U.S. News

05.29.14

Spies, Cash, and Fear: Inside Christian Money Guru Dave Ramsey’s Social Media Witch Hunt

When critics appeared online, employees say the evangelical financial whiz went ballistic, allegedly firing innocent employees and offering bounties for information.

Dave Ramsey makes millions telling you how to keep your financial house in order, but lately his employees claim he’s been having a bit of trouble with his own.

According to interviews with nearly two dozen current and former employees of his Nashville-based Lampo Group, Ramsey has engaged in what they describe as an increasingly paranoid campaign to identify and silence several critics—mostly former employees—who have appeared on Facebook and Twitter. Bizarre episodes allegedly involving online spying, gag orders, random firings, and offers of large cash bounties for information have created a climate of fear inside the Lampo headquarters, intensifying a discomfort many employees have felt the past several years with Ramsey’s management.

“As a boss, Dave Ramsey was a bully. Most of us left years ago and yet he still haunts us, lurking over our shoulders like he’s the damn Godfather. And many of us are scared of him, unsure of how far he’d go to silence us.”

Ramsey is one of America’s best-known financial advice gurus, famous for his gospel of “financial peace,” “Biblically based, common sense” wisdom on debt, investing, and retirement. Exploding out of the evangelical Christian world and onto the national stage, he has sold millions of books, hosts a popular radio show, and runs an organization that boasts more than 400 employees. Eight million people listen to The Dave Ramsey Show, 400 publications run his “Dave Says” column, and more than 2 million families have participated in Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. According to Ramsey, his Lampo Group sells “hope,” and that business has given him an estimated net worth of $55 million.

Fans seem to love Ramsey’s good-ol’-boy charm, a no-nonsense approach to finances, family, and life. On the radio, his matter-of-fact answers to callers’ questions and his frankness about the economy, politics, Obamacare, and faith make him a favorite among conservatives. Perhaps his No. 1 leadership mantra is that every business should implement a “no-gossip policy.” While nobody likes gossip, Dave Ramsey hates it with biblical passion. (Gossip is strongly condemned in both the Old and New Testaments.) Ramsey says there’s only one way to share information: “Positives can go up anywhere, negatives go up.” On his EntreLeadership podcast, after calling gossip “one of the most evil spirits that Satan ever let loose on this planet,” Ramsey said, “once I will warn you and then I will fire you! I have a zero-tolerance-plus-one policy for gossip. I will teach you once and then I will fire your butt.”

But perhaps most telling is the kind of gossip that Ramsey says is the worst. “The gossip about the person who’s freakin’ paying you!” As the president of The Lampo Group, the only thing Dave Ramsey hates more than gossip is seemingly when the gossip is about Dave Ramsey.

“As a boss, Dave Ramsey was a bully,” said one former employee, who was a member of a secret Facebook group of about 100 former Lampo employees that Ramsey managed to infiltrate without their knowledge last year. “Most of us left Lampo years ago and yet he still haunts us, lurking over our shoulders like he’s the damn Godfather. And many of us are scared of him, unsure of how far he’d go to silence us.”

The secret group, Former Lampo Folks, was started in 2012 by K.C. Jones as a way to reconnect with former coworkers, but had grown into a forum for airing complaints about the work environment at Lampo. From basic managerial processes to the “no-gossip policy” to how they were treated upon leaving, Jones, who left Lampo after four years in 2011, said that “the group became a safe place for people to express themselves freely, which is something we didn’t get to do very often while working at Lampo.”  

Members of the Facebook group had no idea Ramsey knew what was being said until early spring, when a current Lampo employee informed them that one of their private conversations was the topic of discussion during a meeting at Lampo. Members of the group still don’t know how Ramsey got access, but concluded that one member must have given him their Facebook login information or made copies of discussions taking place in the group. In an email exchange with one of the group’s administrators, Robert Faulkner, Ramsey claimed that he had accessed the supposedly-closed circle.

Angry that Ramsey and his team had gained entry to the private group, several of the group’s members took to anonymous Twitter handles like @FormerCultist, @DaveRamses, and @DaveRamsesII to protest.

