Saturday, June 1, 2013

IRS Slams and Tea Party Scams

No, the IRS should not target a non-profit organization based upon ideology, and I'm very tired of the "but Bush did it too" meme too many on the left are spraying all over the Internet. IRS misconduct is ethically sour and deserves bipartisan scorn. We believe in government and this Kabuki Theater damages not just the IRS but, by extension, the fundamental belief that government can put good in the world.

But as usual the media and the politicos need to dig a little deeper to understand the real problem. The question we should ask of the Tea Party has nothing to do with the IRS.  The question is this: how can we trust you when you are in league with loons and thieves?

The genetic mutation on the right, which gives rise to the belief that the only good government is a business-friendly or business-infused government, presents a quirk in how the right approaches activism. A progressive would be deeply offended if the Sierra Club rented its online activist list to someone selling shoes. When we want to spice up our footwear, we go to Zappos, but we keep politics and consumerism in separate folders in our inbox. The right has no such boundaries.

Newt Gingrich uses his online "action alert" list to peddle Newt books, videotapes and assorted paraphernalia. The TeaParty.Net rents its list incessantly to any crackpot with cash in his wallet. But while Newt at least signs his name to his effluvia, the TeaParty.Net is far less forthcoming.

Enter loons, stage right...

Led by Arizona activist Todd Cefaratti, the TeaParty.Net came under fire in 2010 in Arizona when KPHO, the CBS Phoenix affiliate, found that the organization spent $181,000 on Facebook and Google ads but virtually nothing to support Tea Party candidates. Cefaratti  made his mini-fortune in the reverse mortgage dodge in Phoenix in the halcyon days of the housing bubble. Reverse mortgages are a home loan in which the owners, typically retirees, pull equity out of their home to supplement their retirement income. Some of these loans are on the up and up and some others, not so much. In far too many cases, hapless homeowners wind up 80 years old and in danger of losing their castles.

Ceraratti's list pushes the reverse mortgage incessantly. Nearly 40 times in 2012,  the TeaParty.Net sent out messages peddling a bogus-looking "reverse mortgage calculator." The missive encourages readers to ring up an 800 number in which operators are presumably standing by to suck the equity out of unsuspecting seniors' homes. Mr. Cefaratti has yet to disclose his connection to the reverse mortgage lenders, and thus the  potential conflict of charity and chicanery, to his non-profit email subscribers.

One Dr. Crandall rented the list several times in 2012 to tout his “online heart test,” (don’t cancel that cardiologist’s appointment just yet).  The understated “Ultimate Survival Now” company rented the list for this dire warning: “You may not know this, but... FEMA has ordered 420 million survival meals,” representing a “7000 percent increase.” What does FEMA know that we don’t? Ultimate Survival wouldn't say, but promised to tell us the 37 food items we couldn’t live without in the pending apocalypse (for the modest fee of $47.97, not for the food, just for the list). The email ended on an ironically self-aware note:  “P.S. Not trying to sound like a fear monger.” Even Newsmax rents the list, promising to tell us how to pay no income tax for 2012 (but didn’t elaborate on how that would reduce the deficit, an issue near and dear to Tea Party hearts).

Mr. Cefaratti’s TeaParty.Net list isn’t the only culprit. On occasion, even activism comes at a price. Last year, the website offered visitors to its site the chance to send juvenile “blast faxes” to Congress.  One, a silly Don’t Tread on Me flag with a couple of paragraphs of vapid text, could be sent to all the members of the House and Senate, for the low, low price of $49.11. The accompanying sales pitch was a mix of Archie Bunker and 3 a.m. cable infomercial:

“Just think when a Congressman opens his fax thinking it will be the usual text, only to find the image of the Tea Party Flag will shock him [sic] and haunt him until he is either un-elected or quits.”

It's not illegal to rent a non-profit's email activist list to a for-profit business, so long as you follow fair market value rental rules and dutifully report the income from the list rental on tax returns. And yes, you can hyper inflate the costs of useless Congressional blast faxes if you can find people stupid enough to pay to send them. But it is a legitimate political issue when a non-profit advocacy  group rents to scoundrels and when, in most months, the number of consumer scams they are peddling outnumber the number of actual political lobbying alerts. The irony of fleecing your own activists is too rich to ignore. It’s up to us to put a spotlight on these charlatans. 

We never call the Tea Party out on this, in no small part because too few of us bother to monitor the rubbish they distribute on their non-profit lists. In the real world, this is called "opposition research."  In the online world, it is dead. I aim to revive it. The real scandal is not an extra audit from the IRS, but the Tea Party, who worship business, but seem to be singularly unable to find a legitimate one to rent their list. Hucksters and thieves have no role to play in non-profit social charity advocacy groups and it is our job to hold them accountable. 

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