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Grass roots? $8-million tea party payout to Washington insider

December 05, 2012|By James Rainey
  • Dick Armey addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Dick Armey addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in… (Cliff Owen / Associated…)

From its formation in 2004, it always seemed more than a bit incongruous that the tea party political group FreedomWorks chose as its chairman one of the erstwhile top power players from the halls of Congress.

Nothing Dick Armey did in eight years changed that perception, including the way he exited Washington-based FreedomWorks -- with an $8-million payout, according to the Associated Press, the kind of platinum parachute available only to the canniest and coziest of the capital's inside players.

As one liberal on Twitter taunted those who would contribute to the purportedly grass-roots organization: "You should totally raid Junior's college fund to donate money to @FreedomWorks because its leaders need new Jags."

Armey's departure from the group, originally reported by Mother Jones magazine, apparently stemmed from his desire to have FreedomWorks align more closely with Congress, while others insisted that the group should challenge those in power.

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Shortly after news of Armey's departure broke, FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe, the Washington Post reported, "issued the group's sharpest attack to date on House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), whom he accused of representing 'the failed political establishment' and 'purging House committees of fiscal conservatives.'"

Armey's ascension in a group of "outsiders” always seemed more than a bit of a non sequitur. He had been elected to the House of Representatives from a plush slice of Dallas-Fort Worth in the Reagan landslide of 1984. He served 18 years and rose to become majority leader when Republicans won control of Congress, handling day-to-day operations for the Republicans while Speaker Newt Gingrich spun out strategy.

When he left government in 2002, Armey had no shame about cashing in on his insider status. He told Los Angeles Times political reporter Mark Z. Barabak in 2009 that he had made "a darned handsome pile of dough" using his influence for the benefit of assorted industries and foreign governments.

The AP reported Tuesday that it had obtained a confidential contract showing that "Armey agreed in September to resign from his role as chairman of Washington-based FreedomWorks in exchange for $8 million in consulting fees paid in annual $400,000 installments."

The agreement to leave both FreedomWorks and its sister organization, the FreedomWorks Foundation, took effect at the end of November.

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A series of losses in the November election showed a serious waning of tea party influence, though reports of the movement’s demise would seem to be premature. The small-government, low-tax philosophy still has dozens of acolytes inside Washington, particularly in the House.

Still, some of the activities by groups such as FreedomWorks betray the image of a small, independent movement.

The group's work as a super political action committee recently made news when what AP described as a "shadowy Tennessee-based corporation" directed donations totaling $5.28 million its way. The news service called that "the largest political contribution to a super PAC in 2012 from a business group that would not identify its donor."

"The Tennessee firm changed its name to Specialty Investments Group Inc. on Nov. 28," AP reported, "although the group appears to advertise no product or service."

FreedomWorks still would style itself as an umbrella for thousands of nameless patriots across America. But with secretive, big-money donors and rock-star-sized payoffs to a departing leader, its looking more like just another cog in the Washington insider's machine.

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james.rainey@latimes.com

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