Hundreds of pages of email and text message correspondence made public last week shed new light on the infighting and organizational disarray that have plagued America's leading conservative Christian political consulting firm in recent months.
As BuzzFeed reported in June, the Columbus-based Strategy Group for Media — which has represented dozens of tea party and religious right Republicans, including Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich — has been mired in lawsuits and internal tumult since last spring, when seven of the firm's managers staged a religious intervention with their CEO, Rex Elsass. After the managers made their demands in a dramatic meeting that culminated with them laying hands on their boss and praying for his soul, Elsass fired three of his top lieutenants, including his longtime protégé and Strategy Group President Nick Everhart.
The series of emails and text messages, made public on the Franklin County Court website in the ongoing lawsuit between Everhart and Strategy Group, adds further detail to that meeting, and shows the extent to which the company's managers were worried about Elsass' psychological and spiritual health. They also reveal potentially embarrassing anecdotes for the company, including one incident in which an executive said Elsass accidentally mailed a "female pleasure machine" to Rep. Michele Bachmann.
A transcript of text messages sent among the managers prior to their April 1 intervention with Elsass suggest they were nervous about confronting him, and even concerned for their physical safety.
"At least you have baby bird wings that can fly away if Rex goes nuts," one of them texted to the others a few days before the intervention. "It might be like game of thrones. All our heads on spikes and then a celebration!"
"I just personally don't think it's safe to be in that empty building with him waiting for us," said another. "Call me crazy..."
A third manager attempted to ease the others' concerns: "Men, don't be anxiety filled pray about it, but the group confrontation is biblical & what must be done. We know where he'll be we meet him there in love & the reaction is in his hands."
The text messages show that the managers planned to begin their intervention with a prayer, "to set the tone in a loving way" because they "had to do all possible to convey genuine love." Everhart said they needed to let him know they were "there to help him."
But the managers also outlined a list of personal and professional demands for Elsass, including their insistence that he seek psychiatric help, change churches, give up his hiring and firing power, and forfeit the ability to make unilateral financial decisions for the company. Below is a draft of the document the managers would present to Elsass the day after their intervention:
Personal Action Items
1. Dr. Weiss — Renew weekly sessions, should at least be under consideration if Dr. Weiss is the correct long term fit. Question whether he is the right fit considering he was on a medicine regiment that was working, but because it didn't allow him to cry enough he simply took himself off of it. That's not the sort of strong Doctor he needs in his life. This person can not be pushed around by simply doing what he wants.
2. Find a Christian Counselor — While Dr. Bada could be considered, would like for Matt and Mitch to work with Rex to find the correct Christian counselor to begin visiting weekly.
3. Updated/New Psychological Evaluation — Needs to be an updated evaluation on his condition, whether Dr. Weiss or a treatment center (What does Cleveland Clinic offer?), we need to ensure we have correct diagnosis and thus the correct medicinal treatment schedule is in place.
4. New Home Church — Needs to find and begin attending a new home church, if that home is Northwest Bible Church...great...if not needs to be a joint decision by he and Laurie.
5. Holding him to Family Time Accountability — Being home, finding time to be with family, this has to become a major part of his renewal, again his wife is going to have to be instrumental in letting us know if he's keeping his promise.
Business Action Items
1. Rex is removed from the EastGatePAC (Or whatever the final name of this entity becomes) project as well as all public affairs client day to day execution.
2. This remains a confidential internal SG matter, discussion is limited to those individuals in the room today.
3. Weekly accountability and prayer time with the people in room today and Rex on Monday's at 8:00AM
4. Legacy Business Timeline — If this is really a legacy business, what is the hard timeline transition plan, doesn't really make sense for an "interim CEO" (I.E Rob Phillips). It was always clear when it was simply the Strategy Group for Media, but with the broader Strategy Group Companies...what's the bigger vision/plan for transferring that legacy business on? Has never been laid out, this isn't an overnight action item but there is no reason for us not to chart a path of the next 5 months to a year. Also, separately, based upon all the internal SG company changes a new organizational chart seems in order.
5. Counseling on Big Decisions — No unilateral decision making on personnel hires/fires or major financial decisions. Needs to be a set process of discussion with senior management.
Rick Tyler, the recently installed president of Strategy Group, told BuzzFeed the emails "demonstrate a measure of delusion that remains unfathomable to me. The idea that employees could present to the owner of a company a list of demands with which they would take ownership of the company is a delusion that I can't reconcile with reality."
Everhart's lawyer, James Mowery, has said Everhart had no desire to stage a coup within the company, and that he only wanted to help his longtime mentor and keep the business on track.
The documents contain other correspondence that illustrate the discord within the company.
In February, for example, Elsass wrote to several employees reiterating his request for a daily update memo from his managers, insisting that the process would not be used as "a tool of judgment" but rather as a way to "focus, coordinate, and know what was in your mind and heart." He added, "Papa wants to know that his boys and girl will share their heart and mind with him for a literal moment each day from EVERYONE of you."
But a month later, Elsass had apparently grown suspicious that some of his employees were talking about him behind his back, and sent an email putting his request for daily updates in stronger terms: "This is what is essential for me....and to disregard this simple request is disrespect which I will not tolerate!" He added, "If you think I am not worth this five minutes daily just come nock [sic] on my door and let me know and we will deal with it. If you have a problem don't talk to one another, your staffs, or anyone else."
And an email thread from May 29 — after the three managers were fired — featured Strategy Group's former voter-contact consultant P.J. Wenzel making reference to Elsass sending "female pleasure machines" to Bachmann. The emails don't elaborate on the incident, but one person familiar with the story told BuzzFeed that Elsass had intended to give Bachmann a vibrating head massager to help alleviate her migraines, and that the employee he sent to buy the gift accidentally purchased something that more closely resembled a sex toy — and sent it to her office.
Tyler said the item in question was purchased at Brookstone and was not a sex toy, but he declined to provide further information about the product. (Brookstone announced in 2011 that it had begun selling "pleasure objects.")
The person familiar with the story said the firm successfully retrieved the gift before Bachmann could open it.
The emails also show Everhart, Wenzel, and Matt Parker — another top executive fired by Elsass in what they refer to as the "Saturday Night Massacre" — discussing future plans and making arrangements to call former and current Strategy Group clients.
Elsass had made them sign non-compete agreements shortly before he fired them (though Everhart had signed a scaled-down version of the contract years earlier). The three men compared their contracts to determine whether they had any legal standing, and they agreed each individual agreement — Everhart's was actually labeled a "covenant" — was too different to be enforceable. They continued to work to maintain the relationships they had built at Strategy Group until July 9, when a preliminary injunction was issued to stop them.
A month after his termination, Parker wrote to Everhart and Wenzel, "We are no longer working for an evil, narcissistic and perhaps mentally ill man. We are free in Christ and I don't know about you guys, but God has dealt with me in some major ways... I love both of you guys and I know God is going to work all of this for good. Not because I see some great resolution coming, but because His word says so."
Meanwhile, Wenzel has filed his own suit against Strategy Group in an effort to work for his father's political consulting firm, Wenzel Strategies. He's also claiming that Elsass is holding personal items of his hostage in the office, including a computer and a harpoon. Strategy Group has countersued, arguing that Wenzel's work with his father would violate his non-compete agreement. The Strategy Group also claims the firm has already returned the harpoon to Wenzel.
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jacob Fischler is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, D.C.
Contact Jacob Fischler at email@example.com.
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