Late last year, @DaveRamses tweeted: “Wow. I literally have no idea why all his former employees think he’s the devil incarnate.” In March, @FormerCultist tweeted: “Dave claims to be a Christian, and an ethical leader. And teaches others to do so. His actions are neither Biblical or Ethical.”

The public criticism enraged Ramsey, who, according to one current employee, went on a “warpath” to expose the Twitter critics. During an all-staff meeting on May 7 that was described by several current employees, Ramsey offered thousands of dollars in bounties in exchange for the identities of the tweeters. (Employees’ accounts differed on the dollar figure, but ranged from $5,000 to $20,000). Ramsey was especially intent on identifying the tweeter behind @LampoLeadership, a parody account that had begun tweeting about the inner workings of Lampo, suggesting it was run by someone inside the company. (In an interview with The Daily Beast, the person who operates @LampoLeadership said they had no connection to the other parody tweeters who were members of the Facebook group.)

On May 8, Ramsey fired two Lampo employees, Chris Blaylock and Josh Harman, on the mistaken suspicion that they were operating @LampoLeadership or leaking inside information to the person behind it. Though Blaylock declined a request for an interview and Harman did not respond to emails, a Lampo employee confirmed that despite management eventually learning that Blaylock and Harman had no connections to the Twitter account, they were still fired based on “negative chatter” being discovered in the distant history of their office instant messaging. Another Lampo employee said, “You’ll never talk to them about this. Ramsey will make them sign non-disclosure agreements, the kind without expiration dates.”

On May 11, seemingly certain he knew who was running the Twitter accounts, Ramsey again lashed out at his critics on Twitter, naming K.C. Jones, Dino Evangelista, and Robert Faulkner as active members of the Facebook group.

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The Daily Beast
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The battle between Ramsey and the former Lamponians came to a head on May 12, during another staff meeting. According to three current employees, Ramsey chose a handful of the Facebook group’s members, former employees and plastered their pictures, their family members’ pictures, and screenshots of their private conversations on a large screen for all of his 400-plus employees to see. Amid his rant, Ramsey even mentioned that he had contacted the local police department and the FBI.

Later that day, Ramsey organized a meeting with the operators of several of the parody Twitter accounts, the same people he’d just shamed in front of his staff. Without asking if they wanted to meet, he called a couple of their pastors, reserved a private room at the restaurant Boscos in Franklin, Tennessee, and scheduled a meeting time. Then, Ramsey sent the group an email, later provided to The Daily Beast. “The Bible clearly says that when we have a problem with our brother we are to go to them and try to resolve the situation,” he wrote, “I have the courage and I will take the time to sit with you in person and try to find resolution. My hope is you have the courage as well.”

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Treating the confrontation with his critics as an attempt at spiritual reconciliation was consistent with what numerous employees described as the typical Ramsey approach, one familiar among evangelical institutions who blur the boundaries between church and business. Leaders like Ramsey often refuse to see disagreement as anything but spiritual rebellion. When Ramsey learned I was reporting this story, he invited me to meet him and a pastor at Lampo. “I hope you have the courage to sit with me as a man,” he wrote in an email. Later, Ramsey and his spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on specific allegations made by current and former employees.

Robert Faulkner, who worked at Lampo for three years before becoming a member of the Facebook group and the tweeter behind @FormerCultist, met with Ramsey over the phone. During their hour-long conversation, the two came to a mutual understanding. As he wrote in a follow-up email exchange with Faulkner, Ramsey agreed “to leave the Facebook group alone if the members will leave Lampo and me alone. …We are happy to go on our way and not bother the Facebook group at all… we have no desire to interact with people who hate us, so don’t come to Lampo properties or Lampo events.”

“We had left you alone until the hate boiled over onto Twitter, LinkedIn, and threats of bringing Lampo and Dave down arose,” Ramsey wrote to Faulkner. “That hate also included some of our own current team trying to bring harm from the inside. At that point we were required to react.”

