In January, I reported that Penn Jillette was going to make some Libertarian Party commercials. In typical LP fashion, another project has been fouled up. I’ll provide the pertinent e-mail chain:
David Owens has asked me to post this letter to Mike Dixon to the LNC Discussion list to respond to your question about what has happened to the Penn & Teller project. I can confirm most of what David says, except for those phone calls I was not a party to.
The main letter is somewhat lengthy, but contains a lot of necessary detail.
Dear Mike [Dixon],
I am addressing this as a letter to you, even though Tony Ryan has asked what happened to it. I am sick and tired of people hammering at me as the bad guy in this whole project when I have done nothing but bust my ass to get this thing done and have been obstructed, largely by you, throughout the entire process. I have covered for you long enough, and since everyone is now rightly demanding an answer as to what has happened with this project, it is time that you answer them.
I was first contacted about the Penn &Teller project on November 10, 2005. By November 28th, I had been contacted by Nevada LP state secretary Nathan (I don’t know his last name) who works in the P&T organization. He had contacted Penn Gillette and gotten his agreement to do a fund raising video for us. We set a shooting date for early January, but shortly after we set things up, it got moved back to the 25th. It would be at the Rio Casino in Las Vegas. After researching the cost of a film crew in Las Vegas I came up with a budget of $7500 for the shoot. I asked George Squyres to write the script knowing I could get him to do it for free. Mark Rutherford was in charge of the overall project. I gave him all these numbers early on, and told him that we would need the money to pay for it before we got to Vegas. This was not just to comply with LNC rules. During December and early January, Mark brought Bruce Cohen on board and the two of them raised the $7500. In fact they raised $9300 in total.
I traveled to Las Vegas on January 21st to meet with Penn & Teller’s people on the 22nd. At that point their publicist started changing what they were willing to do as participants in the project. Ultimately, in spite of the fact that I had forwarded the script from George early on and they had approved it, we went through 4 changes before the actual shoot on the 25th, including changing the shoot from Penn & Teller doing it solo as an appeal, to doing it as an interview. I was in no position to negotiate as it was put to me that the alternative to doing what they wanted was not doing it at all. They held all the cards. I chose to go ahead with the project for many reasons, including the fact that we had raised money from donors, our party’s need for funds, and because it would be the first real opportunity to at last have a real celebrity endorsement.
What we got on the 25th was 21 minutes of interview footage that really lends itself to making people into contributors for various pledge programs at all levels. Mark Rutherford saw the first raw clips and said they were far better than he had hoped for. However, because of the interview format and the changes to the script, in order for the film to work we now would need an introduction and a conclusion piece that told people how to become a contributor and join our various pledge programs.
On January 27th I traveled to the State Chairs Conference in Phoenix where I gave you a full report. I had no question that as Chairman of the party it should be you doing the introduction, the conclusion and the actual pitch to get people to contribute and sign up for the pledge program. The party had just gone to the no dues program and the 45 States that were getting UMP funds were being cut off from their major source of income. If we could provide the states as well as the national with a celebrity fund raising DVD that helped their pledge programs get off the ground that would be genuine support for the state affiliates rather than the same old lip service from the LNC.
Your response to me in Phoenix was that ” February is completely booked, every single day.” I responded to you that we could shoot in March and that would give us time to do the editing in February. I told you that we would need to raise money for the second shoot and that the 21 minutes of footage that we all ready had was going to require a lot more editing that I had not counted on.
I returned home and contacted my studio engineer. I had been able to get one of my contacts to put me in touch with a young but very good engineer in New York. In fact he was so up for the project that he flew to Vegas to participate in the shoot on his own dime. We went over the raw footage and came up with a very good price for the editing of 5 versions of the project. Those versions include one version for the first step of the project where we are approaching the major donors, whales and torch club members, a second version for the second step of the project where we are asking for the rank and file party members to become genuine contributors to the national party, a third version that would be sent to a broad cross section of the entire freedom movement through mailing lists obtained from other organizations, as well as two versions that would be used by state affiliates in their own local fund raising efforts. This editing cost us a total of $2500 or $500 per version, which if you ask anyone who knows about costs on this sort of work is far below dirt cheap. I received only $1800 since that was all that we had raised at that point, so I put in $700 of my own and completed the initial editing of the 21 minutes of footage.
