I'm going to take advantage of this month's NaBloPoMo theme to talk a little smack about the Tea Party Patriots, the closest analog in the Tea Party Movement to Coffee Party USA. However, I won't be alone. Take it away Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones!
The Washington media was buzzing Wednesday after the leaders of the Tea Party Patriots came to town and announced that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) deserved a primary challenge, along with any other Republican who voted to raise the debt ceiling. Mark Meckler, a national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, told the Daily Beast that Boehner's deficit plan was "an embarrassment." At a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, Meckler declared Boehner's numbers "fake" and "phantom."That would have been good advice, considering that listening to it resulted in a stock market crash and S&P downgrading the U.S. credit rating.
It was an interesting choice of words, since they might also describe the number of tea partiers Meckler and his co-coordinator, Jenny Beth Martin, claim to represent. In the news coverage, Tea Party Patriots has been consistently identified has having at least 3,500 local chapters, making it one of the largest tea party organizations in the country. But many of those chapters are, to use Meckler's term, phantom, which raises the question of whether the GOP House leadership should really be paying quite so much attention to the noise coming from the tea party leaders working the media circuit right now.
Last fall, the Washington Post’s Amy Gardner tried to verify the TPP’s numbers. She attempted to run down every one of its local chapters. Out of the 2,300 chapters TPP then claimed to have, Gardner could only identify 1,400; of those, she was only able to make contact with 647. Most had fewer than 50 members, and some consisted of a single person. That's a fraction of the 15 million people TPP's leaders often claim to represent when they're on the Hill demanding that Republicans refuse to increase the debt ceiling. Which raises the question of why, exactly, Republicans are taking them so seriously.About the most generous hard number one could use for the membership of the Tea Party Patriots would be the 831,887 accounts who "like" their page on Facebook. Even that would be overly generous, as those accounts could include both legitimate fan pages of other organizations and fan pages of public figures that are separate from the public figures' personal pages, as well as users' sockpuppets they create to be their own neighbors on Farmville. Even taken at face value, that number would overstate their support, as a lot of those people are "slacktivists" who are perfectly happy to read, like, and share the posts on Facebook, but don't contribute any money or even show up at rallies. A better source of the organization's strength would be the number of people on their email list. Good luck getting that out of them short of inducing them to brag about it. Mind you, with this group, that might be easier than one might think.
There are other reasons to question the wisdom of Republicans taking economic advice from national leaders of the Tea Party Patriots and other top tea partiers in the news this week. Consider the fact that before riding the tea party movement to national fame, Meckler was a high-ranking distributor for Herbalife, a company considered by many consumer groups and regulatory agencies to be a pyramid scheme. After that, he got into "affiliate marketing," an industry responsible for all of those "tiny belly" ads haunting the Internet that the FTC says are a scam. His colleague, Jenny Beth Martin, also doesn't have a great track financial record. In 2007, she and husband lost their house and ended up owing the IRS more than $500,000 in back taxes.I posted this paragraph in a comment to Fiscally Irresponsible at Hysterical Raisins, introducing it with "the financial rot extends down to the grass roots" and concluding it with "As I wrote, rotten down to the grass roots." At the time, I hadn't read the article at the last link in the paragraph. I should have; things are worse than I thought!
Tea Party Patriots Investigated: The Tax-Dodging Treasurer
Why'd the group put a failed businessman who owes big money to the IRS in charge of its finances?
—By Stephanie Mencimer
Wed Feb. 16, 2011 4:00 AM PST
The finances of the nation's largest tea party group have increasingly become a subject of concern—and outrage—to conservative activists. Some question whether donations to the organization, Tea Party Patriots, have gone to advance the movement, or just the careers and jet-setting lifestyles of its leaders. What they don't know is that the group has had a man with an unusual background managing its money: He was sanctioned by the IRS several years ago for failing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in payroll taxes related to a failed business that pushed him into bankruptcy. He also happens to be married to one of the group's leaders.Actually, I'm not surprised by the treasurer being a relative of one of the leaders. In a fast-growing grassroots organization that started out small, the leaders will pick the people they know and trust to help them, and those will usually be family. When the organization gets bigger, that might no longer be a good idea. Case in point.
Former TPP insiders say the organization's finances have largely been managed by Lee Martin, who's identified in some corporate filings as the group's assistant treasurer. He's better known to tea partiers as the husband of Jenny Beth Martin, a cofounder of TPP and one of the faces of the tea party movement.
Some tea party insiders, however, see Martin's work for the group as an indication that it's relying on nepotism rather than good management to run its affairs. In part, that's because Lee Martin isn't the only relative of Jenny Beth who's involved in running TPP. Her cousin, Kevin Mooneyhan, is a paid TPP employee.What I am surprised about he has such a shady background. Then again, as my wife said when I told her about him, that's why they hate the government.
Lee Martin says Mooneyhan, once the operations coordinator for his defunct temp firm, is his wife's right-hand man, and insists there is nothing improper about his hiring. "It didn't have anything to do with the fact that he was a cousin," he says. "I think [Jenny Beth] has about 30 cousins, he's the only one [working there], and it's strictly because of his qualifications and not because he's a relative."
Speaking of shadiness, there's more.
For a group that has demanded financial accountability and transparency from the Obama administration, Tea Party Patriots (TPP) has not embraced those principles in its own business affairs. It has been highly secretive about its finances, and the organization's leaders have dealt harshly with activists and employees who've pressed for answers on how donor money has been spent.This blog post from a month before the Mother Jones article shows that the Tea Party Patriots were advertising themselves as a 501(c)4 organization then. They still do, as the fine print at the bottom of each page of their website proclaims.
Meanwhile, the group has failed to file a timely tax return indicating how much money it has raised and what, generally, it spent it on—including how much it's paying its top staffers. And despite identifying itself for nearly two years as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, the group has neglected to actually apply to the IRS for such status.
Tea Party Patriots, Inc. operates as a social welfare organization organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. Contributions to Tea Party Patriots, Inc. are not deductible as charitable contributions for income tax purposes.Things may have changed, as the Mother Jones article is nearly six months old. On the other hand, if they still haven't applied, "that's interesting, that's very interesting," as Captain Jack Sparrow would say.
Speaking of interesting, check out the conclusion to the Mother Jones piece.
Martin blames criticisms of him and TPP's leadership on disgruntled employees and activists. "We've got a few people who along the way just did not work out as team members," he says. "They're not happy about having to be separated from the group." This sentiment is shared by some TPP loyalists. "Those speaking out against them, they are just sour grapes," says Anthony Shreeve, a Tennessee state coordinator for TPP.No kidding. I wouldn't want these people anywhere near my organization's money!
But Laura Boatright, a onetime TPP regional coordinator in southern California, says activists have good reason for concern about Lee Martin's role in the group. She points in particular to the Martins' fragile financial condition. "I think they should be worried, not only because of his prior record dealing with finances and having a very successful business that went under, but I think it's a huge conflict of interest to be handling all that money when you're in such dire straits."