By Le Corbeaunoir
The creation of the TEA Party as a minor political party in Florida in August 2009, its subsequent qualification of federal and state candidates to be on the November 2010 ballot under the TEA Party name, and other activities of people closely connected to that party have sparked a major political row with implications extending to the 2012 presidential election and beyond. At the heart of the controversy is a fight to the finish between members of the new political party and grassroots Tea Party movement organizers over proprietary ownership and control of the name “Tea Party” and other aspects of the Tea Party “brand” in Florida. The controversy is about power, control, and money, and who gets to define what “Tea Party” means in Florida.
FORMATION OF THE BALLOT-QUALIFIED TEA PARTY
The ballot-qualified “TEA Party” and the “Tea Party movement” are not the same thing. They do not share organizations, leaders, or members, and they are ideologically opposed. The movement is decentralized with power diffused among its many factions. The party is centralized, with power concentrated in the hands of a few. The movement has grown spontaneously across the state over the past year-and-a-half or so, while the party was created by a filing with the Florida Secretary of State in August 2009.
The TEA Party is the creation of anti-tax activist and political consultant Douglas M. “Doug” Guetzloe, Windermere attorney Frederic B. O’Neal (who has been identified in court papers as a distant relative of Guetzloe and Guetzloe’s attorney for more than 20 years), and political activist Nicholas “Nick” Egoroff. While Guetzloe and O’Neal still run the TEA Party, Egoroff announced his resignation from the party on June 30, 2010, citing “much criticism and misunderstanding” arising from his decision to align himself with the TEA Party.
Prior to their creation of the TEA Party, Guetzloe and Egoroff had been members of the Orange County Republican Executive Committee (OCREC), where they each had gotten into trouble with the leadership for violating Republican Party rules, particularly when it came to Party loyalty. Finally, OCREC chairman Lew Oliver filed complaints against each with the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) Grievance Committee, alleging, in essence, that Guetzloe (who had been previously removed from the OCREC for supporting the campaigns of Democrats running against Republicans) and Egoroff had violated their Party loyalty oaths, as well as Florida statutes by supporting non-Republican candidates who ran against Republicans in previous elections. Guetzloe’s response to Oliver’s complaint can be found here. Grievance procedures were held in July and, in early September 2009 after the RPOF Grievance Committee upheld Oliver’s complaints then-State Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer imposed a four-year suspension of OCREC membership against Egoroff and a 13 month suspension followed by 2 years probation against Guetzloe. In response, on September 23, 2009, Guetzloe and Egoroff, represented by O’Neal, filed a lawsuit in Orange County seeking a temporary restraining order against Greer. Guetzloe and Egoroff had anticipated their suspensions, and plans for the TEA Party were already well advanced before Greer’s decision was announced.
On August 3, 2009 O’Neal filed a certificate of organization of the TEA Party with the Florida Secretary of State, in which he listed himself as its chairperson, secretary, and treasurer, with no other officers listed, and provided a party constitution that actually prohibited such combining of offices. O’Neal, a registered Democrat at the time, had been associated with some anti-tax protesters in the Orlando area, had not been actively involved in the Tea Party movement that was sweeping Florida and the rest of the country, but reportedly liked the fact that the “TEA” in “TEA Party” stood for “Taxed Enough Already” and apparently decided to co-opt the name for his own organization. The Secretary of State rejected the application on August 4th on the basis of “typographical errors” but invited O’Neal to reapply.
On August 12th, O’Neal submitted a new certification and a constitution that did allow the combining of offices, and on August 14th the Secretary of State certified the TEA Party as a minor political party in Florida with O’Neal as its sole officer and director. Afterwards, in a move that is viewed by some as evidence of an intent to hijack the Tea Party movement for personal gain, O’Neal began contacting Tea Party activists around the state, claiming rights to the Tea Party name on the basis of having registered the TEA Party as an official political party, and demanding that these activists and their groups stop using the name “Tea Party.”
THE TEA PARTY’S FINANCES
Campaign contributions to the TEA Party through the third quarter of 2010, ending August 19, 2010, total $267,050.46, including $76,985.46 in monetary contributions, $43,500.00 on loans, and $146,605.00 in in-kind donations. Documents filed with the Secretary of State identify these in-kind contributions as follows:
Frederic O’Neal – Legal Services
Nicholas Egoroff – Communications Consulting
Keith Recine – Consulting
Advantage Consultants – Public Relations/Consulting
Major contributions to the TEA Party listed in campaign documents for this period include the following:
$52,500 Advantage Consultants, the president of which is Doug Guetzloe
$2,500 Atlantic Yacht & Ship Company
$1,500 Daily Graphics & Design
$40,000 Peg Dunmire
$2,250 DeVries Management
$1,000 Nicholas Egoroff
$10,000 Alan Ginsburg
$4,000 Richard T. Lee of Lee Properties, Inc.
