Most people only see the public faces of the Tea Party Patriots: those doing television interviews, appearing on the covers of magazines, waving from the steps of private jets at political rallies, and who spend the millions of dollars in tax-free donations they have raised; but who are the 15 million "patriots" who actually attend the thousands of local tea parties across the heartland of America? Answers were sought at the TPP's American Policy Summit held during the last week of February in Phoenix, Arizona.
The Faces of Fear
Although organizers had planned for 7,000 attendees, about 2,000 showed up and several thousand more attended, virtually, via the Internet.
There weren't many body piercings or tattoos visible among the activists at the summit; no horns or forked tails were detected; nor were there very many colonial costumes or tri-cornered hats in evidence. There was, however, an abundance of serious faces and crossed arms.
There were as many women as men in attendance, but the most striking thing was the absolute absence of faces of color. None. Not a single Black, Hispanic or Asian face could be seen in the crowd. This is not to say that the "Patriots" are racist; they cheered former CEO Herman Cain, the conservative African-American Republican presidential candidate who claims that liberals are destroying the American Dream.
When Tea Party leader Mark Meckler was asked about the absence of faces of color, he said he doesn't "pay attention to color" and he doesn't know why there aren't more. He didn't answer when asked if the Tea Party intended to do anything to attract minority members.
Many women wore crosses on neck chains, but Stars of David and "peaceful coexistence" pendants were not displayed. There were numerous references by speakers to America as a Christian nation, including a prayer by Congressman David Swickart that called on all members to become "soldiers for the message." Another speaker said a "Christian Nation doesn't need health care reform," only Good Samaritans to help others. The prayer service on Sunday morning was held by Al Larson, who seeks to establish a "network of dangerous men in and through our churches who so treasure Christ as Leader in their hearts that they are willing to risk anything to follow Him."
If nothing else, the Patriots are very patriotic. Sessions were opened with the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance to the flag, and all veterans were encouraged to stand and offer a military salute.
The Patriots want a government that does nothing more than what it is authorized to do by the Constitution. The conference tote bags contained three copies of the Constitution, and the overriding theme of the Summit was a reduction of the federal government to conform to the powers set forth in Article I of the document.
Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition called upon the audience to restore the nation to the principles on which it was founded, and said, if the government fails to protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, "there is a moral obligation to overthrow the government, by force if necessary." He stated America was settled with "three tools: the axe, the plow and the Bible." Then, he added a fourth - the gun.
Arizona State Senate President Russell Pearce told the crowd it was time for a "rag tag army" led by the "congregations" to step up and fight against illegal immigration and the failure of government to do its job.
More than half of the audience appeared to be of retirement age and more than a few carried oxygen bottles; however, most cheered when Yaaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute stated "social security was the most immoral scheme ever devised by politicians" because it forces the responsible to care for the irresponsible.
Howard Sprague, a retired inancial advisor who collects social security, believes it would be unfair to take social security away from those who were already receiving it, but that future generations should have a choice to opt in or out of social security and Medicare. Retiree Ralph Westburg wants to replace social security for the next generation with individual payments into private insurance company annuities; however, he also wasn't willing to give up his own social security and Medicare benefits.
The only crack in the solid wall of conservatism was exposed by the few young people who were in attendance. Unlike older participants who declined to talk about "social issues," Alexander Falkenstein and Carlos Alfaro of Students for Liberty, a libertarian youth organization, favor gay human rights and freedom of choice for women. They oppose the War on Terror and the War on Drugs. They believe in free market ideals; however, they fear the political power of big corporations. They stated the U.S. should be placing goods rather than troops in other countries.
More than anything else that can be said, the Patriots are fearful. They fear the loss of the quality of life they and their parents enjoyed following World War II; however, they also believe that the unions who led the battle for the wages and benefits they received are becoming too powerful. They fear the influx of immigrants and the loss of "American" jobs; however, they overlook that every single one of them is either an immigrant or the descendant of immigrants. They fear the loss of the moral values they were raised with; however, they are quick to deny others the choices they have had the freedom to make.
Those who join the Tea Party Patriots could be your parents, the veteran next door, the Little League coach, or the guy at the hardware store. They are hard-working, conservative, self-sufficient people who are afraid for the future of their families and their way of life. Having been empowered by the rewards of their efforts, they now feel helpless to confront the forces that threaten them. They feel compelled to do something, anything, to defend their beliefs. They are drawn to the Tea Party to meet like-minded patriotic people and to "make a difference."
