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Tea Party Patriots Investigated: "They Use You and Abuse You"

Pricey political consultants, constant fundraising, fame-seeking leaders: A grassroots group cozies up to the DC establishment and alienates the activists who put it on the map. Part 1 of 3.

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 7:00 AM EST

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.

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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.

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