$8,500 Lee Vista, Inc.
$10,000 National Safety Commission, Inc., the president of which is Kenneth L. Underwood.
$96,287 Frederic B. O’Neal
$2,000 Keith Recine, vice-chairman of the Ax the Tax group run by Doug Guetzloe
$3,500 Kim Titone
$20,164.81 Florida Secretary of State, representing 95% of the filing fees collected for qualified TEA Party candidates
Expenditures during this period totaled $115,717.78, which included the following:
$4,913.15 Advantage Consultants
$3,000.00 C4 Services
$8,400.00 Clear Channel
$6,845.97 Daily Graphics
$15,983.20 JM Design
$2,545.75 Orlando Woman
$9,587.19 YourOffice USA
$3,647.00 John Hallman, TEA Party Field Director
$15, 207.28 Fred O’Neal
$1,781.82 each to the campaigns of Alvarez, Crawford, Dunmire, Foley, Heinzelman, Perez, Rodriguez, Swyers, Torres, Virone, and Weakley
$3,647.00 DeVries Campaign
$2,000.00 Ferentinos Campaign
$2,000.00 Russell Campaign
$1,110.00 John Perez
$450.00 Victoria Torres
Resistance to the TEA Party has been sharp in some quarters. O’Neal has claimed that his group was being victimized by Republican strong-arm tactics. There is some evidence that some Republicans are playing hardball with O’Neal and his associates, but it would appear that the biggest threat to the party comes from other places. O’Neal and Guetzloe are no strangers to controversy. Media outlets such as the Orlando Sentinel, Jacksonville Observer, and TPMMuckraker have run several articles that expose the “questionable” qualifications of TEA Party candidates and the backgrounds and motives of party principals Guetzloe and O’Neal. A May 3, 2008 Orlando Sentinel article summarizes Guetzloe’s role in a huge political scandal that “engulfed Central Florida’s toll-road agency, most powerful attorneys, biggest developers, . . . the Orlando Magic, and a host of others,” which all came to light as a result of a political attack ad done by Guetzloe in the 2006 Winter Park mayoral race. According to a December 18, 2009 report by WKMG reporter Tony Pipitone, the IRS has filed liens against O’Neal for $155,826.00 in unpaid taxes, interest, and penalties for income tax periods ending December 31, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005. The report also states that O’Neal filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in October 2005.
According to a January 15, 2010 report by Zachary Roth in TPMMuckraker:
• In 2004, officials of Maitland, Florida released e-mails and faxes from O’Neal, in which he wrote that Guetzloe would drop his court challenge to plans for a new City Hall and public-safety building if he was paid $30,000. O’Neal responded that Guetzloe hadn’t known about the offer, and that the money was to cover legal fees.
• Two years later, executives of the Orlando Magic said that they had paid $200,000 to Guetzloe’s consulting firm to keep him from attacking their bid to have the city finance a new basketball arena, performing-arts center and renovated Florida Citrus Bowl. Guetzloe denied to TPMmuckraker that he had been paid by the Magic, and said he in fact led the fight against the financing bid.
• And back in 2000, Guetzloe was accused of trying to sell the endorsement of his client in a GOP primary for a U.S. congressional seat, in exchange for $50,000 in consulting work. Guetzloe’s candidate had been knocked out, and the two remaining candidates, Bill Sublette and Ric Keller, faced a runoff. “Doug was very, very clear that I would get the endorsement if I paid him $50,000,” Sublette later told the Sentinel, adding that he declined the offer. In the end, the endorsement went to Keller, who went on to be elected to Congress. Guetzloe earned $52,133 working for the Keller campaign, records show. Guetzloe denied to TPMmuckraker that he had had such a conversation with Sublette, who he called a political enemy, and claimed that several other people involved have said no offer was made.
More suggestions of controversy can be found in an examination of Orange County criminal court records:
On November 17, 1994, Guetzloe was acquitted after trial by jury of the charge of Grand Theft in Orange County Case 481994CF008141A001OX. On March 28, 2007 Guetzloe was indicted on two counts of perjury in Orange County Case 482007CF004603A001OX in connection with testimony he gave to the Florida Elections Commission in 2006 in a case related to his campaign work in a 2003 Daytona Beach city commission race, but the case was nolle prossed (dropped) by the State Attorney’s Office four months later. An Orange County Grand Jury report dated October 9, 2007 accused the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority (OOCEA) of paying $107,500 in “hush money” to Doug Guetzloe and his company Advantage Consultants to quiet anti-OOCEA protests by Guetzloe’s Ax the Tax organization. No charges were filed against Guetzloe as a result of the grand jury’s presentment.
