The Washington Post
For CPAC chief, woes beyond sex assault suit
GOP power broker Schlapp faces concerns over culture, leadership
For nearly a decade, Matt Schlapp has captained the blockbuster Conservative Political Action Conference, bringing together influential figures on the right and establishing himself as a key voice in former president Donald Trump’s movement.
Those powerful allies rushed to his defense when Schlapp was anonymously accused in early January of sexual misconduct by a GOP campaign aide.
Two days after the allegation was first reported, Trump shared a stage with Schlapp at a CPAC fundraiser at the former president’s Mar-a-lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. Officials from CPAC’S parent organization, the American Conservative Union, denounced the claim as a political attack. A prominent Republican lawyer representing Schlapp called the accusation “false” and cast it as a personal attack on his family.
But as Schlapp rebuffs the allegation by a former staffer from Herschel Walker’s Senate campaign in Georgia, who says Schlapp groped him during an Atlanta trip last fall, dozens of current and former employees and board members interviewed by The Washington Post described a wider range of complaints about the longtime Republican power broker and CPAC’S culture under his leadership. A Post review of the Walker staffer’s claims also corroborated that he shared his story with friends and colleagues in the immediate aftermath.
With CPAC readying to welcome Trump back to its flagship annual gathering in D.C. this week, Schlapp is facing multiple challenges, including the exodus of more than half of its staff since 2021, according to the current and former employees and board members. Some expressed concern that Schlapp has given an inexperienced contractor too much influence. One former employee notified the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last month of plans to sue over claims that she was fired in retaliation for complaining about a co-worker’s sexist and racist comments.
“The culture was toxic,” the former communication director, Regina Bratton, said in an interview. “From my perspective, he acted like a bully.”
The current turmoil comes as CPAC grapples with corporate backlash over its embrace of the far right and concerns about a potentially lackluster turnout this year as Trump’s political future appears uncertain. The Fox Nation streaming service is not returning as a sponsor, and Florida Gov. Ron Desantis, an ascendant figure in the Republican Party and Trump’s emerging rival in the 2024 campaign, is skipping it.
Schlapp has previously clashed with colleagues over allegations that he made offensive remarks, according to interviews with former colleagues. In one instance, Schlapp left a senior job at Koch Industries, the multibillion-dollar industrial conglomerate, after an internal review into an alleged anti-gay remark, according to three people familiar with the previously unreported incident.
Schlapp, 55, declined to be interviewed and did not respond to questions about his alleged sexual misconduct, his leadership of CPAC or his work history. He has denied the claims in court documents responding to a $9.4 million battery and defamation lawsuit filed anonymously in mid-january by the former Walker staffer in Alexandria Circuit Court in Virginia.
Carolyn Meadows, the organization’s second vice chairman, said in a statement that The Post is trying to “silence a prominent conservative voice.”
“Under Matt’s leadership, CPAC has grown into a professionalized organization focused on bolstering grass roots conservative activism, impacting policy, stopping communism, fighting back against fake news, and prioritizing individual liberty in America and around the world,” she said in a statement.
Schlapp is now facing the greatest threat to his leadership since he became ACU’S chairman in 2014 — an influential perch he has leveraged to wield influence over top GOP politicians and donors and become a fixture in conservative media.
The Post review found that call logs, texts and videos provided by the Walker staffer and his confidants broadly match his account of Schlapp making unwanted sexual advances after buying him drinks at two Atlanta bars on the night of Oct. 19. Six family members and friends and three Walker campaign officials confirmed to The Post that he told them about the alleged incident that night or the next day.
Several board directors are growing anxious that the allegation of sexual misconduct poses a risk to the reputation of the organization, which has expanded internationally in recent years, according to members of the leadership team who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Board member Morton Blackwell said he expected the allegation to be discussed at a board meeting at the start of CPAC and that “it’s impossible for it to be ignored.” He added, “Obviously it’s a serious allegation but it’s put forward anonymously, which tends to discredit it.”
In recent court filings, Schlapp has argued that the Walker staffer is proceeding anonymously to avoid scrutiny of his own record, which includes extremist commentary on a white supremacist blog and radio show more than a decade ago. The staffer has disavowed those remarks in interviews with The Post, which does not identify alleged sexual assault victims without their consent. The staffer said last month he would come forward if Schlapp denied his claims but instead is seeking to pursue his court case anonymously. A March 8 hearing is scheduled on Schlapp’s request for the plaintiff to publicly reveal his identity.
