They've got muck; we've got rakes. TPM Muckraker
In response, FLS Connect co-founder Jeff Larson, a Karl Rove protege, told TPMmuckraker that the firm would undergo a review from an outside, independent auditor "to ensure the highest standard of confidence in our processes."
Last month, the founder of a different Republican outreach firm, Bonner & Associates, was hauled before Congress after his company sent forged letters to lawmakers on a key legislative issue. Nothing like that has come to light at FLS, but in interviews with TPMmuckraker, the former employees described a company whose business practices might come as a shock to the well-heeled Republican donors from whom it solicits money. FLS fundraisers, encouraged by supervisors to cut corners in pursuit of donations, routinely mislead potential contributors, say the former employees. And many workers in the company's Phoenix office are ex-cons, who are paid not much more than minimum wage, lack benefits, and work in squalid conditions.
The claim that ex-felons have access to credit-card information was first made by former FLS employee Brian Jones in an interview last week with the website Politics in Minnesota (PIM). Larson denied the charge to PIM.
But in interviews with TPMmuckraker, two other recent employees, Alicia Baca and David Childs, backed Jones up. And Jones himself, a former felon who was recently fired from FLS's Phoenix office, told us he stood by his claim. "He is just a liar," Jones, 37, said of Larson.
Baca, Childs, and Jones explained that when a donor agrees to contribute money by credit card, they're told that they'll be transferred to a supervisor to handle the transaction. But in fact, the three said, they're transferred to another FLS employee in the same room. That person has gone through only a cursory screening process, and in no way acts as a supervisor to the caller making the fundraising pitch. Indeed, they said, he generally earns less money than the fundraising caller.
Baca, 23, said she started working at FLS's Phoenix office in June 2008, making $10 an hour as a fundraiser. But because her numbers were below par, she was made a "validator" -- an employee who verifies credit-card information -- at which she earned $9 an hour. She said that because her boyfriend already worked at FLS when she applied, she was hired without even an interview, and no screening process. And when she became a validator, giving her access to credit-card information, no additional screening was conducted.
All three former employees described FLS's Phoenix office as a haven for ex-felons, in part because Arizona makes it difficult for people with criminal convictions to find jobs, and FLS has become well-known among the state's inmate population for its willingness to hire ex-cons. "My cell-mate from prison got out before me and told me" about the job, Jones said.
Jones and Baca both estimated independently that about 75 percent of employees in FLS's Phoenix office had felony convictions. Baca said she thought the majority of validators did. Said Jones: "It did surprise me that these are the people doing the fund-raising for the GOP."
None of the three said they ever witnessed any improper use of credit-card information by FLS employees, and Larson told PIM that the firm has never experienced credit-card fraud during its ten year history. He reiterated that claim in the statement to TPMmuckraker, which also announced plans for the audit.
In 10 years in business, FLS Connect has never had an issue with credit cards being mishandled by anyone. Unfortunately, this is a case of a few disgruntled employees - one of whom lied on his application and was fired for manufacturing inaccurate statements - making misleading and false allegations about our company. The confidence of those we do business with is very important to us and while there are blatant falsehoods in the fictitious claims made against us, we want to ensure the highest standard of confidence in our processes. The work we provide is so critical that we have decided to undertake an internal and external audit of all our systems and processes to confirm we are providing the highest level of security and performance. This audit began last week and will include a review from an outside, independent auditor in the weeks to come.
Jones, who began working for FLS in February, was fired late last month by Larson personally -- though the two have never met. Jones says he angered a potential donor by making a claim she felt to be misleading. The donor, Jones said, was a friend of the Ohio Republican candidate on whose behalf Jones was calling. She complained to the candidate, who complained to Larson, who fired Jones, he said.
Jones denies that he lied on his application. Larson told PIM that Jones wrote "no" on a section that asked whether he had ever been convicted of a felony. Jones said he left it blank, as he was advised by prison officials to do when seeking a job.