Guetzloe presently is scheduled to be re-sentenced at 3:30 PM on October 22, 2010 in Orange County for one of 14 counts of misdemeanor election law violations in Orange County Case 482006MM009313A001OX to which he pled no contest to on November 14, 2006 and was originally sentenced to 60 days in jail followed by 3 years probation and fines totaling $7,500. Guetzloe appealed on double jeopardy grounds and the Fifth District Court of Appeal, in Guetzloe v. State, 980 So. 2d 1145 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 5th Dist. 2008), overturned 13 of the 14 convictions but left one intact, summarizing the facts of the case as follows:
The charges resulted from the 2006 mayoral election in the City of Winter Park. Just before the election, Mr. Guetzloe prepared and mailed out a four-page packet, which purportedly documented a neighborhood dispute and subsequent prosecution of a candidate running for reelection for the position of Mayor of Winter Park, Florida. The mayor allegedly deposited dog excrement on a neighbor out walking his dogs. The mail-out included a police report, victim’s statement, and pretrial diversion contract. Mr. Guetzloe’s effort at the quintessential smear campaign went to over five thousand households and occurred without the knowledge or consent of the candidates.FN1 Following the election, the disclosure form required by section 106.071 was filed identifying Guetzloe as the source of the mail-out.
FN1. The mayor’s opponent filed an affidavit crediting loss in the subsequent election to Mr. Guetzloe’s mail-out, which appears to have been a misguided and unsuccessful effort to defeat the mayor’s reelection.
On May 26, 2010 the Florida Elections Commission issued a two-count Order of Probable Cause against Guetzloe for failing to report in 2008 that Ax the Tax was no longer an issues-only political committee and for publishing a political advertisement without prominently marking the advertisement as a paid political advertisement and identifying the name and address of the sponsor.
On June 21, 2010, Guetzloe was fired by owner Carl Como at WEUS AM 810, where Guetzloe had had an hour-long program five days a week, even though Gueztloe had paid the station for his time and had sold advertisement to support it. Gueztloe appears to have used his show to promote TEA Party candidates, including part-time station employee Raul Pantoja, who also was fired by Como. Como stated that the firing of Guetzloe was a “ratings decision,” that Pantoja was fired because as a candidate his presence on the staff would violate the FCC’s former “fairness” doctrine, and that Pantoja would be rehired after the election.
DOUGLAS GUETZLOE, VICTORIA TORRES, PUBLIC OPINION STRATEGIES, INC., AND CONNECTIONS WITH DEMOCRAT CONGRESSMAN ALAN GRAYSON
An intriguing aspect of the story is the relationship between Guetzloe and Grayson, and the role of Victoria A. Torres in that relationship. Guetzloe is on friendly terms with Grayson, and has been quoted saying nice things about the congressman. One of Guetzloe’s sons did an unpaid internship in Grayson’s office in 2009 and Guetzloe serves on Grayson’s small business and economic stimulus board. Guetzloe has also run advertisements for Grayson on Guetzloe’s radio show, and promotion of a Grayson to a conservative radio audience is one of the reasons that some are skeptical of Gueztloe’s true political motives.
On December 18, 2008, Victoria A. Torres (who was previously known as Victoria Frauman and is presently the TEA Party candidate in House District 51) registered Public Opinion Strategies, Inc., as a for-profit corporation with the Florida Secretary of State. The articles of incorporation identified the purpose of the corporation as “public opinion research,” and listed its primary address as 7462 Radiant Circle, Orlando, Florida, 32810. The sole incorporator, registered agent and director or officer listed was Victoria A. Torres at the same address. The corporation’s 2009 annual report was filed electronically on April 17, 2009, and its 2010 annual report was filed electronically on May 5, 2010, both listing Torres as the registered agent and sole director of the corporation.
The name chosen for this company has aroused much suspicion, as Public Opinion Strategies, Inc. based in Alexandria, Virginia is one of the best known Republican public opinion polling firms in the country, there is no connection between the famous firm and the company formed by Torres, and the famous one does not do polling for Democrats. Furthering suspicions, the company formed by Torres has no website, identifiable telephone number or email address. A search of the internet reveals no mention of it ever doing any polling for any other candidate, and one prominent Florida-based pollster, Dave Beattie, told Roll Call that he had never heard of Torres or her polling firm.
