When the 2023 edition of the American Conservative Union’s Conservative Political Action Conference opens at National Harbor this week, the man who greets the myriad activists and enthusiasts in the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center ballroom will do so under a bit of a dark cloud.
That man, longtime ACU chairman and veteran GOP lobbyist Matt Schlapp, has been rendered the butt of jokes among liberal commentators in the months since a male Republican campaign operative accused him of making unwanted sexual advances during the closing days of Georgia’s senate runoff between Herschel Walker and Senator Raphael Warnock.
In documents filed in a Virginia court as part of a sexual battery lawsuit against Mr Schlapp, the anonymous accuser alleges that the ACU chair “placed his hand” on his leg and “began aggressively fondling [his] genital area in a sustained fashion” as he was being driven to a hotel after visiting a Georgia bar.
In a video reported on by The Daily Beast which the accuser made the night of the alleged assault, the accuser said Mr Schlapp had “put his hands on me in a sustained and unsolicited and unwanted manner”.
“Matt Schlapp of the CPAC grabbed my junk and pummeled it at length, and I’m sitting there thinking what the hell is going on, that this person is literally doing this to me,” the accuser said, according to the report.
The veteran Republican operative who has accused Mr Schlapp of assault has also sued his wife, former Trump White House official Mercedes Schlapp, for defamation, citing statements both she and her husband made after The Daily Beast first reported on the accusations.
He has separately filed a lawsuit in federal court against an ally of the Schlapps, GOP fundraiser Caroline Wren, alleging that Ms Wren defamed him by making derogatory statements about him on Twitter in defence of Mr Schlapp.
Mr Schlapp avoided The Independent’s questions on the allegations at the conference on Thursday.
The allegations against Mr Schlapp have been corroborated by multiple news organisations, including NBC News and The Washington Post, which earlier this week published an article reporting on their efforts to follow up on the accuser’s claims and detailing more troubling aspects of Mr Schlapp’s conduct predating his tenure as ACU chair.
Specifically, the Post alleged that Mr Schlapp was forced out of a lobbyist position with Koch Industries after making anti-gay comments to a coworker. He also allegedly retaliated against employees who spoke to management about the offensive remarks, including one who he disparaged to a new employer after leaving the company himself.
The CPAC boss, who has been active in GOP influence circles since the George W Bush administration, has denied the allegations. In a recent interview with the Washington Examiner, he portrayed the allegations made by his accuser as part of a plot to bring him down that is being orchestrated by news organsaations.
“Fake journalists are pushing this leftist agenda and lying, and I'm a victim of that, right? This media will take any charge and run with it if they can destroy a Republican or a Trump supporter or conservative. That’s what we have in this country,” he said.
He suggested that the unflattering media coverage of him and other supporters of the twice-impeached ex-president “has to stop” and said other similarly situated persons should not be fazed by being the subject of negative attention from the press.
“People like myself, when we get in these situations, we have to find a way not to back down. And I think that's what the people of CPAC are all facing in their own lives,” he said.
The American Conservative Union, the organisation that has hosted CPAC for decades, and which Mr Schlapp has led since 2014, is standing by him as well.
In a statement, ACU vice chairman Carolyn Meadows defended Mr Schlapp and attacked the Post for what she described as politically motivated coverage meant to bring him down.
“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.
Yet the conference Ms Meadows credited him with growing appears to be shrinking this year.
While CPAC has in years past been sponsored by corporate giants such as Facebook, this year’s edition appears largely sponsored by niche organisations that cater to the fringes and extremes of the conservative movement.
Mr Schlapp himself has acknowledged the change in sponsorship quality, noting at a CPAC event in Texas last year that sponsors had dropped the conference “because they think we’re bigoted”.
“They think you’re bigoted and racist and antisemitic,” he said during the Dallas event. “So they’re not here.”
A former CPAC employee, Regina Bratton, told the Post that the event in recent years has become more about Mr and Ms Schlapp cementing their connection to Mr Trump – who is slated to speak on Saturday – than anything else.
Ms Bratton, who has a complaint against CPAC pending before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said working for the conference “wasn’t like ... working for a mission”.
“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,” she said.
ACU board members are reportedly set to discuss the allegations against Mr Schlapp at a board meeting during the conference. But for now, Mr Schlapp’s position remains secure and he is still set to open the conference with an appearance alongside House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan.
The irony of Mr Schlapp appearing with Mr Jordan, who himself has been accused of covering up sexual assaults during his time as a wrestling coach at Ohio State University, was not lost on one of the Ohio congressman’s critics.
In a statment, Congressional Integrity Project Executive Director Kyle Herrig said it was “no surprise” that Mr Schlapp was conducting the interview with Mr Jordan.
“He has a history of trying to brush abuse under the rug and the accusations against his far-right MAGA pal Matt Schlapp will be no different,” he said.
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