I must also make the point that the editing that will be needed for the introduction and conclusion and final combining of the two is included in the $2500 that my studio engineer agreed to charge. So, there will be no further editing costs, despite the fact that there will be more actual work done. The editing for the whole project is now paid for.
By the beginning of March I still had not heard from you as to when you would be available to finish the shoot, so on the 6th I called you and left a message that we needed to get a date set to finish the project. You never returned my call. During the entire month of March I never heard back from you, in spite of asking others to contact you and trying again myself. At this point another shoe dropped, namely the committee that commissioned this project disbanded.
By the third of April various people, including LNC members, had started to ask what had happened to the Penn &Teller project that they contributed to. Shane Cory at that point requested that I hand over all the raw footage so that he can take over and complete the project. The strong implication of this is that I am either incapable or unwilling to complete the work I have started. This is very insulting and the first slap at me in this project. Having done a number of this type of project in both Florida and Pennsylvania, and knowing that the surest way to produce a very bad product is to have it go from person to person, each changing it to suit a different vision, I refused to hand over the footage. Additionally I am not going to come out of this with damage to my reputation in this area after putting considerable quantities of my own time, money and contacts into the project.
Finally on April 6th you contacted me, not about scheduling the final shoot, but with a demand of an accounting from me of all the funds that have been expended on the project so far. The numbers had already been given to the people involved in the project, including Mark Rutherford, but I complied and sent you an accounting of what had been spent. At this point Mark Nelson got very vocal about this being another typical LNC failure with people doing things out of their skill set, no accounting of what has been spent, and more. He points the finger at me as the one who has screwed the entire thing up and is not getting the job done. This is the second slap at me in this picture. The accounting that I gave of the costs so far was condemned as inadequate and I was told that we need a line-by-line accounting of what monies had been paid to the dozen or so vendors. I will say it again: there have been only two vendors in this entire project, not twelve, and no one else has been paid a dime. I have paid all my own expenses, as has everyone else who has participated. The two vendors who have been paid are the Vegas film crew ($7500) and the New York editing studio ($2500). No one is getting greased and I take it as an insult from you and anyone else the implication that I have pocketed money on this project. If this is how the LP treats activists trying to help the party, there is little wonder that we have gone nowhere in 35 years.
After all of this, I continued to ask you to set a date to finish the shoot, and still you gave me no answer. I am at a loss to understand why you cannot over so many months cut one afternoon out of your schedule to finish this project. I told you that I would come to Charlotte to do it if that would make it easier, but got no response to that either. The only conclusion that I can draw, and have drawn, is that you are opposed to it for some reason. There is no explanation or justification of why you have been “unable” to do what is needed to complete the project, so the conclusion has to be that you are “unwilling.” Yet in the face of this, I am the one who is getting attacked for the lack of performance. I cannot comprehend why you have done this, why you have sat idly by and let me take the blame for the delay in this project, when it would take nothing more than a phone call from you to have it finished. The hard part is done; I do not understand your obstruction of the one of the best projects the LP has ever undertaken when we are sitting on the finish line.
Realizing that you were never going to do what was needed to finish it, and feeling on the advice of many that it would be inappropriate for Shane to do the introduction, I looked around for someone else who could do the final shoot, and finally Bruce Cohen came up with Dave Ruprecht. That would work as Ruprecht is a nationally known personality and would be recognized by many, as well as having the professional skills to do the job well.
I went forward with a schedule based on the fact that Ruprecht would be in Atlantic City to shoot a game show on April 22nd, and would be able to get his film crew to do a quick shoot for us at minimal cost, likely around $3000. From there I could go straight to the editing studio in New York and within a day would have the final product. As I said previously, the editing costs are already paid, so there would be no additional costs. I asked you, by email and phone call, to contact Bruce, by this time the only one remaining of the original committee, and get him moving on raising the final monies needed to finish the project. Again the response from you was dead silence and Bruce did not receive any contact or authorization to proceed. This again stops the project as we cannot spend money we don’t have, and I am not willing or able to cover the costs out of my own pocket, nor should I be asked to do this.
Fortunately, Ruprecht’s schedule changed and his trip to Atlantic City was changed to June 3rd. I say fortunately because we would have been in a real problem if he had shown up and we couldn’t pay the film crew, and it would have been on my reputation as the one who did not pay the bill.