In early 2010, Congressman Grayson commissioned Torres, who has no apparent prior training or experience in opinion polling, to conduct a “poll” about his candidacy. This poll was in reality nothing more than a publicity stunt. Torres supposedly subcontracted the poll to Middleton Market Research, which is owned by David Middleton and which reportedly has done polling work for Grayson. Grayson was polled as a candidate in the Republican primary. The results of the poll, conducted May 27, 2010, placed Grayson ahead of all of the Republican candidates, which makes it appear to have been nothing more than a push-poll to help sway voters in the November 2010 election.
A local WKMG News 6 television report by Tony Pipitone illustrated these financial connections between Grayson, Guetzloe, Torres, and the TEA Party as follows:
The written article by Pipitone which accompanies the video states that Grayson’s campaign paid Public Opinion Strategies, Inc. $16,898 in 2009 and $3,000 in February 2010, and that Torres revealed that she earned $10,000 from that firm last year but claims no financial interest in the company, leaving open the question of who actually owns the company. The report also states that Torres has worked on and off for Guetzloe for years, and that O’Neal has represented her. The report quotes her as having said in deposition testimony on 2009 “I do things for [Guetzloe] that he asks me to do.” The plain import of Pipitone’s story is that Guetzloe is the true owner of Public Opinion Strategies, Inc.
When Nathan Gonzales of Roll Call placed a telephone call to Torres, it was returned by the then “Communications Director” of the TEA Party Nick Egoroff, who disingenuously tried to allay Gonzales’s suspicions by describing Torres as a “quasi-paralegal assistant who works in a law office” who has “various businesses on the side” and whose relationship with Grayson was “just a business relationship. Nothing more. Nothing less.” Even worse, Egoroff went on to describe Torres as a conservative, and when questioned why she would work for a liberal lawmaker, told Gonzales that “It’s quite common.”
A group of 33 Florida Tea Party movement organizations have filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida seeking declaratory relief against The TEA Party, O’Neal, Guetzloe, and Egoroff. The original complaint filed January 19, 2010 can be found here. The defendant’s response to the plaintiff’s original complaint can be found here. The first amended complaint filed February 17, 2020 can be found here. Attorney Frank Herrera, arguing for the Tea Party movement plaintiffs, has told U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Marra that the defendants had overstepped their attempt at monopoly, and that O’Neal’s group had put a “stink in the air” about rights to the Tea Party name. O’Neal asserted that the Tea Party movement groups represented by Herrera could have registered the name with the state, but did not do so. This lawsuit remains pending.
Conservative activist Don Hensarling has also filed his own lawsuits in state circuit courts against TEA Party candidates Matthew Allen Russell, Juanita Virone, Margaret Dunmire, Darin Dunmire, and Jonathan Foley relating to deficiencies in qualifying paperwork in an attempt to expose their finances and lay the basis for their removal from the ballot. Online copies of Hensarling’s Petition for Pure Bill of Discovery are available for Matthew Allen Russell and Peg Dumnire. These lawsuits remain pending.
Guetzloe, for his part, has gone to the Circuit Court in Orange County to sue some of his opponents for misappropriation of corporate name, defamation, tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, abuse of process, and injunction against harassment. Guetzloe is represented in this lawsuit by O’Neal. Two of the defendants for their part, have moved to dismiss Guetzloe’s lawsuit, but it remains pending*. (*Has since been dropped)
FAILURE TO PASS THE SMELL TEST
The great majority of TEA Party candidates (especially those running for the state legislature) are not credible candidates for the offices they are seeking. After a study of campaign records and other open-source data, the TEA Party and its “affiliated organizations” appear to comprise a main body of about 40 or so interconnected individuals organized around principals O’Neal and Guetzloe, based primarily in the Orlando area, with no mass following and virtually no potential for substantial growth. A review of campaign finance data alone in terms of numbers and amounts reveals that the vast majority of contributions to the TEA Party are from Orlando and its immediate vicinity. As of the reporting period ending August 19, 2010, for example, only three persons out of 157 individual and business entity contributors to the TEA Party are from Pinellas County, and their contributions total only $92.73. The ballot-qualified TEA Party is not going to be able to expand its market into the areas now dominated by its adversaries in the Tea Party movement groups that were in existence long before the creation of the party, and the TEA Party is not going to be able to sue these groups into submission.
