Tea Party Convention Organizer Used ‘Our Passion For The Movement To Build His Start-Up’

The organizer of the National Tea Party Convention, at which Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann will speak next month, cynically took advantage of conservative activists’ willingness to work on behalf of the Tea Party cause in his bid to launch a money-making enterprise, according to one fellow Tea Partier.

Kevin Smith told TPMmuckraker that Judson Phillips, the Nashville defense lawyer behind the upcoming National Tea Party Convention, abruptly turned Tea Party Nation into a for-profit corporation last year, shocking fellow activists who had discussed setting up the fledgling group as a non-profit.“I can’t even describe to you the anger we had with him, using our volunteer labor and our passion for the movement to build his start-up,” said Smith.

Smith’s comments are only the latest in a barrage of criticism, which we’ve detailed, of Phillips and his convention, grandly billed as an effort to bring together Tea Party activists from across the country. Tea Party activists have raised concerns in recent days over the event’s $549 price tag, its location at a swank Nashville hotel — hardly in keeping with the movement’s grassroots image — and the decision to pay Sarah Palin perhaps as much as $100,000. They’ve also blasted the event’s vague financial arrangements. This morning, a key co-sponsor announced his group was pulling out of the event, citing that issue and others. And another influential conservative voice has written that the convention “smells scammy.” And Palin is now suggesting — perhaps in response to the controversy — that she won’t accept a fee.

In a lengthy and detailed blog post that appeared yesterday, Smith, a Nashville web designer, laid out a litany of accusations against Phillips describing him as high-handed, intolerant of dissent, and out to use the Tea Partiers’ enthusiasm to make a profit and boost his stature. And in an interview with TPMmuckraker this morning, he elaborated on those charges.

Smith said that Phillips took the lead in putting together local Tea Party activities last spring. As part of that effort, Smith detailed in his post, Phillips pitched Smith on a poorly-though-out plan to create a for-profit networking site for conservative activists — what became Tea Party Nation. And Phillips asked Smith to create website that would allow users to get information on all 95 of the Tea Parties — one for each Tennessee county — that Phillips hoped to organize in conjunction with Tax Day. Smith writes that he worked hard on this latter project, and through this he became a member of the Tennessee Tea Party’s informal leadership group, with Phillips at the helm.

Smith said that fellow activists soon urged Phillips to turn the group into a non-profit and set up a PayPal account that linked to a bank account for the organization. But, said Smith, “he kept dragging his feet.”

Then, said Smith, Phillips — who in his law practice specializes in DUI cases — abruptly announced in a radio interview that Tea Party Nation would operate as a for-profit corporation. And he did set up a PayPal account to sell merchandise from the group’s website — but he connected it to his wife’s bank account.

Smith said that when Phillips was asked why he was setting up the group as a for-profit entity, he replied that it had to be done that way because President Obama planned to ban non-profits. And Phillips said the use of his wife’s PayPal account was only temporary.

But by May, nothing had changed, so Smith and others announced they were quitting the group. That led Phillips to threaten to sue Smith, charging — baselessly, says Smith — that he had committed fraud “At least four times he threatened me with legal action,” said Smith, who has played no role in organizing the convention.

Smith closed yesterday’s post with a warning about Phillips’s potential to damage the Tea Party movement. “I cannot reiterate strongly enough that this is the cancer that can take this movement down if we let it,” he wrote.

Phillips has not responded to numerous requests for comment from TPMmuckraker.

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