As CPAC’S flagship event in the Washington area kicks off Wednesday, ticket sales are lagging from past years, prompting price cuts, giveaways and a special rate offered to congressional staff, according to people familiar with the event’s inner workings who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential information. Many high rollers who have in the past bought the conference’s biggest premium packages have not registered this time.
“CPAC conferences are widely attended by thousands of activists from across the globe, with millions of additional viewers who watch CPAC content online,” Meadows said in response to questions about attendance.
This year’s theme is “Protecting America Now,” warning of the threats posed by open borders, crime, inflation and the radical left. In recent interviews with conservative outlets, Schlapp has threatened to bar unfriendly media. The lineup will feature some of the most incendiary figures on the far right, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R- Ga.), former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, whose supporters stormed government buildings after he lost reelection in 2022, and Arizona Republican Kari Lake, who refused to concede her defeat in the 2022 governor’s race.
Schlapp has turned CPAC into a global brand, with events last year in two states and six countries. With his lobbying income declining after Trump left office, Schlapp received a $150,000 payment in 2021 for “business services,” and he started receiving annual compensation of $600,000 in mid-2022, according to tax documents and people familiar with the organization’s finances. The organization’s chairman is traditionally an unpaid volunteer. Schlapp’s wife, former Trump White House aide Mercedes Schlapp, is also on the payroll and received $175,500 for “strategic communications” in 2021, tax records show.
“CPAC used to feel like you were part of something that really mattered and what conservatism means,” said Ross Hemminger, who worked for Schlapp when he first became ACU chairman. “It’s gotten so nutty. … It’s a pep rally for Trumpism, with Schlapp as captain of the cheer squad.”
Many board members say they are standing by Schlapp despite the employee turnover and the Walker staffer’s claims, and they praised him for raising CPAC’S profile.
“Many of the people I have spoken to give Matt the benefit of the doubt and say there’s nothing in his character that would make them believe this accusation is real,” said GOP pollster Jim Mclaughlin, a board member who has known Schlapp since the 1990s. “He is one of the most influential conservatives in the country. He’s really taken CPAC to another level and made it the go-to event of the year. … That’s why the left wants to take him down.”
The Georgia allegation
Last fall, the Schlapps were helping to raise money for several Trump-backed candidates as the GOP sought majority control in the Senate. Matt Schlapp traveled to Georgia in October to stump for Walker, the former football star and another Trump favorite.
Details of that trip first emerged in early January in The Daily Beast: After Schlapp spoke at an Oct. 19 campaign rally, a staffer drove him back to his Atlanta hotel. Schlapp invited the staffer to meet him for drinks that night. The staffer claimed Schlapp rested his hand on his leg during a car ride and groped his crotch before inviting him to his hotel room.
While Schlapp has acknowledged in court papers spending time with the staffer at two bars that night, he denies the rest of his story. His allies have disparaged the accuser and cast the allegation as an attack from the left. “We believe this latest attempt at character assassination is false,” read a statement from two longtime board members.
Through interviews, phone logs and texts, however, The Post has confirmed that the staffer, a lifelong Republican, shared his story about Schlapp with six friends and relatives the night of the alleged incident and the following day. The Post also verified that he recorded a video describing the alleged incident within hours that he sent to a college friend, his wife and a woman he started dating last year after separating from his wife.
In the morning, the staffer said, he reported the alleged incident to three campaign officials, two of whom confirmed that to The Post. The third official did not respond to requests for comment. He later spoke to a fourth campaign official, who also confirmed speaking to the staffer about the alleged incident with Schlapp. Two additional campaign officials told The Post they were involved in discussions that day about how to handle the allegation. The campaign decided that the staffer should not drive Schlapp to another rally and arranged for a private chauffeur, who told The Post that Schlapp never called.
On the advice of the campaign officials, the staffer texted Schlapp that morning, “I did want to say I was uncomfortable with what happened last night,” according to messages reviewed by The Post. Schlapp texted back asking the staffer to call him, then tried calling three times. Later, Schlapp texted again, “If you could see it in your heart to call me at end of day. I would appreciate it.”
In court papers responding to the staffer’s lawsuit, Schlapp acknowledged the authenticity of the text messages. He declined to answer questions from The Post about the texts. “We will not comment on matters currently pending before the court in Virginia,” a spokesman for the Schlapps, Mark Corallo, said in a statement.
The Walker staffer did not file a police report at the time of the alleged incident. He told The Post he did not want to come forward until after the 2022 election.
