In a development that may or may not relate to dispute between FreedomWorks and its former chairman, former congressman Dick Armey, someone within the organization is leaking the group’s internal documents to Mother Jones, including a December 2012 report to the Board of Directors. Armey insists he hasn’t leaked anything to anyone since the dispute began, and some of the documents, like that Board of Directors report, were created after his departure from the organization.
Armey, in a 90-minute interview, elaborated on his account of how his former organization has run so far off track, so quickly.
He described some “souring” in his relationship with the group’s president, Matt Kibbe, after the 2010 elections, describing Kibbe as growing distant and secretive. Heading into the summer of 2012, Armey was irritated about media requests being sent to Kibbe instead of himself; Armey claims he’s spoken to three television producers who were told by FreedomWorks’ press operations that Armey was unavailable when in fact he was.
“I have talked with several producers of major TV shows who requested me specifically ‘countless times’ who were told that Armey was unavailable but Kibbe was,” Armey says. “These producers told me they wanted me, not Kibbe, regardless of the topic. And one of them reported to ;me that they finally told FreedomWorks that if Armey is not available they do not want Kibbe period.”
“Our strategy in the media department was always to send media requests to the person with the most knowledge of that particular question,” said Adam Brandon, the senior vice president of FreedomWorks and one of the employees fired by Armey during September 2012 takeover. “If it’s a grassroots question, we’d send it to our grassroots folks, or to our grassroots activists. If it’s a political question, we send it over to the political folks. That’s just our general strategy. . . . Up until I was fired, I never heard any complaints about this.”
But the real trigger for the trouble that enveloped the organization was the contract for Kibbe’s book, Hostile Takeover: Resisting Centralized Government’s Stranglehold on America.
Armey strongly disputed FreedomWorks’ assertion that Kibbe’s book contract was very similar to an earlier effort to promote Armey’s Axioms, a book the former House majority leader wrote when he worked for Citizens for a Sound Economy, one of the organizations that merged to form FreedomWorks in 2004. Armey finds that comparison inappropriate, as his contract for that book was signed before he joined the organization, and he says that no one from the group saw it until after it was written and the book tour was arranged and financed by the publisher.
Armey — who points out that he remained a consultant, not an employee, to FreedomWorks for the entirety of his time with the organization — asks why Kibbe’s contract for the 2012 book didn’t follow the model for Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto, a book cowritten by the two men, published in 2010. Royalties from that book went directly to the organization.
Ultimately, the question surrounding Hostile Takeover comes down to whether “no significant FreedomWorks resources were used in the writing of the book,” as an August memo from Kibbe asserted. (Armey says that the memo was the first he learned of the setup for the book, and that thus Kibbe, not he, was the first to raise the issue of potential legal ramifications of the contract.) If the resources of FreedomWorks Foundation, a nonprofit, were used to create a book that personally profited its president, Kibbe, it would jeopardize the tax status of the organization. Armey noted that he believes the Obama administration would not hesitate to use the IRS to harass the FreedomWorks organization, and that any appearance of impropriety would give the IRS reason to pounce.
Those who know Kibbe say they find it unthinkable that he would jeopardize the organization he’s run since 2004 for a $50,000 book contract. (His salary, according to a public disclosure form, was $321,000 in 2010.) In early December, Kibbe decided to donate all proceeds from Hostile Takeover to FreedomWorks, but Armey characterizes that move as comparable to a bank robber who returns the money stolen from the vault.
“We followed the strict advice of our legal counsel from start to finish on this,” Brandon said. “We have bills going back to September 2010, advising us on what we can and can’t do, and what we should and we shouldn’t do. Matt wrote the book. In the acknowledgements, he goes through every single person on the staff who did anything for the book whatsoever. We were very transparent about this.”
Brandon calls the book the most successful direct-mail piece the group had in 2012, and adds that FreedomWorks promoted several books that it felt promoted its ideas and agenda, including books by Utah senator Mike Lee, Judge Napolitano, Jim DeMint, and several tea-party activists.
