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Tea Party Express Planned Donation-Funded Pleasure Cruise

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Produced by HuffPost's Eyes & Ears Citizen Journalism Unit

This summer, the Tea Party Express planned to pay for a $50,000 Caribbean cruise with donations from Tea Party supporters.

Tea Party Express, the moniker of a series of cross-country bus tours that coordinated rallies against the financial stimulus and then healthcare reform -- a third rally is in the works -- has come under attack from many other Tea Party groups for its associations with the Republican-affiliated PR firm of Russo Marsh & Waters. Two principals at the firm, Sal Russo and Joe Wierzbicki, are involved in the political action committee Our Country Deserves Better (OCDB), which in turn operates the Tea Party Express. Russo is the PAC's chief strategist and Wierzbicki is its coordinator.

On July 9, Russo emailed Deborah Johns, Vice Chairperson of Our Country Deserves Better, contemplating a fundraiser in order to collect $200,000 to pay for a Caribbean cruise. The dialogue shows the $50,000 budget for the cruise and $150,000 in pocket money.

RUSSO: I know this is an aggressive thought, but at these prices, what do you think about doing a OCBD Cruise fundraiser after the rally?

JOHNS: After all the work we are doing in the office to get ready for the trip, we deserve it! Sal you are the best to think of us

RUSSO: Well, actually, I was thinking of using the 200 people who would pay $1000 to go and allow us to pocket the $150,000 in profit. Well, some of the profit could be used to defray the cost of the caravan workers

The email contains Carnival promotional imagery which lists the dates of the cruise - Sept. 14 through Sept 19, two days after the 9/12 March, the final stop on the Tea Party Express II. Russo also forwarded cruise promotional material to Johns that lists prices for Carnival's "Carnival Fantasy" package: $199 a night for an inside room; $229 a night for an ocean view, and $729 for a suite on this five-night western Caribbean cruise.

In an email exchange, Russo admitted to circulating an email:

We did send out an email regarding interest in doing a cruise at the end of the Tea Party Express tour.The purpose of the cruise would have been to use the opportunity and the excitement of the Washington DC rally to plan activities for 2010. It would have had to have been self supporting, so there was no fundraiser to raise funds for it.

When asked if Our Country Deserves Better actually took the cruise, Russo said that by that point they "didn't find sufficient interest among others to move forward. So it ended at that point and no one went on a cruise."

In regards to whether Our Country Deserves Better had planned to hold a fundraiser, collect $200,000, spend roughly $50,000 on a Caribbean Cruise and pocket the rest as profit, Russo repeated his earlier claim without actually denying anything: "The cruise would have had to support itself and no other funds would have been used." Russo also denies that any such fundraiser ever took place.

This comes in the midst of criticism over Our Country Deserves Better's inappropriate spending. Last week it was reported that of the $1.33 Million spent by the PAC last year, $1,025,559 went straight to Russo, Marsh & Waters, including payments to the firm itself and to its principals - and also to King Media, a group which shares staff and real estate with Russo Marsh. In other words, the firm that ran the bus tours this summer which pulled in $1.33 million in donations to the Tea Party movement turned around and paid over 75 percent of that money to themselves.

TPE threw its full support behind Republican Scott Brown's successful campaign for Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts senate seat. According to the New York Times, TPE spent $384,000 on the Brown campaign. For some perspective, the Republican National Trust contributed $100,000 in advertising.

The email in question:

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