Wedge Divides Old Guard And New At Tea Party Group

FreedomWorks, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that coordinates Tea Party activists nationwide, underwent a dramatic leadership battle behind the scenes just ahead of November's election. Robert Siegel talks with David Corn, who wrote about the feud for Mother Jones.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In today's Washington Post, there's a story about former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey accompanied by his wife and to quote the story, "an aide holstering a handgun at his waist" entering the Washington headquarters of the pro-Tea Party group FreedomWorks right after Labor Day. Armey was the chairman and according to the Post story, he was claiming control of FreedomWorks. The headline of that story is, FreedomWorks Tea Party group nearly falls apart in fight between old and new guard.

Well, in the end, Armey left the organization with a generous severance deal, $400,000 a year for 20 years.

A couple of days ago, David Corn of Mother Jones reported on an internal FreedomWorks memo that he'd obtained that gives some sense of what the big fight was about. And David Corn joins us now.

First, tell us about the memo.

DAVID CORN: Well, the memo was written by Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks. He wrote this memo a few days after he received a note from two board members, saying they were going to hire outside lawyers to investigate alleged wrongdoing within the organization. He wrote his memo, and it's unclear who it was sent to, and stated that he was the victim of a hostile takeover being mounted by Dick Armey and these two board members.

And he claimed that this wasn't about alleged wrongdoing, whether he benefited from a book contract or stole a media appearance from Dick Armey. It was about his view that these board members and Dick Armey were trying to make FreedomWorks part of the Republican establishment by supporting mainline Republican candidates in primaries against Tea Party insurgents.

SIEGEL: So, for example, Ben Quayle - the son of former Vice President Dan Quayle - was redistricted into a primary against another Republican. The other Republican was the Tea Party favorite, but these board members said...

CORN: Well, one of the board members, C. Boyden Gray, was making a donation to Ben Quayle. Now, C. Boyden Gray was the counsel - White House counsel - to the Bush-Quayle administration and is very close to the Quayle family. But the memo gives numerous examples when Matt Kibbe either suggests or implies that Dick Armey and the board members were leaning on him to support these establishment Republicans over Tea Party candidates.

Now, Dick Armey says this is just a distraction; this is Matt Kibbe's excuse for covering up his own problems.

SIEGEL: The Armey severance deal, it's remarkable; 20 years, $400,000 a year, and Dick Armey is 72 years old, so...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...he's taken care of for the rest of his days pretty well. What does he do for that - just go away from FreedomWorks? Is that all that he's required to do?

CORN: Well, I think, according to the deal, he's supposed to be a consultant. The deal is not with FreedomWorks. It's interestingly enough with Richard Stephenson, a board member of FreedomWorks who will be paying Dick Armey apparently out of his own pocket this $8 million in walk-away money so that Matt Kibbe could come back in and take up the reins once again for FreedomWorks.

SIEGEL: Stephenson, a very generous benefactor of FreedomWorks.

CORN: Their biggest sugar daddy, head of this group called Cancer Treatment Centers, a for-profit chain of treatment centers across the country. He's worth a lot of money. He's also archly libertarian. And apparently he gave $12 million to FreedomWorks right before the election to support some of his favorite Tea Party candidates, including Joe Walsh, his own congressman. And it didn't work out so well for Joe Walsh. FreedomWorks spent $1.7 million on that race and he lost.

But there are a lot of questions being raised about the secretive nature of his donation, and there could well be FEC investigations into that.

SIEGEL: Well, what do you come away with from this story, that it's a clash of personalities between Matt Kibbe and Dick Armey, with allies on either side? Or that it's a serious question within the conservative movement, within FreedomWorks?

CORN: I think it's both. I think obviously it's turned into a very personal and bitter feud between Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe, and the loyalists to each on each side. I think there probably were ideological questions and probably real issues about, you know, the use of the resources within FreedomWorks and whether anything was done improperly.

That said, the larger picture here is that FreedomWorks has been a very important player in the conservative movement, particularly when it comes to supporting insurgent Tea Party candidates who often are running against establishment Republican candidates. And if it now falls apart in a clutter of accusations and lawsuits and legal investigations, that just can't be good news for the conservative movement.

SIEGEL: David Corn, Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones, thank you very much.

CORN: My pleasure.

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