Armey finds the whole explanation implausible. “I called the office last January or February. and asked for some staff support on something I was working on and was told that it would be a while because Kibbe had the whole staff in the office working on his book,” Armey said. “Any legal advice he got during the time FreedomWorks staff and resources were used to write and market his book were predicated on his deception that he did the work alone in his own time. In addition to ample staff testimony, there is also logical evidence. How many people do you know who can write a 416-page book during Christmas break?”
Whether the book contract represented a large risk to the organization or a small one, it is clear that Armey and two allies on the FreedomWorks board of directors, C. Boydon Gray and Jim Burnley, took dramatic steps in response, removing Kibbe, the group’s president; and Adam Brandon, its senior vice president. Armey says he took that step with the advice of longtime counsel to FreedomWorks Alan Dye.
Armey describes his brief tenure after Kibbe’s removal as being “sabotaged” by a group of “juvenile delinquents” who met at Kibbe’s house every night to undermine him .
“No one was fired,” Armey said. “Kibbe and Brandon were put on leave with full pay until we could ascertain whether we could deal with them and keep it all out of the press before the elections. Other staff were put on leave as we discovered their attempts at sabotage. What we learned was that the staff had become divided. There were those younger staff who had been hired to promote and protect Kibbe. And there were the staff who worked there because they believed in the conservative cause. Those who were part of the Kibbe cause recorded my meetings with staff and went to Kibbe’s house after hours to plan the next day’s sabotage.”
Brandon confirms that FreedomWorks staffers met with Kibbe and himself after work, but bristles at the suggestion the gatherings were nefarious.
“In short order, you had over five people fired from the institution,” Brandon says. “Where do they gather? You’re talking about a tight-knit family, a tight-knit group of friends. People would gather for pizza, wine, and to cry as a group, because everything they were working for was getting torn apart. You hear about this, it sounds like something really sinister, but it was pizza and wine and tears.”
Armey says that ultimately, he decided to stand down and let Kibbe return, lest the organization become swallowed up by internal divisions, two months before the November elections.
Kibbe has been dealing with a health issue in recent weeks and was unavailable for comment. Before his ailment, he appeared on “Real News,” a program on Glenn Beck’s The Blaze network. Host Will Cain brought up Armey’s dispute with his former organization, and Kibbe argued that his dispute with Armey was primarily an ideological one:
“Unfortunately this has been heavily documented in left-wing press. . . . The clash between Dick Armey and myself and the old guard and the new guard at FreedomWorks looks exactly like the clash that’s going on between John Boehner and the Tea Party class, and young upstarts like David Schweikart. It looks exactly like the clash between the NRSC looking to protect incumbents no matter what they do in office, and all of this bottom-up outside pressure from the Tea Party movement, to say, ‘we don’t care about Republican and Democrat, we care about what you do in office and did you do what you said you were going to do?’”
“It’s like gang warfare right now,” Kibbe continued. “The election outcomes didn’t turn out the way anybody wanted them to. You still have this old guard clinging to power in Congress, and groups outside of Congress — I would include FreedomWorks in that — that are willing to tip the applecart and say, ‘You know what? We’re not going to stand for this process anymore. We’re going to insist upon transparency and accountability, and the power goes to the people. It doesn’t matter who you are in Washington D.C.’ That’s the fight we’re having.”
In Kibbe’s end-of-the-year message to FreedomWorks members, he briefly alluded to Armey’s complaints:
Dick Armey’s recent resignation from FreedomWorks was, for me, one of the most difficult to absorb. There was a time when he was a father figure to me, and we collaborated on things like our bestselling book Give Us Liberty. This particular change has been painful. But we respect his desires and wish him all the best in his future endeavors. We also thank him for his years of dedicated service to this organization and the broader freedom community.
Unfortunately, what I had hoped to be a quiet and focused transition has instead attracted quite a bit of media attention.
Armey says that his recommendation that FreedomWorks help out then-flailing Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin has been overstated, declaring the Missouri Senate race was one of two dozen races he wanted FreedomWorks to get more involved in the fall of 2012.
Armey said that he had some disagreements with the way FreedomWorks had approached the 2012 election cycle; he characterized the group’s decision to spend nearly $1 million in its support of Dan Liljenquist in his primary challenge against six-term incumbent Utah senator Orrin Hatch as a “waste.”