FLS Connect has built a reputation as a power player in the world of Republican political organizing, running fundraising phone-banks and engineering negative robocalls on behalf of the McCain-Palin and Bush-Cheney campaigns, the RNC, the GOP Senate and congressional campaign committees, and the campaigns of numerous top Republicans, including Governors (and 2012 presidential hopefuls) Bobby Jindal and Tim Pawlenty, Senators Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, Jon Kyl, Bob Corker, Kit Bond, and George Voinovich, and Rep. Michele Bachmann. The FLS website used to boast an endorsement from Karl Rove: "I know these guys well. They become partners with the campaigns they work with." For his part, Larson is widely credited with leading the effort that attracted the 2008 Republican National Convention to St. Paul, Minnesota, and he the ran the host committee for the event.
The company, founded by Larson and two fellow GOP consultants, Tony Feather and Thomas Synhorst, is also no stranger to controversy (Synhorst is said no longer to be actively involved). Working on behalf of the McCain campaign, FLS was behind an onslaught of negative robo-calls last fall tying Barack Obama to Bill Ayers. The calls were so vicious and misleading that they were denounced even by some Republicans. In addition, former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman took heat last year for renting a room in Larson's Washington D.C. apartment at well below market value. And it was Larson who picked up the $130,000 tab for Sarah and Todd Palin's now-famous shopping spree to Neiman Marcus, Saks 5th Avenue, and other high-end stores. (Larson was later reimbursed by the RNC.)
The three former employees who spoke to TPMmuckraker described a corporate culture in which poorly-paid, overworked call-center employees were encouraged to do almost anything to convince their targets to contribute money. In order to appear motivated by genuine grassroots enthusiasm, callers regularly conveyed to potential donors that they were calling from the candidate's -- and the potential donor's -- home state, by saying things like, "I'm calling about our great state of Texas."
"We make it seem like you're calling on behalf of a state where you've never been before," said Jones. "If you were to start out: 'my name is Brian Jones, calling on behalf of FLS Connect in Minnesota, out of Phoenix,' you wouldn't make any money."
Said Baca: "They tried really hard not to let you know what state they were calling from." All three, however, said they were told that if asked their location, they must tell the truth.
In reality, not only were callers rarely located in the candidate's home state, they were only barely familiar with the candidate at all. "I know nothing about this guy," said Jones, describing his actual mindset in making a call. "I just learned about him. Is he conservative? I don't know."
Both Baca and Childs -- also an ex-felon -- said that fundraisers' calls were monitored twice a day by a company supervisor in Minnesota. But once those two monitored calls had occurred, on-site supervisors would tell callers, as Baca put it, "do what you have to do to get a pledge." That directive led to an even looser approach from callers. Baca said she had heard some tell potential donors, falsely, that they'd receive a signed picture of President Bush -- a draw in some circles, perhaps -- if they contributed.
Callers were told not to end the call without extracting a pledge. "The only way we could let someone go," Baca explained, "is if they had a family member die, if they had a doctor's appointment -- or if they were a Democrat."
As described by the former employees, working at FLS is tough and unrewarding. Many spend an eight hour day, with a few short breaks, making fundraising calls, and work every other Saturday. Baca's wages were typical: fundraisers start out at $10 per hour, validators (the fundraisers' nominal "supervisors") at $9.
Employees are eligible for health benefits only after a year of service. And because turnover is so high, thanks to the grueling nature of the work, few workers last that long. Jones said it was ironic that FLS workers were sometimes asked to pitch potential donors on the evils of health-care reform. "Most of us would want health-care," he said.
The Phoenix office itself is poorly maintained, according to Jones and Childs. Office furniture was falling apart, and "the bathroom was always nasty and gross," Childs said. "Working conditions were pretty bad."
Still, business for FLS Connect seems to be as brisk as ever. According to the firm's website, it's currently hiring "telephone service representatives" for its Phoenix and Minnesota offices: "High School diploma and/or some college a plus. No experience necessary."