Co-authored with Alex Brant-Zawadzki and Bill Schmalfeldt. Research assistance by Melissa Brewer.
Ali Akbar, now President of the National Bloggers Club, is one of the conservative blogosphere's most infamous characters. He began his campaign of notoriety with a crime spree in 2006, blazing a six-year trail of fraud. That's him up there, in the mug shots. Akbar's story is as improbable as the Tea Party movement itself, and a lesson on the privileges of power in the age of Citizens United. How did a petty crook rise to these heights in such a short time? Why does he enjoy such influential connections today?
We ask these questions because we see an emerging bipartisan consensus that Akbar's National Bloggers Club (NBC) is entirely notional. Akbar has never applied to the IRS for 501(c)3 status -- despite having claimed as much on the NBC Facebook page. While the NBC requires an unusual amount of personal information from donors, they do not offer those donors an EIN (Employer ID Number) to make their contributions tax deductible.
An EIN is provided upon application for nonprofit status, and should be available if the National Bloggers Club has applied. It is an easy online process. Yet we have been unable to locate an EIN in any database, and inquiries by both liberal and conservative bloggers have been met with silence. When journalist Bill Schmalfeldt contacted the Internal Revenue Service, he was informed that no EIN existed in their database for a National Bloggers Club.
This would be less distressing if Akbar didn't have a long history of covering up his tracks and minimizing his criminal past. In 2006, he stole items from a woman's home; he later broke into a vehicle, stole a debit card, and withdrew money from the victim's account, earning a felony conviction. Yet this record did not keep Akbar out of Republican politics.
Barely a year later, Akbar was accused of discussing election fraud tactics. The accuser, Joey A. Dauben, was a former colleague. In coverage of the controversy, Akbar was frequently and mistakenly identified as a John McCain campaign staffer due to his involvement in Bloggers for McCain, a "cooperating" website independent from the campaign itself. Akbar also caught flak for “scrubbing the web” to cover the tracks of Michael Meissner, a former police chief who was charged with posing as a woman and soliciting photos of underaged boys.
In April 2008, Akbar pleaded guilty to the debit card fraud and was sentenced to four years probation and restitution of the stolen money. His probation ended in May of this year. In the meantime, Akbar has built quite a blog empire for himself -- and runs it from his mother's house.
By 2008 Akbar had linked up with Eric Odom's Don't Go movement. They likely met up when Akbar’s firm, Republic Modern, designed the old website of Sam Adams Alliance, for which Odom was the new media director. When Odom started American Liberty Alliance (ALA), a tea party website that was mainly in the business of monetizing other Tea Party sites with ads, he brought Akbar along with him. Starting off as ALA’s Technology Consultant, Akbar would eventually became Chairman of ALA's Board, spending much of his time collecting non-deductible donations.
Yes, despite claiming to be in the application process for 501(c) 4 status in August 2009, ALA eventually was embarrassed into posting the following caveat on their website (though not their donation page): “The American Liberty Alliance is not a 501c3, 501c4 or a PAC. We are not registered as a non-profit and we do not raise funds as such.” Yet they incorporated under the name “American Liberty Alliance - A Non-Profit Corporation.”
The most excoriating examination of the ALA came from Erick Erickson, who reported that ALA had eventually been rolled up into an Eric Odom PAC:
For a number of months I have had more than my share of phone calls from conservative donors, bloggers, activists, campaigns, and others wishing someone would speak out. Several tried pushing this story into the mainstream media, but we all know what would happen there ? we’d turn people into martyrs who shouldn’t be.
At best this conduct looks like ignorance of the complex bureaucracy and regulations surrounding the FEC. At its worst, it looks like . . . well, you decide. I’m sure even more will come out now that I’m willing to speak up and it does not look like a case of simple ignorance. If it were an isolated incident it’d be one thing, but it is a pattern.
Indeed, the pattern begins with a profitable deception. Although ALA was registered as a non-profit in Nevada, as far as we can determine they never actually applied for non-profit status with the IRS, despite always claiming they were "in the process" of doing so. The pattern repeats with NBC, which incorporated in Texas as a non-profit, and has collected donations as a non-profit, without ever applying for legal non-profit designation. (The NBC has scrubbed 501(c)3 language from its donations page at Rally.org.) Our attempts to reach the law firm listed as the NBC's registered agent have been rebuffed. (Update: the address appears to be a "virtual" office.)
These dubious credentials in the new Tea Party movement propelled Akbar into the upper echelons of conservative organizing, where he has apparently met Karl Rove. Yet Akbar seems to have done remarkably little real work during his ascension. Take the NBC's website, for example, which contains no content -- just a redirect to the group's Facebook page. There, you will find grassroots conservatives wondering how to join, and why the donation practices are so intrusive:
Like many of Akbar's websites, content doesn't seem to be key. For example, despite supposedly representing a robust movement, Akbar's Tea Party Brew.com has surprisingly few posts. Bill Murphy, now the Social Media Director for the Romney campaign, wrote the final post at that site in February. By then, he had been Akbar's venture partner since 2009.
