Embattled Tea Party Nation, Inc. owner Judson Phillips has been making the media rounds to defend his up-coming, February 4-6 conference at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee.
Disillusioned Tea Party volunteers are angry at Phillips for turning the grass-roots group into a for-profit venture without their consent and for charging more than $500 per person to an event that many worked for but can’t afford.
Local Tea Party insiders say that long-time Republican donor Bill Hemrick [he gave $1000 to the NRCC in late 2009 and to the Fred Thompson and Marsha Blackburn campaigns among others], owner of Upper Deck Trading cards, gave Judson Philips at least $50,000 and maybe the whole $125,000 to cover Tea Party Nation’s Sarah Palin speaker’s fee. This act led Tea Party activists to believe the Tennessee Republican Party has been involved in the closed-door organizing.
Meanwhile, all money made by the sold-out event will go straight to Tea Party Nation, Inc. while grassroots activists have donated their time to make the event happen.
Tami Killmarx, a nurse, and an original member of the Nashville Tea Party Nation Steering Committee says,” I don’t believe for an instant that this money that Judson Philips is making will go to anyone but him. He doesn’t have a PAC. He’s been promising to form a 527.”
He has done neither. Killmarx was asked to leave the Tea Party Nation group of volunteers and kicked off the Tea Party Nation social networking site for voicing her concerns. Her husband, Robert, was asked to leave soon after.
That’s not the only financial funny business Phillips is accused of making. Kevin Smith, the website developer who was never compensated for his work on the Tea Party Nation social networking site and who wrote an insider’s account of the Tea Party Nation dealings, says that Phillips called his account a lie, but offered no proof to the contrary. Smith asserted that Philips mishandled Tea Party funds by paying for expenses out of his wife Sherry’s PayPal account. Judson Phillips did not return my request for comment.
Smith says, “Judson has been very slick and deceptive about PayPal. He’s answered the wrong question. He had two different accounts. One was his wife’s account. After August, there was a TPN account.” Smith was paid from Sherry’s account.
In the same NBC article, reporter Domenico Montanaro notes Judson Phillips personal financial problems:
A background check of various public records databases raises questions about how he has handled money in the past. The search shows that during Phillips filed for Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy in 1999 and during the past decade, he has had three federal tax liens against him, totaling more than $22,000.
In an interview with NBC News, Phillips admitted to the financial difficulties. He declined to comment on the bankruptcy, but said the federal tax liens have been paid off.
Tami Killmarx said that she heard Phillips say more than once, “I want to make a million from this movement.”
Killmarx wasn’t the only volunteer who suspected Phillips intentions were to gain personally. Jerry Williams who ran security for the Tea Party Nation gatherings from the groups inception until August when he resigned, and was slated to handle security at the February 2010 convention, said, “We have a situation that’s like a natural disaster. [Likening the American political climate to a disaster.] You’ve always got people out there who want to make a buck on it. This is the same thing. There’s people out there who want to jump on this Tea Party thing for their own interests. They’re not really worried about the country or the people.”
He continued,”I think Judson is a good guy. He’s trying to do the right thing in the wrong way. We need to do it where everyone can get involved. Most of the people are like me, and just want to bring the country back to the people and to the constitution.”
Williams said that he resigned because he didn’t want to be a part of something that “leaves people out.”
Financial questions and personal gain weren’t the only problems with the Phillips. Internal emails reveal that Sherry Philips who is the Tea Party Nation Vice President forced dissenters from the organization. In one email sent to Anthony Shreeve, another Steering Committee member, Sherry Phillips says:
Due to the events of last Saturday and your indiscretion in relation to the National Tea Party Convention, it is apparent that your loyalties and interests are not compatible with those of Tea Party Nation. It is for this reason I am requesting your resignation from the TPN Advisory Board. I will give you 24 hours to remove yourself from the group before I remove it myself.
In addition, Judson Phillips threatened to sue one woman for her disagreement in an online forum. She asked to not be named for fear of recrimination. From other accounts, threats to sue were common. Judson Phillips is former assistant district attorney and current lawyer specializing in defending those accused of drinking under the influence. The email to the “banished” volunteer is as follows:
Please be advised your relationship with Tea Party Nation, INC, is hereby terminated immediately.
You may not speak on behalf of TPN, exercise any authority on behalf of TPN or interfere in any way with any business relationship tea party nation has;
Further, you will cease and desist from any defamatory statements against myself, or any member of the tea party nation board. You will cease and desist from any attempt to interfere with the National Tea Party Convention or the Sarah Palin appearance.
You fraudulently misrepresented your qualifications to be the planner for such an event. We have spent numerous hours since last Thursday trying to correct your incompetent mistakes. Had we followed your plan, you had us $100,000 in the hole.
You will issue an immediate retraction and apology or you will be defending a law suit for fraud, defamation, intentional interference with a business relationship and malpractice. As you consider this, remember what I do for a living.
Tea Party Nation, INC.
