Florida Duo Claiming Rights To Tea Party Name Have History Of Alleged Political Dirty Tricks

January 15, 2010 5:40 a.m.

The two-man team of Florida political activists who are claiming the rights to the “Tea Party” name have been accused in the past of engaging in political trickery for profit, including allegedly pressing opposing candidates to pay for the endorsement of their candidate.

In August, Orlando lawyer Fred O’Neal registered the “Tea Party of Florida” (TPOF) as an official political party. Since then, as we reported yesterday, he and his close ally, GOP political consultant Doug Guetzloe, have asserted rights to the Tea Party name, and tried to strong-arm some local groups to drop the well-known moniker.But some Florida Tea Party activists, already incensed that the pair is trying to claim the Tea Party name as their own, have deeper suspicions. Tim McClellan, one of the activists who O’Neal has tried to pressure to change the name of his group, told TPMmuckraker that Guetzloe has a reputation for using “bribery” and “extortion.”

“That’s his MO,” said McClellan, who lists himself on his Facebook page as a Republican political strategist. “He’s been doing it for years. He’s a dirty player.”

McClellan and others fear that O’Neal and Guetzloe will employ various schemes to profit from their claim to the Tea Party name. For instance: “I don’t think it’s too far down the road before they start going after people and saying, ‘you pay us ten thousand dollars and we’ll license the name to you,'” said McClellan.

Tea Partiers are also concerned about a more elaborate potential plan. They suggest that O’Neal and Guetzloe may try to leverage the state GOP by offering to withdraw their as-yet-unnamed candidate running under the Tea Party banner for the U.S. Senate, a race which has made headlines lately thanks to the GOP primary battle between Governor Charlie Crist and former House Speaker Marco Rubio.

Such a plan could be particularly effective if Crist is the nominee. The governor is reviled as a moderate by Florida conservatives, meaning even a poorly-funded Tea Party candidate could draw crucial conservative votes away from the GOP. And O’Neal has said that he plans to run conservative candidates under the Tea Party banner, and also that he intends for his fledgling party to model itself on New York’s Conservative Party — whose ability to win support from right-leaning voters in state-wide races has given it influence with the state GOP.

Guetzloe, a veteran anti-tax activist and conservative radio host who has run unsuccessfully for the Florida Senate, told TPMmuckraker in response that he and O’Neal had never been involved in any political dirty tricks, and that they have no plans to use the Tea Party nominee as a bargaining chip in the Senate race.

The Tea Partiers’ fears may appear far-fetched. But O’Neal and Guetzloe have been accused of orchestrating similar schemes before. Indeed the Orlando Sentinel wrote in 2006 that Guetzloe — who in 1982 founded Ax The Tax, an influential local anti-tax group, and has worked as a consultant for a string of Florida Republican pols, including former congressman Tom Feeney — “has for years been dogged by allegations that he has taken or solicited money in exchange for his silence.”

For instance:
• 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.

Speaking to TPMmuckraker, Guetzloe called all these charges “allegations by political opponents that were never substantiated,” and added that he is currently suing the Sentinel for libel.

When O’Neal registered TPOF with the Florida Division of Elections in August, he had had little involvement with the Tea Party movement. But in recent weeks, O’Neal has contacted the leaders of at least two Florida Tea Party groups — both of whom had opposed his decision to register TPOF — citing a state law that prohibits the unauthorized use of a political party’s name, and demanding that they drop the Tea Party name. The move prompted one of his targets, South Florida Tea Party chair Everett Wilkinson, to warn fellow activists in an email that O’Neal and Guetzloe were “trying to ‘hijack’ our movement and turn it into the thing we are protesting for their own personal gain.”

In his own interview with TPMmuckraker yesterday, O’Neal stuck to his guns on the name rights, and even fired a salvo at the organizers of the upcoming National Tea Party Convention. Noting that he had registered TPOF not just with the state of Florida but also with the Federal Election Commission, O’Neal said he planned to contact convention organizers soon to press his claim. “They can have their convention, but just pick a different name,” he said. “Hopefully those people will obey the law.”

Asked whether any federal law existed that might support his case against the convention organizers, O’Neal demurred. “I need to research it,” he said.

The confab — itself a subject of intense concern among Tea Party activists — is planned for next month in Nashville, with Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann scheduled to speak.

Mark Herron, a Florida election lawyer who serves as general counsel for the state Democratic party, told TPMmuckraker that O’Neal “has a legitimate claim” within Florida. The Florida law that O’Neal has cited, said Herron, has been used by both major parties to prevent the unauthorized use of a party’s name by groups calling themselves, for instance, “Democrats for McCain.”

Herron said O’Neal is on far shakier ground, however, in taking his claim national.

In the interview with TPMmuckraker, O’Neal said he’s happy to allow individual Tea Party events to continue to use the name that has come to represent the small-government grassroots movement that has exploded onto the political scene over the last year. What he objects to, he said, is the use of the Tea Party name for any cohesive group of activists that might be taken for an organized political party, for instance by holding regular meetings and taking positions on issues. Such activity, he said, could make it difficult for people to distinguish TPOF from the hordes of activists with no connection to it. He warned of “the confusion that’s gonna take place in the general public’s mind as to, well, ‘who is this Tea Party?'”

In a followup email to TPMmuckraker, O’Neal wrote: “I agree with Justice Scalia’s assessment that a party’s name is ‘the most important resource that the party possesses.'”

He continued: “That’s why I very much want to protect the name of the ‘Tea Party’ against its use by other groups or associations who purport to be political parties, rather than just event organizers.”

O’Neal said he still believes Wilkinson, the South Florida Tea Party leader, is violating the law by continuing to use the Tea Party name for his group. He added that the dispute is being mediated by other Tea Party activists, among them David McKalip, the St. Petersburg doctor who temporarily withdrew from Tea Party activities this summer after TPMmuckraker posted a racist picture of President Obama that McKalip had sent to fellow Tea Partiers.

Those mediation efforts may be falling short, however. In an email to TPMmuckraker, Guetzloe called Wilkinson, who’s a member of the umbrella group Tea Party Patriots, a “pathological liar,” adding that “a real Tea Party Patriot would not lie, fabricate, distort, mislead and slander others that have been working on these issues for decades.” Guetzloe told TPMmuckraker he is planning to file suit against Wilkinson for libel next week.

O’Neal and Guetzloe are only the latest figures to earn the ire of grassroots Tea Partiers, who pride themselves on their idealism and uncorruptability. As we’ve reported, numerous conservative activists have raised concerns about the financial arrangements for the upcoming national convention, and have questioned the motives of the event’s organizer, Nashville lawyer Judson Phillips. And the Tea Party Express, a group created by a team of well-connected political consultants, has been slammed by some Tea Party groups as an inauthentic creation of the organized Republican party.

McClellan explained his opposition to O’Neal and Guetzloe by saying he had been active with the Tea Party movement in South Florida almost since the very start. “There was no big business involved, there were no lobbyist involved,” he said. “It was just regular people. And these guys are taking advantage of them. And I have no tolerance for that.”

This post has been edited from the original version.

Correction: This post originally identified Jorge Lovenguth as a candidate of the TPOF. Lovenguth’s website indicates as much, but TPOF denies he is their candidate, and provided a copy of a letter, dated January 13, in which he withdrew his candidacy.

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