While the leaders of the TEA Party may be operating within the letter — if not the spirit — of Florida’s election laws, and notwithstanding the possibility that at least some of its candidates may have sincerely-held political beliefs, the available evidence does not bear out the June 20, 2010 pledge of chairman O’Neal, as reported in the Orlando Sentinel, to wit:
We promised months ago that Republicans that merely talked about lower taxes and then voted for bigger government would be targeted. We will expose these RINO [Republican-in-name-only] Republicans as the frauds they are. Taxpayers have a right to a real choice and the TEA Party will give it to them.
Any assertion that the TEA Party is a legitimate conservative political organization and that the pledge made by O’Neal is sincere is negated by the TEA Party’s actions in the House District 51 race in Pinellas County, where the promise belies the reality of the “choice” provided. In that race, a conservative small business-owning Republican, Larry Ahern, (who is, among other things, opposed to spending taxpayer money on high-speed rail) is trying to unseat a union-backed incumbent Democrat, Janet Long. Long has raised $126,650 in monetary contributions and $33,300.39 in in-kind contributions. Contributions to Long include over $33,100.39 from the Florida Democratic Party and scores of other substantial contributions from special interest groups. She has no loans and has spent only $42,446.42 on her campaign as of the reporting period ending August 19, 2010. Ahern, by contrast has raised $26,266.24 in monetary contributions, and $13,009.76 in in-kind contributions, has $5,000 in loans, and he has already expended $21,777.05 on his campaign. Despite Long’s more than 4-to-1 fundraising advantage and name recognition advantage over Ahern, unpublished polls reportedly have suggested that Ahern is only a few percentage points behind Long with likely voters. Regardless, the voters in the district are generally conservative and this is a race that a conservative candidate has an excellent chance of winning. The TEA Party is working against this chance.
The candidate fielded by the TEA Party, Victoria A. Torres, discussed supra, is not even from Pinellas County, and the one TEA Party candidate who has a Pinellas County address, Christopher M. Blau, is running for a House seat in the Miami-Dade area. As with most TEA Party candidates, Torres is a virtual unknown with no apparent history of political activism and no present indication of any serious attempts at voter outreach or other campaigning in the district she is running in. She has no known ties to Pinellas County, has not attended any candidate forums there, and has made herself virtually unreachable. Coupled with her ties to Guetzloe and Grayson, it would be reasonable to deem her a stalking horse candidate put forth to divide the conservative vote and, with that, to contribute to the defeat of the Republican candidate in this race. Such a goal would not be inconsistent with the other major goal that some have attributed to the leaders of the TEA Party.
To some observers, the creation of the TEA Party appears to be in significant measure a grab for the potentially lucrative intellectual property generated by the Tea Party movement, rather than a quest to change the politics of Florida. O’Neal, Guetzloe, et al., have taken advantage of the fact that no one in Florida before them has used legal process to secure the trademarks and trade name of the movement, and are using the recognition by the Florida Secretary of State of a minor political party to assert a superior legal right to to the Tea Party “brand.” In their efforts to achieve this goal, Guetzloe, O’Neal, et al. have created the political equivalent of a Potemkin Village and, to some members of the grassroots Tea Party movement, are engaged in the political equivalent of organizational identity theft.
The creators of the TEA Party are plainly seeking to exploit a growing dissatisfaction with government and with the major parties. They are also trying to exploit fallout from scandals within the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) surrounding the recent tenure of Party chairman Jim Greer. There is no credible evidence to support the theory that the creation of the TEA Party was a plot by the Democratic Party or individual Democrats at the local, state or national level to undermine the Republicans by splitting the conservative vote. Likewise, there is no credible evidence that this is a plot being orchestrated by Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson. In fact, accusations of Democratic Party tampering fall flat when it comes to the congressional candidacies of Peg Dunmire and Randy Wilkinson. While Congressman Grayson may be contributing to an effort that he thinks will improve his chances of re-election, his role appears to be more that of an opportunist than a director. While the Republican establishment thinks that it makes for good press to cast Grayson as some sort of evil mastermind when it comes to the TEA Party, the hard evidence is simply not there to support such an accusation. Nonetheless, the known connections between Grayson and members of the TEA Party cadre do cast a pall of suspicion over events.
The issues in this controversy come down to the exercise by the members of the grassroots Tea Party movement of the First Amendment right to assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances versus a private business enterprise that is attempting to restrict that right. It is this writer’s sense that the Constitution will triumph in the end and that the Tea Party movement will go on as before.
The bottom line here is that the creation of the ballot-qualified TEA Party will fail because it does not pass the smell test, and that smell will not go away until the TEA Party does.
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