Two years ago, Tea Party Patriots got its start as a scrappy, ground-up conservative organization. Its rowdy activists demanded more transparency and less business-as-usual in the nation's capital, and they worked hard to elect candidates who they believed wouldn't succumb to the ways of Washington. But it didn't take long for the grassroots tea party organization to embrace the DC establishment—and some of its more questionable practices.
Lately, Tea Party Patriots (TPP) has started to resemble the Beltway lobbying operations its members have denounced. The group's leaders have cozied up to political insiders implicated in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and have paid themselves significant salaries. TPP accepted the use of a private jet and a large donation of anonymous cash right before a key election, and its top officials have refused to discuss how the money was spent. And recently, the group has hired several big-time fundraising and public relations firms that work for the who's who of the Republican political class, including some of the GOP's most secretive campaign operations.
As TPP's leaders entrench themselves in Washington, local activists the group represents have accused them of exploiting the grassroots for their own fame and fortune while failing to deliver any meaningful political results. "Tea Party Patriots? I can't attribute one victory to them at all," says Laura Boatright, a former TPP regional coordinator in Southern California who has become an outspoken critic. "Where's the success with what they've done with all this money? My view is that it's just a career plan" for its national leaders—namely Jenny Beth Martin, who in 2010 was named by Time as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and Mark Meckler, now a regular commentator on Fox News. (Meckler and Martin did not respond to a request to comment for this story.)
In August, TPP inked a contract with MDS Communications, an Arizona-based phone fundraising firm that counts as clients the Republican National Committee and most of the GOP's congressional campaign organizations. MDS even handled the telephone fundraising for the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign. The firm specializes in working with the GOP's evangelical foot soldiers, including the National Right to Life Committee, Concerned Women for America, and the Family Research Council. It has been heavily involved in anti-gay marriage activities, once donating its services to help raise more than $7 million for Arizona's Proposition 102, which created a state ban on gay marriage.
The MDS deal with TPP is anything but cheap. Documents filed with the Colorado secretary of state indicate that MDS will keep at least 70 percent of the money it raises—nearly $3 out of every $4. In 2005, California's attorney general released a report (PDF) showing that MDS was among a number of fundraising companies that returned less than 15 percent of what they raised to some of the charities they worked for. Out of more than $585,000 MDS pulled in for the Concerned Women for America, for instance, not a dime went back to the nonprofit group, according to the report.
TPP's leaders negotiated a similar deal with Capitol Resources, the most formidable GOP phone fundraising operation in the presidential bellwether state of Iowa. Corporate filings show the company will keep 75 percent of the money it raises hitting up tea partiers for donations.
"Tea Party Patriots? I can't attribute one victory to them at all," says Laura Boatright, a former TPP regional coordinator.
The firm's owner, Nicole Schlinger, is a longtime GOP operative. She was the finance director of the Iowa Republican Party in the late 1990s, and she directed Mitt Romney's victorious 2007 Iowa presidential straw poll campaign. Schlinger also served as the original president and sole board member of the American Future Fund, an outside expenditure group that spent millions from anonymous donors during the 2010 midterms attacking Democratic candidates. (Earlier this month, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asked the IRS to investigate the group for allegedly violating its tax-exempt status.)
Rounding out TPP's new stable of political consultants is the Richard Norman Company, a Virginia-based direct-mail fundraising and PR firm. Norman, like the other firms on TPP's payroll, represents some of the country's most prominent GOP players, including the political action committee of former uber-lobbyist and current Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
TPP has long insisted that it wants to avoid divisive social issues like abortion to focus on the core values of fiscal responsibility and limited government. But in hiring the Norman firm (and MDS, too), it has joined the ranks of a long list of evangelical organizations affiliated with the far-right wing that are represented by the company.
Norman clients include the Foundation for Moral Law, the group founded by the defrocked Alabama Supreme Court judge Roy Moore, who was kicked out of office for his refusal to remove a Ten Commandments sculpture from his courtroom. Also on the firm's client roster are several anti-immigration groups, including the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. Norman even represents a group headed by birther Gary Kreep.
TPP's new coterie of consultants and fundraisers may put the group in a new league politically—but they have sparked bitter complaints by affiliated tea party groups, whose members are tired of being hounded for money. Some see TPP morphing into the very type of slick, DC-centric special interest group they have been fighting against.
In an interview with Congress.com last month, TPP's Martin tried to play down such notions. "Any possible solutions that we come up with, especially policy related, we're going to go back to the local coordinators and say, 'Do you agree with this?'" she said.
