The conservative group Americans for Prosperity is signing up Florida tea party leaders to serve as regional coordinators, and paying groups $2 per signature to recruit Election Day volunteers.
"It's an opportunity for tea parties to raise dollars for their organizations by helping AFP with an awareness and membership drive on Tuesday," said Slade O'Brien, AFP's Florida director.
But critics say it looks suspiciously like a conservative version of ACORN, buying foot soldiers for election work.
"It's reprehensible," said Apryl Marie Fogel, a former AFP state director. "Slade is doing things we would never have considered doing."
Though O'Brien said AFP does not endorse candidates, Fogel expressed concern about the organization's activities on Tuesday and beyond.
"Incentivizing people with money is no different than what ACORN or other groups are doing," she said.
O'Brien said "about 50" tea party and patriot members have been gathering signatures of volunteers, who, in turn, will wear AFP T-shirts and spread the group's message at precincts on Election Day.
He could not provide a current tally of volunteers, but said they will be working statewide.
"All volunteers are required to sign a release stating that they will only hand out AFP material and will not display, have available or advocate for any candidate while engaged in this project," O'Brien told Sunshine State News.
"Many [tea and patriot] groups struggle to raise money. This is an opportunity for us to boost membership on Election Day."
O'Brien defended the $2-per-head bounties paid to recruiters, saying, "All groups spend money to attract new members. This is an efficient way to have a face-to-face conversation."
But Fogel said the process smacks of "Astroturf."
"This is the opposite of what AFP stands for," she said.
Headquartered in Arlington, Va., AFP says it "is committed to educating citizens about economic policy and mobilizing those citizens as advocates in the public policy process."
The group was founded in 2004 with financial support from brothers David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries.
With state organizations in 35 states, the group's website says, "The heart and soul of AFP is our citizen activists."
In addition to recruiting volunteers, O'Brien is tapping into Florida's tea parties by hiring full-time "field coordinators," reportedly paying them salaries of $30,000.
He said about 10 coordinators have been hired, and another 10 are expected to come on line in the coming weeks. While declining to give specific salaries, O'Brien said about half the jobs have gone to tea and patriot group activists, with the remainder held by "hardcore political operatives."
Karen Jaroch, one newly hired coordinator in the Tampa area, is a founding member of the Tampa 912 chapter and sits on its board.
Jaroch said building grassroots membership is like "herding cats" and that the AFP brand "might open some doors."
Dismissing concerns that AFP is insinuating itself into tea party ranks with the goal of ultimately taking over local chapters, Jaroch said, "We don't need an AFP chapter in Tampa. AFP doesn't deal with immigration or social issues. But they see value in issues advocacy."
O'Brien said, "There are no worries about a takeover. We are close allies. We fight for the same principles and we're proud to partner where we can."
He added that AFP is reluctant to hire tea party presidents for fear of "creating a [leadership] void."
O'Brien said he hopes to make the field coordinator jobs permanent, extending beyond November.
"We'll be engaged in Florida in the 2012 cycle, and we're hoping to keep them on board to spread the word of free markets and fiscal restraint," he said.
Both O'Brien and Jaroch categorically denied rumors that AFP is a stalking horse for Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign.
"I don't know any field coordinators for Newt. One favors Mitt Romney and one supports Rick Santorum. I'm undecided," Jaroch said.
Tom Tillison, a tea party activist and political blogger in Orlando, said, "AFP has always been very respectful of the autonomy of local tea party groups. I have never seen any advocacy toward specific candidates."
Steve Vernon, vice president of Tea Party Manatee, said, "AFP people have spoken at our meetings and offered a free bus on a certain date to go to Tallahassee to meet with legislators, but nary even a whisper about supporting Newt or any other candidate.
"And," he added, "Tea Party Manatee hasn't received a dime from AFP. "
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.