Murphy (right) was Director of Strategic Initiatives for American Liberty Alliance, though the position does not appear on his LinkedIn resume. Murphy was also Akbar's partner in an organization called Vice & Victory, which put on the BlogBash party at CPAC in February. Akbar was listed as the Host Organizer and Murphy as the Event Coordinator. BlogBash’s director is usually identified as Devon Wills, but many of NBC’s announcements and press releases offer contact information for "Bill Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org." Yet the BlogBash website doesn't even mention the NBC, which supposedly organized the event.
When he appeared on the radio program of conservative Larry Sinclair in March, Murphy also identified himself as the Director of the NBC -- though that position also does not appear on his resume. Whenever he has been asked about such omissions, Murphy has responded by further scrubbing his LinkedIn profile. Sinclair now calls foul on Akbar and Murphy's notional blogging club for using Andrew Breitbart's name to raise money for a scholarship fund -- again, while claiming 501(3)c status was "pending:"
In March 2012 we received an email which came from Bill Murphy and Ali Akbar from BlogBash.org and Vice and Victory email addresses announcing the creation of an Andrew Breitbart Scholarship Fund. After receiving the email and because of our own personal encounters with Andrew Sinclair News decided we would do a feature story on the Scholarship fund. In preparing the story we sent an email to Joel Pollak who was the primary Breitbart.com principle since the untimely death of Andrew early the morning of March 1, 2012. In the email to Mr. Pollak we asked if Pollak would be interested in going on Through the Mirror w/Larry Sinclair to talk about the recently established Breitbart Scholarship Fund. Pollak responded almost immediately by telling us he knew nothing of any such fund; that anyone using Andrews name along with any such fund was doing so without authorization and Pollak even went to the point of saying that any such organization was in his opinion a scam. (Emphasis added)
Aside from Michelle Malkin, nobody knows who is on the board of the NBC, or how they were selected. NBC won't even say whether they have any bylaws, and has never applied for non-profit status. If the NBC was an ACORN office, Malkin would denounce it as a criminal organization. Instead, she is Akbar's public ally and defender.
These inconsistencies had already drawn criticism from conservatives when we began reporting on them. First was Paul Lemmen, a convicted con artist working out his redemption in his blog, "An Ex Con's View." As the details of Akbar's criminal record appeared on the website Breitbart Unmasked in May and June, Lemmen expressed disdain for the fact that "the other side" had been the one to reveal Akbar's criminal past. Citing the NBC's disturbing lack of transparency and its behavior with donors, Lemmen called for transparency and accountability.
As a result of his outspoken blogging, Lemmen received the close attention of NBC "enforcer" and Andrew Breitbart protege Lee Stranahan amid a series of attack posts by other bloggers. Lemmen fell silent for a while, reemerging later to write on more general topics. Today, he is a member of North American Conservative Bloggers United (NACBU), a new association of conservative indie bloggers opposed to the NBC and its opaque operations. In supporting Lemmen, David West called out Akbar for elitism:
See, Ali Akbar was the ‘technical guru’ for a while behind the Don’t Go Movement which I was a part of as Northwest Regional Coordinator. I, however, was ignored back then by Mr Ackbar. When he formed the NBC, I was ignored as well.
The NBC billed itself in part as an organization that could give bloggers desperately-needed press credentials. Those who have received credentials are unable to activate them as instructed. The NBC does not explain how to receive a credential, or even describe any standards for applicants. NACBU organizer "Impolite Canadian" just wanted to webcast an event; after being rebuffed in all attempts to learn more about how to obtain the privileges of membership, the pseudonymous blogger concluded that NBC was simply a club of Akbar's friends:
It's like they all of a sudden became part of the ''elites'', encouraging and defending the ''mastermind'', but when asked how does one join this ''elite'' club, you get the ''I dunno man, it just happened, u know?''.
There are only 340 "likes" on the NBC Facebook page at the time of this writing -- far fewer than one would expect for a popular netroots organization. Ladd Ehlinger, Jr., aka FilmLadd, questioned whether the NBC was even a real organization:
Screw Ali's political connections. You love him? Want to blacklist me? Be my guest. Won't be the first time that's happened. Been happening for two years now anyway. It's the sort of thing I think Ali likes to do to people who get crosswise with him - trash them, prevent them from getting work, and so on. I could regale you with first-hand stories I've heard, but this post is already too goddamn long.