Rank-and-file tea partiers aren't buying it. Last month, Jeanie Backus Coates, then the New Mexico state coordinator for TPP, sent out an urgent email to her grassroots compatriots warning that TPP was using telemarketers to raise money from local activists. In a January 13 email, she wrote:
The Tea Party Patriots national website clearly states that 100% of the funds raised go to furthering OUR efforts. Well, I guess that's true AFTER paying out salaries, consultants, telemarketers, attorneys, etc...
And yes, Jenny Beth and [coordinator] Mark Meckler hired a consultant without most of us even knowing about it and now that consultant has encouraged and those two have decided to start soliciting donations from our own local tea party participants so that they can pay themselves, their consultant, their telemarketers, and their attorneys.
Coates was particularly angered because the national TPP leaders have relentlessly pressured local affiliates to turn over their valuable membership contact lists to the national organization, which the group is now using to sic telemarketers on tea partiers.
The list controversy dates back to September, when TPP announced that it had received a $1 million grant from an anonymous donor to conduct get out the vote work before the midterm elections. The money was distributed to local tea party groups, but initially only on the condition that they turn over their membership lists to the national organization, a move that raised suspicions that TPP intended to sell this valuable data. (Fueling these suspicions was the fact that Meckler works for a lead-generation company that provides email contacts to companies often considered to be pyramid schemes.)
"They make it seem like they help local groups. None of that money ever goes back to local groups."
Now, activists are furious to discover that TPP is leveraging those lists to mine tea partiers for money that will fund such things as Meckler and Martin's salaries, a winter conference in Phoenix, and of course, the high-priced fundraisers themselves.
Disgruntled former TPP volunteers and activists say that rather than partners in a movement, they have increasingly come to feel like fundraising marks. TPP's fundraising appeals, they say, can be quite deceptive.
One sent out recently by TPP's Martin pleads with "patriots" to donate to pay for sound-stage equipment, event security, travel expenses for speakers, and other tea party rally trappings. She promises that the money will fund the group's efforts to meet with local tea party groups and "to give them the advice, direction, and the logistical support they need to get off the ground." Respondents can return a form pre-addressed to Martin that reads, "Dear Jenny Beth, Thank you for sacrificing your former way of life to fight for our liberty and for the core values and principles our great nation was founded on."
Some tea partiers point out that Martin's "way of life" has improved considerably since she started making a reported $6,000 a month as TPP's national coordinator. Before she became a tea party star, she was working as a maid, scrubbing toilets for Atlanta suburbanites after her husband's company went belly up.
Cindy Chafian, the co-coordinator of California's Chino Hills Tea Party in California, used to donate monthly to TPP. She has since grown disillusioned with the group and its leaders. Far from helping local activists like her, Chafian says, TPP's fundraising efforts are actually diverting resources from the local groups that need them. "They make it seem like they help local groups," she says. "None of that money ever goes back to local groups."
TPP's nonstop fundraising efforts have reached the point where the group's weekly conference calls with activists have turned into little more than telethons, says the organization's former Georgia state coordinator, Joy McGraw. And, far from bolstering local groups, the national organization has left them holding the bag for bills they incur advancing the movement. Such was the case with McGraw, who says she arranged an event attended by Martin and Meckler that featured GOP talking head Dick Morris. McGraw says Martin had her deal with all the logistics for the event, even signing contracts for catering and other expenses, but refused to let her handle any of the money raised to pay for it, including through ticket sales. When the $5,000 catering bill came due, the national coordinators refused to pay, she says. When creditors began to come after her, McGraw was forced to raise money from fellow activists to pay off the debt.
"Tea Party Patriots don't really do anything for the local groups," she says."There are a lot of frustrated people. There are a lot of other people in the country who've done events and have gotten screwed over. We are all volunteers. We do not get paid like [Martin] does. They don't say, 'Thank you.' They use you and abuse you."**
The money TPP has raised is significant, and the hiring of professional fundraisers should only help matters. According to a financial statement filed with the Colorado secretary of state, TPP raised $538,009 between June 1, 2009, and May 31, 2010. It would later receive the $1 million donation. Given the amount of cash that has sloshed through TPP's coffers in the past two years, much of it from individual grassroots donors, many activists have begun to wonder how it's been spent by an organization that doesn't even have an office. Yet TPP has proven virtually inscrutable, and its leaders have refused to answer the question: Where's all the money going?
TOMORROW: TPP says it's a nonprofit political charity. "News to us," says the IRS.
**Update 2/14/10 Mother Jones asked a tea party spokesman to comment on this story last week but did not get a response. After the story was published, Debbie Dooley, a TPP national coordinator in Georgia, emailed Mother Jones disputing McGraw's account of events, saying that McGraw approached TPP about doing the event with Dick Morris and offered to sign a contract pledging to handle all the expenses and debt from the event, in exchange for taking a 15 percent cut of any profits, with the rest going to the Atlanta Tea Party.