Photo: Olivier Douliery (Getty Images)
Parler, the pro-Donald Trump social media site that’s served as a sort of all-you-can-eat buffet for brain worms in the past few years, is being sued by its own co-founder and ex-CEO.
Following the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, which was partially organized on Parler’s violent death threat-laden site, Amazon Web Services booted Parler from its servers and Apple and Google kicked it off their respective app stores. The site is now back despite failing to convince any of those other companies to let it return, but CEO John Matze didn’t return for the second leg of the trip. He was forced out in some type of internal squabble with GOP mega-donor Rebekah Mercer, a major investor who is now reportedly personally bankrolling the site, and far-right former NRATV pundit and fellow investor Dan Bongino, whose role appears to at least partially consist of urging his millions of Facebook followers to migrate to a site he has a personal financial stake in.
The departure didn’t go over well, with Bongino accusing Matze of trying to sell out the site’s original mission as a free speech utopia where almost anything legal goes—exactly what got the company in trouble in the first place—and Matze telling media Mercer had turned a blind eye to doing anything about the deluge of QAnon conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazis, fascists, racists, and other unpleasant zealots taking over the site. Now Matze is claiming that his 40 percent stake in the company was stolen in an “outlandish and arrogant theft… epitomized by oppression, fraud and malice,” per the Las Vegas Sun.
Matze wrote in court filings claiming breach of contract and defamation that Parler was “hijacked to advance the personal political interests and personal advantages of the defendants rather than serve as the free expression platform as originally conceived.” Both Mercer and Bongino are named as defendants in the suit, alongside chief operating officer Jeffrey Wernick and Parler’s new interim CEO, Tea Party activist Mark Meckler.
Matze wrote in the suit that the company was initially founded using a holding company designed to obfuscate Mercer’s involvement, and quarreled over financials (in his telling, Mercer characterized her 60 percent equity stake as a loan that would need to be paid back). He added that Mercer seemed to lose interest in the site until around November 2020—it’s not clear exactly when, but this would have been sometime around when Parler signups were surging amid Trump’s claims the election was stolen—and that she subsequently refused to compromise on proposals for more stringent moderation in the wake of the riots. Per NPR:
“Matze’s proposal was met with dead silence, which he took to be a rejection of his proposal,” according to the suit.
Matze says in the suit that Mercer brought in allies, including Wernick, to “strong-arm him out of the company.”
Wernick allegedly threatened Matze with an “avalanche of legal claims and expenses if he dared defy Mercer,” the suit states.
Wernick, according to the suit, told Matze not to consult his own lawyer and threatened that “he would be ruined” if he did so.
Matze plays himself up to be sort of an innocent-minded patsy in the suit. Court documents claim that upon meeting his eventual replacement, Meckler, it “became apparent to Matze that Meckler’s efforts were not to grow Parler as a free expression platform, but instead to redirect it into what Meckler called as the ‘tip of the conservative spear’ for a brand of conservatism in keeping with Mercer’s preferences.” Considering Parler’s obvious ideological pandering, that it allegedly sought to lure Trump into registering an account with promises of an equity stake in Summer 2020, and that Matze bragged about banning liberal “trolls” across the site, it’s hard to take the claim Matze had no idea his site would be used to advance the right-wing agenda seriously.
Finally, Matze claims in the suit that Parler management smeared him with suggestions of misconduct and breaches of his obligations as a manager, when in reality the site was continuing to get back online using the technical game plan he developed, just very poorly. (As Meckler “lacked the technical know-how to actually run such a social media platform—and his real role was to simply push a political agenda—the implementation was beyond lacking,” Matze added.) He also writes that as part of the shakedown, Mercer’s people determined the “fair market value” of his 40 percent stake to be a measly three dollars.
Perhaps on that, we can agree: Parler is worth about $7.50, give or take a few dollars depending on whether it helps successfully provoke another failed insurrection.
Matze, however, says his stake in the internet hellhole is actually worth millions, and that in internal discussions he and Mercer had valued the site at $1 billion or more.
The former CEO “looks forward to presenting his claims in court and being vindicated,” Matze’s attorney James Pisanelli told the Sun in a statement.