy. So I emailed to follow up, and I waited. Still nothing.

Eventually, I filed a complaint with the IRS, noting that the group wasn't complying with the law. That seems to have done the trick. Late last week, I got a copy of the return. Given that it contains information that is more than a year old, it wasn't especially interesting. It didn't cover, for instance, the period leading up to the midterm elections last fall, when TPP got an anonymous $1 million grant. It did, however, shed some light on how much money the group raised in its early days, and what it did with it.

The highlights:

  • Between June 2009 and May 31, 2010, TPP raised more than $700,000, not a bad haul for a scrappy upstart.
  • TPP paid out about $150,000 for employees' salaries and benefits.
  • $459,000 went to pay for tea party rallies, including the big 9/12 march on the National Mall in September 2009, proving that marching around isn't necessarily "free" speech.
  • The group ended the fiscal year with only $40,000 in the bank, indicating that it was spending as fast or faster than it was raising money.

Some disgruntled tea partiers who've had issues with the way TPP has spent money might be interested to know that the group shelled out $183,000 on travel that year, as well as more than $60,000 on advertising. Also notable: the only board member who reported receiving a salary was Jenny Beth Martin, who apparently got $36,800. Many tea party activists have suspected Meckler of getting a six-figure salary. According to the tax return, Meckler didn't get paid anything in FY 2009. However, the return also doesn't say who got the rest of the $100K+ in salaries, instead reporting to the IRS that because the group was in its "development" stage, officers and directors were paid via contract for their services, which apparently the group believes they don't have to spell out in the return. Translation: Meckler and other board members were paid for their services, they're just not going to tell the public or even their own members how much. 

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