I have contacted Bruce myself to get the fund raising underway, and he has responded that he is ready, willing and waiting, but that he cannot proceed without authorization from the chair to do so. At this point we have less than two weeks before the film shoot in Atlantic City and we cannot proceed, once again, because you will not act, you will not respond to anyone, you will not allow it to go forward. Yet the finger still points at me as the one who is the problem.
I am unwilling to be implicated as the problem in this picture any longer. The reason this project has been stalled for months when it could have been done in February is laid at your doorstep, and I am sorry that your refusal to respond to me or anyone else has made this necessary. Since I am unable to post to the LNC list, I have asked George to post this for me in response to Tony Ryan’s demand to know what is going on with the project. I have also asked him to post it to the state chair’s list, as the project was presented to the state chairs conference and fund raising was done there. The people who have contributed to this project have a right to know why the project has stalled, and I am not going to take the hit for you.
I am determined to finish this project on June 3rd, not simply because the party needs it, but because when I take on a project I finish it; my reputation as a producer of projects like this is on the line. The party contacted me about doing this; I did not seek it out, but I am always ready to help the party with the skills that I can lend.
Those who have seen the rough cuts know that it will be a major boon to the party. I am asking you to tell the only remaining committee member, Bruce Cohen, to start raising money for the final shoot. No matter what happens I am determined that the final shoot will be on June 3rd and I will have the finished product by June 5th. The only issue is whether we will have to go around you to complete the project, so I will respectfully ask you to either lead, follow or get out of the way.
The ball is in your court, Mr. Chairman. But then it has been in your court since the State Chair’s Conference in Phoenix this last January.
Michael Dixon’s response:
Good morning all
And to those who receive multiple copies, I apologize, but plead the defense of our multiplying email lists.
There is no doubt that I have been disappointed in the lack of completion of this very interesting project. I applaud David for his initiative and his work to date, but urge everyone involved to place their differences aside and work to bring this project to completion soon.
I have had one conversation (I returned the one call I received from David) in early April where David agreed to do 2 things for me.
1. provide an accounting of where funds were spent. I did not ask for exact accounting, just an simple one page outline showing the areas of expense for our accounting purposes.
2. a timeline showing how filming and editing would be completed by the end of April.
Since then I have heard nothing, and have received nothing that addressed either of these points.
Though the primary plan was to have David Ruprecht handle the video work, I have made myself available on several dates for filming in the DC area, and there has been discussion of filming in other locations.
Though I understand and appreciate David’s preference for my smiling visage on this video, I believe that for the benefit of this clip being timeless an actor (not associated with a specific time in the party’s history) is more appropriate. I know that David has been willing and available on the east coast several times over the last months. He and I have discussed this and I am sure he will execute the “stand up” very well.
My need to get accounting information to the national office is a simple matter of appropriate control, reporting, and donor integrity. I am sorry that my requests for data, and a timeline, have met with such a response. I will remain the steward of the member’s and donor’s money and will require that project manager’s of initiatives, large and small, report on their spending for the good of the Party.
I hope that all involved in this will place their differences aside and work to complete this innovative project.
My opinion is that is all too typical of the LNC. While proper accounting details and timelines obviously need to be considered, immediate completion has got to be the main priority when working with people who are volunteering their name, time and expertise on such a project. When someone needs me for a national media appearance such as this, I call the person I’m to meet with and ask, “What day do you want me there?” while scratching a note to the person closest to me to start making flight arrangements ASAP. I can call someone from the airport, if necessary, to provide funding for the trip and turn in receipts afterwards to square away the books. It would be really nice to see the LP begin putting the horse in front of the cart.
UPDATE: According to several phone calls I’ve received today, there is likely to be a bit of blame on both ends of this issue. It seems to be turning into a “he said – she said” situation, and I don’t have any compelling information which I can provide at the moment to clear up the issue. If I had to make a bet on it based on the calls I’ve received, there are probably several parties to cast a bit of blame upon. I’ve been told that some arrangements had been made for Dixon to fly to a studio, that some money may have mysteriously not been properly accounted for, and a few other related things, but I only have hearsay (and no hard evidence) on any of these allegations. I think we will be hearing more about this issue before too long, though.
Perhaps I was too hasty in the title and should have titled this entry “Libertarians Step on it (Again).”