Judson Phillips’ threatening email was prompted by this volunteer’s email sent to advisory board members:
To the advisory board:
Right now if the convention were to not happen for whatever reason Judson signed a contract that will leave either him and/or the board responsible for about $110,000. I’m not sure how this will work; perhaps we need a non-profit attorney to explain it.
The reason I am so concerned is that the Opryland wrote to me and told me that they needed to know who to take direction from, me (as the convention coordinator) or Pam and Sherry, as the people going behind my back and meeting with them. This makes TPN and the convention look bad to a very professional organization, the Opryland.. This hotel hosts dignitaries from all parts of the world, entertainment, and political. How embarrassing this is for us as a group for them to see the dirty laundry of TPN. Let’s hope they keep this confidential. Of course, within their walls, I’m sure we are a laughing stock.
I told them to go ahead and take their direction from Pam and Sherry. I will have no part in this type of high school backstabbing.
Many people interviewed about Judson Phillips called him a bully who would cut people out at the first sign of disagreement. More than one grass roots organization representative who interacted with Phillips called him difficult. Tennessee organizers note that there are many splits from Judson’s group and that he’s caused problems for the Tea Party movement state-wide with his divisive actions.
The Tea Party Nation volunteer group really fell apart, though, after the November 7, 2009 planning meeting at the local Golden Corral called The One Year Notice Rally.
Excited organizers found out October 22 that Sarah Palin had chosen to speak to the party. During the meeting, local activists urged Phillips to change the venue so more people could attend as the space was so limited at Opryland. At that point in November, he had 60 days to change the venue but was afraid if he changed it, Palin wouldn’t come speak to the gathering, says one person familiar with the meeting.
When Judson Phillips suggested the $550 convention fee, some members were so aghast they got up and left the meeting.
At one point, fisticuffs nearly broke out, emotions ran so high. Those who had been in the bottom-up organization felt betrayed because the event excluded so many average people and many of the volunteers themselves couldn’t even afford to attend. Philips and his few supporters saw an opportunity to make money.
This meeting prompted many long-time Tea Party members to quit.
To better control the conference planning, Judson Phillips excluded the Steering Committee members and instead included five key people: Sherry Phillips, Pam Farnsworth, sister-in-law to the Phillips, Bruce Donnelly, President of the Chicago-based Surge USA, and Bill Hemrick and his business partner Jason Lukowitz. In one email, Tea Party volunteers were notified that they wouldn’t need to stay for this meeting.
The decision was made to keep the conference, small, expensive and exclusive.
Internal documents show overall expenses to exceed $480,000 including Sarah Palin’s speaking fee. More than one person disclosed that it was quite possible that Phillips would lose money on the conference.
Judson made the comment to Politico that the ticket price was so expensive to cover the speakers fee, but it looks like he did not put the money up for the fee. Either Bill Hemrick gave Tea Party Nation, Inc. the money or paid the Washington Speaker’s Bureau himself. And in fact, the fee isn’t $75,000 but $115,000 plus $10,000 in expenses.
Big donors were sought to underwrite the “Tea Party” including organizations who had helped organize and sponsor citizen-lead events elsewhere. None of these groups wanted to go on the record for fear of recrimination and many refused to attach their name to this event. Those who have continued to sponsor the event are unlikely aware of Judson Phillips’ actions.
Says one original sponsor still deciding whether to stay involved,”This is not the event we signed on to in the beginning.”
The American Liberty Alliance, lead by Eric Odom, announced last week that his group was withdrawing support and would not attend.
Anthony Shreeve, another Steering Committee Member paints the controversy in stark terms,”It’s like a cancer. It’s like it’s consumed Tennessee.”
Shreeve took pains, as did others involved, to say his frustration wasn’t about Sarah Palin’s speaking fee. One person said, “we’re capitalists.” The real concern, Shreeve said, “We want her to endorse the movement with real grassroots people.”
Tami Killmarx echoed the concerns of many grassroots people from Tennessee:
“At every step of the way Judson is trying to poison the waters. He has ruined this for us. This is not “the movement” in Tennessee. People are fighting hard for our country. We are worn out. We have wanted to come out for months [to expose Phillips]. We are trying to salvage this movement. Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman need to know what this is. It’s a ruse. Let everyone come and hear Sarah Palin. Un uh, they wanted to make money. They wanted get in bed with the GOP. They don’t want to make it so that everyone can hear Sarah Palin. We wanted to hear her. We wanted to hear someone who believed in us. Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman need to understand where they’re coming.
I was in D.C. on 9/12. These weren’t elitist rich people. There were no “activists” there. I don’t have anything to gain to turn Judson in. I have fought too hard for this thing, to see the elderly people pouring out in droves and then be left out now.
Judson Philips stands to make thousands while we are outside the door knocking.”
Killmarx expressed sadness about not getting to see Sarah Palin after volunteering and giving her own money to fund early Nashville Tea Party events.
“I believe in Sarah Palin. I believe in her and she’s a good woman. She’s being deceived like the rest of us.”