A little-known, Arizona-based tea party organization has hired a prominent Republican operative to help advance its mission in Washington, D.C. But after more than a year in operation and hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, it’s still not clear what the group’s mission actually is.
Todd Cefaratti, founder of TheTeaParty.net, announced last week that the group had hired a big Washington gun: governmental affairs specialist Donna Wiesner Keene, a veteran of the Bush and Reagan administrations and the wife of the incoming president of the National Rifle Association, David Keene.
Donna Keene said she will act as an intermediary between the field and Washington, helping activists connect effectively with lawmakers to influence policy and advising potential first-time candidates. She has lobbied for conservative groups such as Americans for Fair Taxation in the past, but she is not registered as a lobbyist for the TheTeaParty.net.
“There are a lot of questions about Washington,” she said in an interview with Roll Call. “How do we stay active? What issues need attention? That takes someone like me who understands Washington.”
But it’s not clear what TheTeaParty.net is active in. Despite its extensive website and an impressive ability to pull in money, TheTeaParty.net appears to do little more than promote its own name.
Unlike several large tea party organizations, whose leaders frequently discuss specific goals and agenda items with journalists, TheTeaParty.net acts quietly as an online meeting place and resource for hundreds of other tea party groups. Cefaratti, the man behind the group, rarely, if ever, speaks to the press and did not return numerous phone calls to his home or office. The group’s spokeswoman said he was too busy for an interview.
“We are not a normal tea party group that has meetings and things like that,” spokeswoman Vicki Dooling said. “We are a gatherer of other tea partyers.”
Cefaratti, who splits his time between his marketing consulting business and a second company that specializes in connecting loan officers with seniors interested in reverse mortgages, set up TheTeaParty.net last year as the tea party movement started to galvanize voters and dollars around “outsider” Republican candidates.
At the same time, he established a political action committee, called Stop This Insanity, which raised nearly $500,000 in the months leading up to the 2010 midterm elections. From March to October 2010, the committee spent just less than half that. Nearly all of its expenditures went to advertising services, airfare, lodging and promotional paraphernalia such as buttons and T-shirts, according to federal records.
The group has left very little trail since it was founded last spring, organizing few, if any, events. Federal records show no donations to candidates in the last election cycle.
But come Election Day, lawyers for TheTeaParty.net notified the Federal Election Commission that it was dissolving the PAC arm of its operation. When asked what had become of the $258,000 remaining in the committee’s account, the group’s spokeswoman said she didn’t know.
“The money gets used for marketing the tea parties all over the country, not just the TheTeaParty.net,” Dooling said, citing contributions to the Wounded Warrior Project and other conservative causes. She would not reveal how much each group got and could not point to any local tea party groups in particular that TheTeaParty.net has financed.
TheTeaParty.net was also one of several organizations that sponsored the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference, the high-profile confab held every year in Washington. That is where Cefaratti met Keene, whose husband is the former president of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors the conference.
The group has also arranged for a NASCAR truck to appear on the circuit this summer emblazoned with the logo for TheTeaParty.net and the text of the Constitution.
It appears that the organization also makes money off its mailing list. Emails obtained by Roll Call reveal that the group has rented its 200,000-person mailing list to companies such as Gold Rarities Gallery, an online gold and silver warehouse.
An advertising representative at Newsmax said he helps TheTeaParty.net find clients and confirmed that the list is available for $7,000 ($35 for every thousand names). Dooling said no personal information is released to third parties during the process.
Questions about the legitimacy of TheTeaParty.net — also known as JoinTheTeaParty.us — are rife throughout the blogosphere and among the leaders of other tea party groups.
Some top conservatives have never even heard of the group, and other tea party leaders have only a vague understanding of what the group is and what it does.
“I have absolutely no idea who they are,” said Randy Lewis, a spokesman for the Tea Party Patriots. “I honestly don’t know a thing about them.”