Shortly after Walker lost the election, the staffer lashed out at Schlapp on social media, accusing him of drunken misbehavior. A few days later, CPAC demanded nondisclosure agreements with a $25,000 penalty from all its employees, according to a copy of the document obtained by The Post and people familiar with the matter.
Two days after the staffer’s account was first published, Trump appeared with Schlapp at a “CPAC gala,” signaling his support. Texas business executive Veronica Birkenstock, who serves on the board of the American Conservative Union Foundation, which Schlapp also leads, said people at the fundraiser were laying their hands on the Schlapps and praying.
“I am thankful we were all there together at that event to surround them and offer a support system,” she said.
Schlapp and his allies launched an effort to undermine the accuser and his claims. Schlapp hired actor Johnny Depp’s defamation attorney to defend him, and he subpoenaed at least one neighbor in search of leaks to the staffer or his lawyer, according to a copy of the subpoena obtained by The Post. Mercedes Schlapp called him a “troubled individual” who was “fired from multiple jobs” in a text message cited in the Walker staffer’s lawsuit, which accuses both of the Schlapps of defamation. She declined a request for an interview.
Republican fundraiser Caroline Wren identified the accuser on Twitter and called him a “scam artist.” She also sent The Post a report that flagged several of his professional blunders. The dossier mistakenly identified Schlapp’s accuser as a slightly older man with a similar name, and listed the other person’s Social Security number and personal information.
In an interview, Wren said she was working quickly to expose the background of Schlapp’s accuser. She said she grew close to the Schlapps after they supported her when she was publicly identified as an organizer of the Trump rally at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, 2021.
The Walker staffer has filed a separate “John Doe” defamation suit against Wren in D.C. federal court. Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell earlier this month prohibited Wren from publicly identifying him, citing his “legitimate privacy interest.” Wren declined to comment on the lawsuit and has yet to respond in court.
In interviews, several board members discounted the sexual assault allegation by an unnamed accuser. Some said the timing seemed suspicious, coming right before the Trump fundraiser and weeks before CPAC. “Because of Matt’s success, he’s become an easy target for people to go after, and I think the charges are bogus,” said board member Bill Walton.
‘A few wingers’
Over his three decades in Washington, Schlapp has ascended to high-ranking posts in the White House, on Capitol Hill and on K Street.
His entry into Republican politics came when he volunteered for Kansas Republican Todd Tiahrt’s campaign — part of the 1994 GOP takeover of the House. He later became Tiahrt’s chief of staff.
Early in his career, Schlapp’s leadership style led to office conflicts.
In 1999, an anonymous account called “Tiahrt Outcasts” circulated emails accusing Schlapp and another top aide of disrespecting female employees and cursing at them, according to media reports and people familiar with the incident. After one female employee joked that Schlapp wanted to run for Tiahrt’s seat himself, he made clear her options were to resign or be fired, the people said. She resigned.
“I will admit that I’m Irish, and every once in a while I’ ll let a few wingers go,” Schlapp told The Hill at the time. “I’m not going to deny I used profanity. That being said, I know it did not occur in the way it’s described.”
Tiahrt described the issue as a “misunderstanding” and blamed “personality conflicts.” Tiahrt has remained an ally, calling the new allegations raised by the Walker staffer “completely uncharacteristic of the man I know” in an interview with The Post.
Schlapp went on to work on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and join the White House. He and Mercedes married in 2002. They have five children.
Schlapp left the White House in 2005 to become the top inhouse lobbyist in Washington for Koch Industries. The Kansasbased company was expanding its footprint in the capital with outreach to both parties — still years away from growing a network of right-wing groups that made billionaire founder Charles Koch one of the most influential Republican donors.
When Schlapp left Koch four years later, he started his own consulting firm, Cove Strategies. Former colleagues, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to recount personnel matters, recalled a complaint that Schlapp made an anti-gay remark that offended an employee and prompted an investigation that contributed to his departure, according to three people familiar with the matter.
Two of those people with direct knowledge said that the investigation included allegations that Schlapp retaliated against employees he suspected of reporting his anti-gay com
ment. One of those employees later left the company and was disparaged by Schlapp to their new employer, according to two people with direct knowledge of the incident.
After Schlapp left Koch, the company paid him as an outside consultant for more than one year, according to congressional lobbying disclosures. A Koch spokesman declined to comment.
Years later, Schlapp allowed gay Republican groups to formally participate in CPAC after he took over the organization, and he defended a transgender swimmer on social media last year. “Trans people deserve our love and compassion,” Schlapp wrote.
