by Mary J. Ruwart
This term, LNC Treasurer Aaron Starr instigated attacks on At-Large reps that consumed more LNC time than any other single activity. I urge delegates to say “No!” to such divisive behavior by refusing to return him to the LNC in any capacity.
It saddens me to write these words, as I once had great respect for Mr. Starr and even supported his bid for Treasurer in 2004. However, serving with him on the last LNC has greatly changed my perspective.
In the LNC’s first full-length meeting (September, 2008), Aaron Starr accused At-Large Rep Angela Keaton of blogging confidential information from our Executive Session. We spent almost half of our meeting time deciding whether or not violations occurred and what, if anything, should be done about it. While such leaks can create liability for the LNC, nothing that Ms. Keaton blogged even approached that level. Most of the LNC— including myself, I regret to say—took Mr. Starr’s concerns more seriously than they warranted.
Prior to our second meeting, “The Discipline of Angela Keaton” appeared on the draft agenda. Ms. Keaton asked that she be given a copy of what was to be presented to the LNC; a bit wiser now, I supported her request. When the information was not forthcoming, I moved that this item be dropped from the agenda on the grounds that Ms. Keaton had no time to prepare her defense. However, my motion was voted down. The LNC thus spent a great deal of its December 2008 meeting listening to Stewart Flood, Mr. Starr’s collaborator, making a number of accusations against Ms. Keaton, most of which were utterly groundless and easily seen as such. No action was taken against her.
However, Ms. Keaton decided she had had enough and resigned her position. Alicia Matteson took her place and has voted in lock-step with Mr. Starr every since. Did Mr. Starr instigate these attacks to get his confederate a seat at the LNC table?
Next, Mr. Starr went after At-Large Rep Lee Wrights. Mr. Wrights was undergoing a divorce and was not at his place of residence to receive his dues renewal notices; according to his ex-wife, none were received. Even though the entire LNC gave current e-mail addresses to Mr. Kraus, HQ’s files were not updated. Consequently, Mr. Wrights did not receive a renewal notice via e-mail either. In April, 2009, when Mr. Wrights’ dues were a week late, Mr. Starr convinced Chairman Redpath and Secretary Sullentrup to send Lee Wrights a notice that he was no longer on the LNC, since LP membership is a requirement for election to that body. At the same time that Mr. Wrights received his dismissal e-mail, the LNC received one directing them to select his replacement.
Most LNC members were enraged by the treatment of Mr. Wrights, as well they should be. Each LNC member pays thousands of dollars each year in travel expenses to serve on that body. To thwart the will of the delegates by disenfranchising a member for being a week late with a $25 dues payment is ludicrous. A simple phone call to Mr. Wrights would have resolved the issue.
Instead, the LNC spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with the fallout, primarily because Mr. Starr would not back down. He continued his attack on Mr. Wrights with a memo to the LNC containing Mr. Wrights’ confidential donation history. Although Mr. Starr routinely labels anything containing his financial reports “confidential,” he neglected to do so for this memo. Anything not labeled this way invariably ended up on Independent Political Review, as Mr. Starr’s memo did shortly after it went to the LNC.
In this memo, Mr. Starr claimed that Mr. Wrights had not paid his dues in 2004 and therefore was never legitimately elected as LNC Vice-Chair in that year. Had Mr. Starr checked with Mr. Wrights, he would have learned that Mrs. Wrights had paid her husband’s dues, and had been credited with his membership. To the best of Mr. Wrights’ knowledge, the records had never been updated, in spite of his repeated requests.
Later investigation of UMP records revealed that Mr. Wrights’ records at one time did show him as paying his dues for 2004; these records had been altered either inadvertently or on purpose. However, Mr. Starr has not issued an apology to Mr. Wrights or a retraction for his accusation that Mr. Wrights was never elected LNC Vice-Chair in 2004. A less dedicated activist than Mr. Wrights might be tempted to sue our Treasurer for this slander, creating a legal liability for the LP.
Our Treasurer also claimed that Sean Haugh’s payment of Lee Wrights’ dues in 2008 was an “illegal contribution,” even though the LP has accepted gift memberships for years, just as HQ accepted Mr. Haugh’s check. Our FEC consultant, who was cited in Mr. Starr’s report, had evidently been given misinformation by Mr. Starr and did not support the designation of “illegal contribution” when questioned further. However, Mr. Starr has not retracted his statements, giving Mr. Haugh possible grounds for legal action.