In exchange for agreeing with Faulkner to stop personally accessing the group, Ramsey got almost everything he wanted: Most of the public Twitter accounts were deleted or their content erased, and all of the negative chatter about how he runs things at Lampo has stopped. Craig Daliessio, a non-employee who attended a meeting with Ramsey and his wife, Sharon, wrote a follow-up blog post in which he described starting the @DaveRamses account because he was annoyed at evangelical friends spouting Ramsey-isms about his difficult employment situation, and blamed himself for taking it out on Ramsey.

Of the crop of parody Twitter accounts, only @LampoLeadership survived the truce between Ramsey and the Facebook group, and it continued taunting Ramsey with inside knowledge of his organization. “My #1 leadership technique is zero tolerance policy for criticism,” it tweeted in the voice of Ramsey. “Which is one thing I hate about America (besides Obama and income tax).”

But Faulkner soon came to believe that Ramsey was still interested in indirectly keeping tabs on the Facebook group, and confronted Ramsey by email over reports from inside Lampo that discussions from the Facebook group were still being reported and discussed in meetings. “There are a LOT of people who do still like me and Lampo and will likely continue to tell me what is said in the group,” Ramsey responded.

The seeming paranoia of Ramsey’s outburst in the May 12 staff meeting startled some Lampo employees, but many said they had come to expect explosive behavior from the boss. “This is the guy who once pulled a loaded pistol out of a gift bag to teach us a lesson about gossip,” said one former employee. “It was bizarre, even for Ramsey.” (Ramsey has tweeted photos of his gun collection, which includes semi-automatic rifles.)

That event, which allegedly occurred in 2011, is one of Lampo’s worst-kept secrets, a moment that was a turning point for many. “That was the day I began planning my exit,” one said. For another, Ramsey’s gun illustration served as a reminder that the man she worked for “instills fear and dominance and control over every aspect of life.”

The portrait of the climate inside Lampo contrasts sharply with Ramsey’s reputation in the evangelical Christian world, where he has been praised for “practicing what he preaches,” and even beyond, where the Nashville Business Journal lauded Lampo as one of the citys best places to work. Current and former employees say that, though they believe in the Lampo mission and felt like Ramsey’s team was a “family,” their daily experience of working for him and his leadership staff was dominated by fear.

“There are plenty of former employees recovering from the abuse there,” said one ex-employee, “similar to my fundamentalist upbringing.” A current Lampo employee who hopes to leave soon, added, “This place is awesome as long as you never complain and never tell anybody you’re thinking about leaving.”

“When you leave Lampo, you become an ‘outcast’ regardless of the reasons,” another former employee said. She left because she was moving away from Nashville. Two days after giving her 30 days notice, she says she was called into her boss’s office and told that the following day would be her last at Lampo. Even though she believed she was departing on good terms, she said, “I was treated as if I had done something terrible.” Nobody on the leadership team acknowledged her on her last day, she claims, not even her direct superiors. And despite a handful of coworkers offering cards and hugs, “only a few of the people I was friends with [at Lampo] still speak to me.”

The total erasure of former employees is so familiar it even has a nickname. “It’s called the Lampo Rapture—[because] no one knows what happened to you and it is forbidden to talk about it,” said the former employee who left because she was moving. Another former Lampo employee who got “raptured” last year said, “It happened all the time. You’d suddenly think, ‘Wait! Where’s so-and-so?’ And you’d find out that he or she left two months before. And nobody knew why. And even if they did know, they would never tell anybody else.”

By all accounts, Ramsey is still on a mission to find out who the “hater” is running the @LampoLeadership feed is. He is so convinced that @LampoLeadership is a mole from within his own company, Robert Faulkner claims that Ramsey somehow talked him into giving the tweeter a message on his behalf: “[Dave]’s panties are in a wad because [he] thinks you’re an employee [at Lampo],” Faulkner wrote in a private Twitter message on May 22. “He said if you come forward. And quit. There will be no charges filed…[Dave] might be crazy…. but he’s got connections… And lots of money… [because] paranoia seems to come with cash… Anywho… message delivered.” 

“The next time you see Dave,” @LampoLeadership wrote back, “explain parody to him.”