The fears of the Patriots are not unreasonable. However, it is not reasonable for their leaders to encourage and to take advantage of their fears; nor is it right that the leaders sell out the membership to those who finance their efforts to influence Patriots to act against their own self interest.
The Public Faces
In addition to the prayers and patriotic programs, the American Policy Summit frequently took on the atmosphere of an ongoing infomercial as CFO Jenny Beth Martin threw tee shirts out into the crowd and CEO Mark Meckler raced up and down the aisles giving away free copies of books that were on sale in the Exhibit Hall.
Both have ties to the Republican Party, Martin as a "former paid consultant for local Republican candidates," according to USA Today, and Meckler as a "petition circulation" manager for the Lincoln Club of Orange County, a GOP lobbying group, and for other Republican candidates and causes. However, the "huckster" image of the Tea Party Patriots' summit may be due to Meckler's background as a "network marketer" for Herbalife, which has a long history for making false claims about its products and for running a pyramid-style marketing scheme.
According to Mother Jones, Meckler was a top 1% distributor, a member of the "president's team," each of whom have to book more than $200,000 a month. In 1999, Meckler and his wife wrote that multilevel marketing can provide a "lifestyle offering total time freedom" and an opportunity to build an "unlimited residual income stream." In 2002, the couple claimed a monthly income of $20,000.
In 2004, Herbalife settled a class-action lawsuit in which 8,700 low-level distributors claimed that the company was in fact a pyramid scheme in which the only winners were those at the top and the losers were the 90% at the bottom.
Meckler ceased being a Herbalife distributor in 2004; however since at least 2007 he has worked for Shai Pritz, a fellow member of Herbalife's president's team, as general counsel and chief operating officer of UniqueLeads. The company provides marketing services to companies, such as Herbalife, who are a part of the "affiliate marketing" industry, which has been investigated and charged with credit card fraud, among other illegal practices.
Meckler's job at UniqueLeads is to help affiliate marketers avoid such criminal charges, and it appears he had to rescue his license to practice law in 2006 in order to do so. At that time, his license had been suspended by the California State Bar for more than five years for failure to pay his bar dues and for noncompliance with continuing legal education requirements.
In a comprehensive three-part series of articles published just prior to the Phoenix summit conference, Mother Jones extended the parallels between TPP and multilevel marketing companies it had established in its earlier article. In both organizations, members are recruited through the use of fear tactics into an elite and "enlightened" group, which ultimately fails to actually accomplish anything except to maintain its own organization and to reward the organizers.
Although TPP received an anonymous donation of $1 million last year and books a steady stream of online contributions from its claimed 15 million supporters, it has never accounted for the money it has received - neither to the government, nor to its members.
In addition, it has signed agreements with at least three fund-raising companies to make use of its membership lists to raise even more money. These companies keep as much as 75% of the funds they raise for their operating expenses, especially for the salaries of their officers, and they are closely affiliated with the Republican Party and ultra-conservative evangelical organizations.
Laura Boatright, a former TPP regional coordinator in Southern California says, "Tea Party Patriots? I can't attribute one victory to them at all. 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 officers.
The year before her incorporation of Tea Party Patriots in Georgia in 2009, Jenny Beth Martin and her husband, Lee, declared bankruptcy. They claimed debts of more than $1.4 million resulting from a failed "temp" agency that supplied thousands of Spanish-speaking immigrant workers to local food production businesses, including Coca-Cola.
Lee was not allowed to discharge the payroll taxes he had withheld from his employees and diverted from the taxing authorities, and the Martins continued to owe $510,000 to the federal government and $172,000 to the state of Georgia. They lost their five-bedroom home in Woodstock, matching Lincoln Navigators, and club membership, and Jenny Beth had to go to work as a house cleaner.
According to its website, "Tea Party Patriots, Inc. operates as a social welfare organization organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. Contributions to the corporation are not deductible as charitable contributions for income tax purposes." As such, it is not required to pay taxes on its income although it is required to file tax returns; however, even though its bylaws were ratified in February 2009 and it should have filed a return in April 2010, it has failed to do so. By later declaring that its fiscal year ends on May 31st, TPP has delayed its first filing until April 2011, more than two years after its incorporation.