Mr. Wrights’ case eventually was taken to the Judicial Committee, where Ms. Matteson made the case originally put forward by Mr. Starr. Not surprisingly, the Committee found that the LNC officers had acted improperly in dismissing Mr. Wrights from the LNC. Although Mr. Starr labels all of his budget-related material “confidential,” he continues to thwart attempts to make sure that donor information is similarly protected. Do we want a Treasurer who feels free to “leak” donor information that he is privy to when he wants to malign someone and refuses to clear the air when what he puts out is erroneous?
The attacks orchestrated by Mr. Starr against At-Large Reps Keaton and Wrights consumed more of the LNC’s time than any other single item. This LNC did do one thing right, however. It hired Wes Benedict as our Executive Director (ED). Mr. Starr, however, did everything he could to stop it. The LNC didn’t have the money to hire an ED. However, Mr. Benedict offered to take the lowest ED salary we’ve paid in recent history and receive bonuses only if stiff fund-raising goals were met. Mr. Benedict was also, in my opinion, the best candidate for the job and the only applicant that had actually been an ED in a major state party (Texas), turning it from sluggish to superstar. Given the precipitous decline of membership and fund-raising the LP is experiencing, we desperately needed the kind of results that Mr. Benedict had delivered in the past.
Mr. Starr, however, opposed Mr. Benedict’s appointment and tried to promote another well-known individual for ED, even though that person had not yet applied for the position, did not have experience as an ED, and was unlikely to match Mr. Benedict’s offer. Mr. Benedict had been waiting for months for the LNC to act and intended to go back into business if we continued to drag our feet. Mr. Starr, who had given little assistance to the ED Search Committee, attempted to override its choice with this stalling tactic.
In spite of Mr. Starr’s resistance, Chairman Redpath appointed Mr. Benedict as ED. However, Mr. Starr just wouldn’t quit. At Mr. Benedict’s first LNC meeting in June, 2009, Mr. Starr attempted to renegotiate Mr. Benedict’s newly-signed contract! Not only was this highly inappropriate, but in certain corporate cultures could actually have created legal liabilities for us.
When he is not attacking At-Large LNC members, pushing us to the edge of legal liability, or trying to create a hostile working environment for our new ED, Mr. Starr performs his duties as LNC Treasurer. Although content to publicize an erroneous donor record for Mr. Wrights and let it stand, our Treasurer refused to give LNC members copies of the 2009 budget detail prior to presenting it at the December 2008 LNC meeting. Consequently, what he presented had several errors. Even after the LNC passed the budget, Mr. Starr refused my requests for copies of the budget detail on the grounds that I was a security risk (!) and that he had proprietary formulas that he didn’t want to share. When I appealed to the Chair, who asked Mr. Starr to honor my request, the insubordinate Mr. Starr simply refused!
When my persistence paid off and I finally received the budget details without the formulas, I discovered several anomalies. Our renewal rates were far below what Mr. Starr had assumed, so our budget was based on overly optimistic projections. I don’t expect our Treasurer to be perfect, but this is precisely why budget detail should be shared. LNC members can crank the numbers themselves and catch anything that may have been missed before adopting a budget. A more serious problem, however, was that our direct mail pieces to rented lists (i.e., “cold” prospecting) had such a low rate of return that it was almost impossible to cover costs, even over a ten year period. Real rates of attrition caused a loss of the new members long before they had time to contribute enough to make the mailing profitable. However, the budget we had passed set aside funds for this money-losing proposition, while setting aside nothing for ballot access or candidate support.
There was a silver lining to this cloud, however. When evaluating the numbers, I discovered that direct mail to “warm” prospects (those who had asked HQ for more information or had taken our on-line survey) was immediately profitable. Our strategy, therefore, should be to increase the interactivity of our web site. Since most of our new members in 2009 came through the website, such a strategy should increase new members substantially.
I don’t fault Mr. Starr for not discovering this on his own. However, Mr. Starr continued to advocate direct mail to rented lists (i.e., “cold” prospecting) over the last year, in spite of my frequent posts reminding him that his recommendations would only put the LP in debt. This seems at odds with our Treasurer’s fiduciary responsibility to the Party.
I could go on, but enough has probably been said already. It troubles me to speak out against Mr. Starr, but I can’t sit back and let him continue to harm the LP either. As your At-Large Rep, I feel it is my duty to inform you of what goes on “behind the scenes.” I leave it to the delegates in St. Louis to decide if Mr. Starr should be returned to the LNC.
Dr. Mary Ruwart currently serves as an At-large Representative of the Libertarian National Committee. You can contact Dr. Ruwart at email@example.com.