Florida Lawyer Claims Rights To Tea Party Name — Says Activist: He’s ‘Trying To Hijack Our Movement’

A Florida lawyer who registered the “Tea Party” as an official political party doesn’t want to share the name that’s become synonymous with the fledgling grassroots conservative movement. Fred O’Neal is pressuring activists in the state to rechristen their local Tea Party groups — and in doing so, he’s become the latest figure to be charged with co-opting the movement for personal gain.

In August, O’Neal, an Orlando attorney and anti-tax activist who until then had had little involvement with the Tea Party movement, registered the “Tea Party” as a new political party with the Florida Division of Elections. O’Neal has told the press he intends to recruit conservative candidates under the Tea Party banner — an idea that hasn’t sat well with many Tea Party activists, who view any organized political party with distrust.Now, according to one activist, O’Neal and his business partner “are trying to ‘hijack’ our movement and turn it into the thing we are protesting for their own personal gain.”

Everett Wilkinson, a South Florida Tea Party activist, told TPMmuckraker that in mid-December he received a letter from O’Neal, citing Florida law and claiming the right to the Tea Party name, on the basis of having registered the Tea Party as an official political party. O’Neal, who did not respond to TPMmuckraker’s request for comment, demanded that Wilkinson stop using the name for his local group, according to Wilkinson. Wilkinson, who opposes the idea of turning the Tea Party into an organized political party, had clashed with O’Neal when O’Neal tried to promote his effort on a website run by Wilkinson and other Tea Party activists.

Wilkinson said he forwarded O’Neal’s letter to an attorney, who quickly told O’Neal that he had misread the law, and that Wilkinson would go on using the Tea Party name for his local group. O’Neal, according to Wilkinson, backed down, acknowledging that Wilkinson had the right to continue using the name*.

In an email to fellow activists sent soon after and forwarded to TPMmuckraker, Wilkinson wrote that O’Neal and his business partner, political consultant Doug Guetzloe, “are trying to ‘hijack’ our movement and turn it into the thing we are protesting for their own personal gain.” Wilkinson added: “Our sincere hope is that these political opportunists will see that America has been fooled by two parties and we don’t need another.”

But O’Neal hasn’t gone away. On Sunday he sent an email — subsequently posted on a conservative website — to another Florida Tea Partier with whom he had clashed, writing: “I suggest you take a look at whether your … Tea Party needs to get a new name.” O’Neal cited the law, and added: “[U]ntil the law is changed, I suggest obeying it. He signed the letter: “Fred O’Neal, a registered member of the Tea Party , a Florida political party.”

Then last night, Guetzloe sent an email to a Google group of conservative activists — read to TPMmuckraker by someone who received it — in which he charged that Wilkinson and his allies had defamed O’Neal in online postings. “If [O’Neal] wanted to shut down every blog, every website, and every entity that uses “TEA PARTY”, he could,” wrote Guetzloe. “He obviously does not want to do that or he would have already.”

In other words, the threat to prevent Tea Partiers from using the Tea Party name appears to remain out there.

O’Neal is just the latest figure to provoke charges of seeking to profit off the Tea Party movement, whose core supporters pride themselves on their idealism. As we’ve reported, numerous conservative activists have raised concerns about the financial arrangements for the upcoming National Tea Party Convention — where Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are scheduled to speak — 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.

* O’Neal has now told TPMmuckraker that, counter to Wilkinson’s assertion, he never acknowledged Wilkinson’s right to use the name. We’ll have more on what O’Neal told us soon.