Among those who briefed the congressional aides was a former Trump administration official, an energy lobbyist and a reporter from Epoch Times, a nonprofit media company tied to the Falun Gong Chinese spiritual community and known for its conspiratorial, pro-Trump views.
Founded in 2017 and chaired by former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), CPI is a relative newcomer in the Washington conservative advocacy ecosystem. Yet it is raising massive sums — $45 million in 2021 alone — and rapidly gaining influence, particularly with members of the Trump-friendly House Freedom Caucus. Among fellows it lists on its website are Cleta Mitchell, one of the key attorneys who tried to help Trump overturn the 2020 election.
The Feb. 15-17 gathering was, according to disclosures, among roughly a dozen congressional staff trainings hosted over the past year at “Camp Rydin,” a 2,200-acre compound recently purchased by CPI. Situated in Cambridge, Md., the compound is named after Mike Rydin, a recently retired software magnate and advisory council member to the conservative group, Turning Point USA.
Other gatherings there have included a congressional researcher bootcamp in December and a legislative director retreat in October. But experts who track such events say they’ve become more regular and popular among conservative groups like CPI.
“I’m not aware of any other group that has held trainings so consistently and for such a wide range of staffers,” said Brendan Fischer, deputy executive director at Documented, a nonpartisan investigative watchdog which tracks such trainings. “It really demonstrates how CPI is creating and nourishing the next generation of far-right politicos.”
According to an itinerary for the mid-February gathering, staffers were transported to the compound from The Heritage Foundation, a long-standing conservative think tank that also sponsored the event. Once there, they were offered the opportunity to attend 10 different panel discussions.
Invitees included, among others,15 staffers to Republican lawmakers who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election, including Reps. Andy Harris of Maryland, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Lance Gooden of Texas. The staff, mostly legislative assistants, were invited “because their official duties include assisting with oversight matters” on a range of congressional committees, according to a disclosure form filed by one of the other three hosts, the American Accountability Foundation. The group is a nonprofit opposition research firm formed in 2021 that’s used “unorthodox” and “controversial” tactics to block the Biden agenda, according to Fox News.
“AAF is extremely excited to be able to work with Congressional Staff to assist them in their oversight activities in this Congress,” AAF chief Tom Jones, a former opposition research director for Sen. Ted Cruz, (R-Texas) said by email. “It’s a target rich environment for oversight of the Biden Administration and whenever the Administration gets around to complying with Congress’ oversight demands, we’re going to need a cadre of young people to assist the committee’s oversight activities.”
Heritage and CPI did not respond to requests for comment through their press offices.
Such training sessions are permissible under congressional ethics rules unless registered lobbyists are driving the sessions, said Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration. “Even if it’s technically legal, it’s very unseemly,” he said of “outside partisan groups hauling staff over to a resort with only Republicans in the room and coaching them on how to get more aggressive.”
“It really undermines the integrity of any investigations,” said Painter.
Among the speakers at the mid-February retreat was Hubbel Relat, who co-led a panel on how to craft public record requests. A former Trump Interior Department deputy solicitor, Relat was probed by the agency’s inspector general over “alleged interference” in 2019 for involvement in withholding hundreds of pages of public documents during the confirmation process for the department’s secretary-nominee. During a separate panel titled “Oversight Shark Tank,” Art Arthur, a former GOP Judiciary Committee counsel and former Pennsylvania immigration judge, spoke and participants made mock pitches for potential investigations.
Other speakers included Merav Ceren, a senior staff member on the House Oversight Committee; Sean Hayes, the former director of oversight for the Department of Health and Human Services; and Becca Glover, deputy chief of staff to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
The Eastern shore compound — purchased for more than $7 million — has been a source of interest for Democrats since it was purchased for CPI in early 2022 through an LLC. It’s been the site for numerous trainings for congressional staff and is a complement to a larger cluster of properties which CPI purchased in the past 14 months in proximity to the U.S. Capitol. In May of last year, Camp Rydin hosted the “Effective Oversight Retreat” for congressional staff in anticipation that Republicans would take control of the U.S. House in November.
During that bootcamp, one 90-minute session was led by Scott Gast of Compass Legal Services, who served as a Trump representative as the former president was withholding classified documents to the National Archives. Previously a lawyer in the White House counsel’s office, Gast was among a handful of representatives listed on correspondence between the Archives and Trump’s legal team. Compass Legal was also performing services for Trump’s leadership PAC, Save America PAC, at the time of the retreat, according to a filing listing a $15,000 payment.
Democrats have long argued that the congressional Republicans’ oversight agenda is being shaped by a desire to enhance Trump’s political interests. And they have pointed to CPI’s growing influence in the nation’s capital as evidence of it.
“CPI says they’re in DC to drain the swamp, but from here it looks more like a hostile takeover,” said Kyle Herrig, executive director of the Congressional Integrity Project, which is serving as a hub for Democrats responding to GOP investigations.
“The same people who worked to overturn the 2020 election now want to push more conspiracy-laden investigations on Capitol Hill and quiet the voices of hardworking, ordinary Americans,” he said.
Located blocks from the U.S. Capitol, CPI “is creating the MAGA-oriented political infrastructure that the Trump administration lacked,” according to Documented. Among its core programs, according to its most recent annual report, is “recommending solid conservative candidates for staff positions.” CPI claimed to be the “go-to organization” offering “ideological vetting” and staffing for congressional offices.
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By Heidi Przybyla