Multiple people who have worked with Schlapp contacted The Post to praise him as a manager and mentor. “He has always treated me and so many of my colleagues with great respect and kindness,” said Cynthia Gismegian, who works for Schlapp and has known him for 20 years, including at Koch Industries.
When Schlapp became chairman of the ACU in 2014, tax returns show the organization was struggling financially. The ACU was founded by conservative luminaries such as William F. Buckley Jr. to grow the movement after Barry Goldwater’s resounding defeat in the 1964 election. Schlapp stabilized the storied institution with the help of a $750,000 loan from energy executive John Eddy, whom he recruited to the board, according to Wade Murphy, Eddy’s business partner at the time and a fellow alumnus of the Bush administration
Schlapp’s consulting practice boomed during the Trump administration and his wife worked in the White House. The couple bought a $3.1 million home in 2018 on a tony street in Alexandria called Mansion Drive, property records show. They also own a 31-acre homestead, named Victory Farm, near the Blue Ridge Mountains.
As CPAC faced competition from other GOP conferences, it established higher price points and spinoff events. Premium ticket packages have surged from $1,700 in 2015 and $5,000 in 2017 to as much as $30,000 for this year’s CPAC, according to its website.
The conference has recently expanded abroad and given platforms to authoritarian leaders praised by Trump. When CPAC was held in Budapest in May, the local host received 1 million euros from an entity funded by the repressive Hungarian government headed by Viktor Orban, according to Atlatszo, a Hungarian investigative journalism nonprofit. CPAC Brazil in June featured Eduardo Bolsonaro, a lawmaker and son of the then-president who, like Trump, fanned fears that voter fraud would thwart his reelection. Schlapp has defended establishing ties with right-wing movements around the world.
As it has embraced Trump’s movement, CPAC has lost some mainstream sponsors in recent years, including Facebook, that were seeking to improve their image with conservatives. CPAC sponsors this year include companies catering to the right wing.
“The corporations that used to sponsor CPAC left because they think we’re bigoted — they think you’re bigoted and racist and antisemitic,” Schlapp said at CPAC in Texas last year. “So they’re not here.”
More so than previous chairmen, Schlapp is the face of CPAC — along with his wife, Mercedes, who has decades of experience in English and Spanish-language media. In 2020, some of Schlapp’s corporate lobbying clients dumped him after he tweeted that Black Lives Matter protests were seeking “political gain” in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, according to lobbying records and media reports.
As his lobbying income decreased, Schlapp started getting paid by the organization, records show. Billed as “Washington D.C.’S favorite power couple,” the Schlapps started a broadcast called “CPAC Now, America Uncanceled.” Board members said they valued the couple’s efforts to expand CPAC’S reach and defended their salaries.
“We have a husband-and-wife team that is very articulate and hard-working and has done so much to elevate the organization,” said board member Ron Robinson.
‘Promoting a king and queen’
As Schlapp became more involved in CPAC’S day-to-day operations in recent years, a number of staffers have left, including the executive director. One frequent point of contention was Schlapp’s growing reliance on an intern’s boyfriend who had little work experience to work on social media and communications, according to multiple people familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
The 25-year-old contractor, who declined to comment, misrepresented himself as a wealthy heir in conversations and emails, according to the people.
Staffers repeatedly confronted Schlapp about the young man, concerned about his false claims about his background and his access to the organization’s sensitive donor database. But Schlapp defended him and has kept him on as a contractor, they said.
Schlapp’s leadership is also facing scrutiny from a former employee, who is a Black woman.
Bratton was a broadcast journalist who had worked on CPACS for a few years before she was hired by Schlapp in 2021 as communications and marketing director. In an interview with The Post, Bratton said a White male subordinate told her he didn’t like “working for or with women.” He also said CPAC was “not an affirmative action employer,” referring to Black and Hispanic CPAC freelancers, according to Bratton.
Bratton, 51, said she informed the Schlapps about the remarks but was not aware of any disciplinary action against the younger employee, who worked for her on the Schlapps’ broadcast.
In the complaint reviewed by The Post that she filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Bratton alleges she was discriminated against and was fired last year in retaliation for her complaints. Schlapp did not respond to questions about Bratton.
“It wasn’t like you were working for a mission,” Bratton said. She added, referring to the Schlapps, “It was like you were promoting a king and a queen. … I did did not feel valued because I was just a minion to do their bidding.”
“He’s really taken CPAC to another level and made it the go-to event of the year. … That’s why the left wants to take him down.” Jim Mclaughlin, GOP pollster and American Conservative Union board member, on the ACU’S chair, matt schlapp