Akbar did not prevent Ladd from getting work. In fact, Ehlinger received a plum new gig from Washington lobbyist Dan Backer of DB Capitol Strategies. He serves as Treasurer for many well-known PACs, including the Conservative Action Fund, which has already given Akbar's "Vice & Victory Fund" over $44,000 in 2012. Backer is also Treasurer for Stop This Insanity Inc PAC, which recently signed Ehlinger to a complex $10,000 contract. Ehlinger hasn't spoken out on the subject of Ali Akbar ever since. (CORRECTION: see below)
Backer (right) is the attorney who created "hybrid Super PACs" through his Carey v. FEC lawsuit in 2011. As part of his contract, Ehlinger agreed to be classified as an employee and then kick back $1,500 to Stop This Insanity Inc PAC, creating an opportunity to challenge federal limits on employee PAC contributions. Backer also wants to lift limits on contributions to federal candidates. True freedom, Backer argues, is American billionaires donating more hard political money every year than an average American family makes.
Dan Backer's other PAC products include Todd Cefaratti, who became infamous for fleecing PAC donors and using his for-profit JoinTheTeaParty.us website as a lead generator for spam. Cefaratti was found out by activists at Free Republic, who quickly discovered that his real estate sales lead business was named Glengary Inc. Despite grassroots revulsion at this character from a David Mamet play, Cefaratti spoke at CPAC in February. He and his Glengary LLC are also party to Dan Backer's FEC suit with Ehlinger. Stop This Insanity Inc. runs another one of Cefaratti's websites, TheTeaParty.net.
The "made men" of the Inner Party are never held accountable. Their revolution has been monetized: shirts, buttons, email addresses, and page views turn dedicated activists into revenue streams for "producers." Meanwhile, these same "producers" also get paid by billionaires and PAC lawyers who benefit from stoking the grassroots fires on behalf of their corporate agenda. It's a great job if you can get it. No wonder Akbar likes to throw big, exclusive parties at CPAC and the Republican National Convention.
In order to make the BlogBash party an instant institution this year, Akbar and Murphy took money from a host of the usual suspects in astroturf politics, including Americans For Prosperity, FreedomWorks, and the vote-suppressing True The Vote organization. Billionaire and megadonor Foster Friess also helped throw Akbar's party at CPAC, then cracked a terrible joke about aspirin as a form of birth control: "You know, back in my days, they used Bayer Aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.” Friess has vowed to spend a large chunk of his fortune through Karl Rove's American Crossroads this year.
We believe the National Bloggers Club encapsulates a problem common to Tea Party organizing since February 2009. As with Mark Meckler, the multilevel marketing billionaire who organized Tea Party Patriots, we see a disturbing pattern of grift in the National Bloggers Club. Sincere Americans have been organized to prevent corporate regulation and billionaire tax hikes; the organizers fleece them while also accepting money from representatives of these same corporations and billionaires.
This charade may be close to an end, however. Larry Sinclair has presented the National Bloggers Club with a demand they publish the following:
The names of every National Bloggers Club Board member including the date each became associated with the NBC
A complete financial report showing the amounts of all monies paid to in contributions; services; or sponsorships made to NBC or BlogBash.
A Complete financial reporting of all funds paid out by NBC or BlogBash including the names of those receiving said payments and the reasons for each.
A complete financial accounting of all funds paid out by NBC/Blogbash including an accounting of what the payments were for and if they were made for the personal benefit of Ali Akbar or any other member of the NBC Board.
A complete accounting of all contributions made to the Breitbart Scholarship Fund as well as an accounting of all disbursements of said funds as well as the name of the financial institution(s) where contributions are on deposit.
A statement as to Bill Murphy’s position with NBC and BlogBash; whether Murphy has been involved in any NBC/BlogBash activities and or promotions since becoming Mitt Romney for President Social Media Director?
The IRS 501(c)(3) documents confirming the below stated claim by NBC:
"National Bloggers Club is a new 501(c)(3) founded by top new media operatives, bloggers and journalists as a loose association of bloggers who are for free enterprise and limited government and to advocate on bloggers behalf."
In the spirit of nonpartisan opposition to criminal misbehavior and opaque political activity, we join these conservative voices in calling for accountability. Akbar has been dishonest about his criminal record. His organization has been dishonest about its non-profit status. The NBC did not ask Breitbart's family before asking for donations in his name. Their associations with powerful figures in the world of campaign finance have not been able to fully silence grassroots opposition to their questionable practices:
These aren’t unfair questions. They are very simple, basic questions spoken without malice or any agenda save that of telling the truth. And has already been noted, the truth has no agenda. It’s just the truth.
Conservative bloggers are asking for simple transparency -- and being refused. Liberal bloggers meet only scorn and harassment for asking the same legitimate questions. We believe it is time for "real" journalists to consider this information, as no mere blogger of any political persuasion will ever glean answers from the National Bloggers Club or their Super PAC friends. They are apparently a law unto themselves.
CORRECTION: Advised via Twitter that Ladd Ehlinger had recently denounced Ali Akbar on Twitter, we include the following items for your consideration:
— Film Ladd (@FilmLadd) September 6, 2012
— Film Ladd (@FilmLadd) September 7, 2012
— Film Ladd (@FilmLadd) September 6, 2012
— Film Ladd (@FilmLadd) September 6, 2012