Although Jenny Beth Martin is listed as the Chief Financial Officer of TPP, its day-to-day finances are overseen by Lee Martin, who serves as the financial gatekeeper and de facto human resources manager. He is assisted by Jenny Beth's cousin, who formerly worked as Lee's operations coordinator at the failed temp agency and is now Jenny's "right-hand man." Lee says, "if people want to get paid, the bill goes through me for administrative purposes."
Lee was personally involved in offering a $20,000 payoff to TPP's former technology manager, Rob Gaudet, if he would sign a nondisclosure agreement about the conditions of his employment severance. Gaudet refused to agree that he left on good terms or that he would refrain from making negative comments about TPP.
In addition to the IRS, local tea party groups have also been kept in the dark, and some are growing increasingly concerned about the financial operations of the TPP. Laura Boatright says, "You'd think they'd lead by example, you'd think they'd open their books and not hide behind their tax status." Cindy Chafian, another coordinator from Southern California complains that the national organization does not share resources: "They make it seem like they help local groups, [but] none of that money ever goes back to local groups." Former Georgia state coordinator, Joy McGraw complains that, "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 and abuse you." Former New Mexico state coordinator, Jeanie Backus Coates warned other activists that TPP was using telemarketers to raise money from them. She was upset that the national organization was pressuring local groups to turn over their membership contact lists.
There does not appear to be any true commonality of interests between the leadership of the TPP and the rank and file members recruited and used by the leaders for their own selfish purposes.
Behind the Masks
It is almost impossible to obtain information beyond the public faces of TPP. Its website does not list any officers or directors on the site's About Us Page, but it does have a prominent "Donate to Tea Party Patriots" link that takes you to a PayPal connection. The address listed by the Georgia Secretary of State is Suite 620-322 at 1025 Rose Creek Drive, Woodstock, Georgia 30189, which is a UPS Store in a strip mall.
Although TPP was allegedly incorporated by Jenny Beth Martin in 2009, its antecedents are closely associated with FreedomWorks, which was already heavily engaged in the organization of anti-government protests when TPP was formed.
FreedomWorks was created in 2004 by Dick Armey, C. Boyden Gray, Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett, all of whom had served in powerful Republican political positions. They are leaders of the conservative, free-market movement that supports the privatization of social security and opposes regulation of tobacco, climate and asbestos legislation and health care reform. At least, initially in 2009, TPP's activities were directly orchestrated by FreedomWorks.
As Martin and Meckler were flying around the country aboard "Patriot One" attending Tea Party Patriot rallies during the last weeks of the 2010 campaign, Meckler complained that the rival Tea Party Express (which is funded by a GOP consulting firm) was a fake, they're not from the grass roots. These are longtime Republican political activists with their own agenda. However, the luxury executive jet enjoyed by Martin and Meckler was made available by Ray Thompson, the founder and former CEO of Semitool, who has been a major donor to the Republican Party for 15 years.
Pastor William Temple, who regularly attends tea party events in Georgia, compared "the jet-set Tea Party Patriots leadership to Nancy Pelosi and her alleged misuse of US Air Force resources."
Oil companies continue to make exorbitant profits by cutting corners on safety, both for their workers and the environment, and by raising the price of gasoline to record levels; however, how many patriots are aware that their movement is being secretly subsidized by the Koch brothers?
Koch Industries is the second-largest private company in America with annual revenues exceeding a hundred billion dollars. Koch was originally founded to construct oil refineries for Stalin's communist government and today specializes in manipulating the free market and obtaining special treatment from the government.
At the Policy Summit, the TPP prominently displayed its association with the Health Care Compact Alliance, which seeks to conduct an end run around the health care reform act. The alliance is headed by Eric O'Keefe, who with his wife Leslie Graves is connected to David Koch through the Citizens in Charge Foundation and Americans for Limited Government Foundation.
The source and amounts of funding for the Alliance remain secret as the organization "respects the wishes of its donors to keep their identities confidential"; however, it started with abundant financial resources required to place teams in 37 states to secure local legislative approval of the Compact.
The Compact would shift the problems of health care affordability and coverage to the states resulting in a race to the bottom in the quality of care; by allowing states to establish their own regulations and by allowing insurance companies to operate across state lines, it will likely be impossible to create community-rated risk pools and to obtain effective negotiating power with drug companies and medical suppliers.
Corporate moguls, such as the Koch brothers and health care industry executives, only have one vote each, but by spreading a little chump change of the billions they take in each year, to educate, fund and organize the TPP and other "grassroots" organizations, they have been able to convert their private agendas into a mass movement against the interests of its own members - those who will ultimately pay the tab.