TPP's opacity has left local organizers and even some former staffers in the dark about what's happened to the millions of dollars the group has raised over the past two years. This has fueled suspicions about how Meckler and fellow national coordinator Jenny Beth Martin are spending the money—and whether they are exploiting the tea party movement for personal gain. Martin said last summer that she was making $6,000 a month for her work. But activists have been unable to officially confirm her salary or Meckler's. Asked late last year by Mother Jones, Meckler refused to say how much he's being paid, though such information is legally required to be disclosed on a charity's tax forms.
"You are taking money out of the pockets of local groups and spending it on what? Rallies, hotels, airplanes so Mark and Jenny Beth can fly around and talk to potential donors? It's ridiculous."
To local tea party activists, Meckler and Martin appear to be living large (even as they churn out op-eds bashing Republicans for not doing enough to cut the budget). They did little to dispel such notions in October, when the pair jetted across the country in a private plane to whip up the tea party faithful ahead of the midterms. Recently, they launched their own slick personal websites highlighting their tea party leadership and media appearances—sites that are separate from the national group's website and have all the trappings of the work of image consultants.
"They're acting just like the regular GOP does," say Joy McGraw, a former Georgia state coordinator for TPP who spent some time in DC with its national leaders. "They received a million in donations; they flew around in a private jet. Every time they stayed in DC, they stayed in the Hyatt. They were eating like kings and queens on donated money."
TPP's honchos don't take kindly to questions about how they are spending the group's money, either, as California tea partier Cindy Chafian discovered the hard way. During one of the group's weekly webinars last fall, Chafian, the co-coordinator of the Chino Hills Tea Party, asked some pointed questions about why the group wasn't more forthcoming about how it spent the $1 million donation. Afterwards, her tea party group was deleted from the TPP website and she was blocked from further calls. She subsequently sent a letter to TPP's board raising her concerns. In it, she wrote:
When I think of what a LOCAL GROUP could do with that money it really makes me angry. There are many groups who are struggling just to keep their heads above water; your organization should be encouraging them to keep their money local. Instead you are taking money out of the pockets of local groups and spending it on what? Rallies, hotels, airplanes so Mark and Jenny Beth can fly around and talk to potential donors? It's ridiculous. TPP relies on DONATIONS from it's members to survive…for you to waste that money is completely unacceptable.
In return she was threatened with a lawsuit by one of the board members, Debbie Dooley, who in an email called her allegations slanderous and said, "I can tell you that if you go public with these lies, I will obtain an attorney personally for myself and seek legal action against you. You are way off base and I am glad you are no longer associated with TPP." Dooley did not responded to questions from Mother Jones.
Scott Boston, TPP's onetime national education coordinator, says he, too, pressed for answers about the group's finances—and was pushed out of the group as a result. Boston says he was offered a severance package that was contingent on signing a nondisclosure agreement. He declined to sign.
Rob Gaudet, TPP's former chief technology officer who created the group's website as well as many of its related software applications, was also forced out of the organization last fall. (TPP says he refused to follow orders about server management; Gaudet says he was ousted for criticizing the top leadership and its management.) TPP offered him $20,000 to keep quiet, he says. Like Boston, he declined.
"Any time anybody asks about the money, you're immediately labeled as a problem or an adversary," says Boatright, the southern California tea partier. "They act like you're a troublemaker just for asking."
TOMORROW: You'll never guess who's handling TPP's finances.