“We had a second-tier challenger,” Armey says, concluding that without a first-tier candidate, there was no chance of defeating Hatch. He noted that the primary challenge meant “making an enemy of the next Finance Committee chairman” if the GOP had won a majority in the Senate. He said that other primary challenges supported by the organization, such as Richard Mourdock’s challenge to Senator Richard Lugar in Indiana, were driven primarily by the enthusiasm of FreedomWorks activists in the particular states, not from the leadership in Washington.
“We got obsessive,” Armey says, adding that during his career, he’s seen many individuals and groups get so focused upon ideological purity that they lose focus and become irrelevant to incapable of getting results.
But Brandon says that the challenge to Hatch followed the pattern of other political efforts of the organization, heeding the call of activists within the state.
“Just like in Indiana, this is what our grassroots activists were demanding,” Brandon said. “This wasn’t a decision from Matt [Kibbe], saying ‘we’re going to go after Orrin Hatch.’ The activists told us, ‘you were with us for [Mike] Lee, will you be with us for this one?’ . . . The Utah process is different. Sometimes you’ve got to build it and see if they come. You go to war with the army you have. Dan [Liljenquist] did some great things in the Utah budget. If he had won, we would have been heroes on that one, but that’s the risk this organization is willing to take. ”
“My point was that after we lost our endorsed candidate, we should have reduced our budget there and redirected our spending to races like Missouri, Wisconsin and other states where we could have won over the Democrats,” Armey said.
Armey notes that during his brief period of management, when he offered this plans for the November elections, at least one FreedomWorks member complained that the organization was going to become “an extension of the Romney campaign.” FreedomWorks hadn’t endorsed Romney in the GOP presidential primary, and it was clear that some in the organization could not muster much enthusiasm for the nominee. In Kibbe’s end-of-the-year message to FreedomWorks members, he summarized Romney and his campaign this way:
Was Mitt Romney an authentic critic of ObamaCare, the defining, winning issue of the 2010 elections? Of course not. Our best issues, the only differences between us and them that actually mattered, were swept under the table. . . . 2012 was a beauty contest, and the old white guy—an unfairly-redefined caricature from Bain who drove with the family dog on the roof—lost. FreedomWorks for America set out to win despite what we saw as weakness at the top of the Republican ticket.
Armey also said that he saw the organization drifting away from its core skill, providing on-the-ground activism and training for the conservative grassroots in key races, and getting too focused upon Internet-based activism.
“We’re here right now at our retreat, and this is one of the main things we’re talking about,” Brandon said. “The detail we’re getting into is stunning, looking at [Romney’s web-based vote-and-volunteer tracking software] ORCA and NARWAL [the Obama campaign’s counterpart], seeing what the Obama campaign built . . . Your tactics every year have to change. Every year, Matt Kibbe blows up the organization and rebuilds it. The one thing that is constant at FreedomWorks is change. We’re just responding to going on. Our big challenge right now is that we have six million people across our networks. How do we build a personal relationship with 6 million people? You have to use the Internet to get that done.”
“The point is the Internet should be a complement to our grassroots work which was, in the past, our foundation,” Armey said. “Instead it has become a substitute for what we do best and it has been said in the past two years that Freedom Works has been reduced to a marketing arm for Kibbe and his associates, as evidenced by their almost total ineffectiveness in the 2012 elections and the departure of the most senior activists and coordinators in the organization.”
The average voter undoubtedly tunes out these internal disputes, and even to the average conservative, FreedomWorks might be easily confused with other conservative and free-market activist organizations — Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, the Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express, the Senate Conservatives Fund, and the Leadership Institute. Within FreedomWorks, the focus has shifted to the big political fights of the moment — getting Harry Reid’s Senate to pass a budget, blocking the formation of Obamacare exchanges in the states — and the dispute of whether the group’s tactics need to be revised will be borne out in the results of the coming year.
But the group may need to confront the issue of who within their ranks believes their mission is best served by providing their financial documents to Mother Jones.