Patrick M. Byrne, Will You Please Go Away Now!

Show of hands, everyone who thinks Sarah Palin was the worst thing to happen to the Republican Party in a long time.  Okay, now put them down, because I have someone worse, far worse, in almost every way.

His name is Patrick M. Byrne, and if the Daily Kos could have its way, he, not Palin, would be the new face of conservative political activism in America.

Byrne is the founder and CEO of Internet retailer Overstock.com.  He is, to put it bluntly, not a very good businessman.  In a way he’s almost the worst kind, one unable to turn a profit with any regularity, in spite of years of confident predictions to the contrary, yet never failing spectacularly enough that his enterprise fails outright and causes him to go find another line of work.  Blogger Jeff Matthews has written an excellent series of posts (the best and most detailed ones are from 2005) running down many of the various failings and blunders of Byrne’s tenure as CEO, and, until recently, Chairman as well.  Another worthy read is that of Sam Antar, of Crazy Eddie’s infamy, who knows a thing or two about accounting fraud, having committed it himself, and makes a strong case that much the same is going on at “The O”.

Byrne has, how shall I put this, some very severe personality flaws.  Thin-skinned, vindictive, ego-driven — he kind of reminds me of the current occupant of the Oval Office in a way, except that he lacks the latter’s ability to maintain his composure in public.  Still, he’s close enough that I think he’d fit right into the party of Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank — but alas, he is a full-blooded conservative from that reddest of the red states, Utah.

The big problem with Byrne (and I don’t count this against his being a conservative because this is something that transcends political viewpoints) is that he is a big supporter of the First Amendment, except when it’s his own ox being gored by that pesky freedom of speech thing.  Unable to satisfactorily answer the criticisms leveled against his business practices, he sadly falls back on the time-dishonored practice of attacking the messenger, defaming or otherwise attempting to ruin those who speak out against him publicly, and for those who choose to air their criticisms anonymously, he has been known to go to some rather drastic lengths to uncover their identities and then go after them.

Aiding him in this cause, sadly, is one Judd Bagley, who claims on his LinkedIn profile to have been a “spokesperson and speechwriter” for no less than then-Governor Jeb Bush.  Some who have looked into the claim have stated it to be something of an exaggeration, but for those with a leftish political axe to grind it’s a linkage they’re more than happy to take at face value.  Bagley is Byrne’s primary hitman in terms of digging up dirt on his critics.  After many months of work (which some would call cyberstalking) on Byrne’s behalf, while simultaneously denying any direct relationship with Byrne (a claim which was eventually proven false), Bagley was hired on officially at Overstock as its “Director of Social Media”, whatever that means.  (In a twist of deliberate irony, Bagley runs a web site called antisocialmedia.net, which I caution you to visit at your own risk.)

One other player here is Mark Mitchell, former editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, and ongoing author of the website Deep Capture (another visit-at-your-own-risk site in my view), which describes in nigh-impenetrable detail (not to mention surprisingly poorly written, as pointed out by one person who attempted to review the original namesake article) Byrne’s account of the vast conspiracy of the media and shadowy figures from the world of finance, against the US economy, the markets, and, above all, Patrick Byrne and Overstock.com.

Yes, that’s right, on top of everything else, Patrick Byrne is a conspiracy nut.  In a rather infamous conference call back in 2004, Byrne announced that the company was under siege by an individual he referred to as a “Sith Lord”(!!) and who was to ultimately end up with control of Overstock.com after the whole thing had played out.  (Yes, this actually happened an official, Overstock.com corporate conference call, and no, I cannot explain why Byrne was not immediately fired afterward.) Subsequent evidence strongly suggests the intended identity of the “Sith Lord” was to be Michael Milkin, the junk bond king of the 1980’s, but before that was ever confirmed the story had shifted and the Sith Lord became “just a metaphor”.

So if Byrne is a nutcase, why not continue to do as this RedState has uniformly done and simply pretend he doesn’t exist, much as I’m sure many on the left prefer to do with some of their more out-there figures?  Well, unfortunately, I count four problems with that policy.  The first three are: Byrne is rich, Byrne is outspoken, and Byrne is politically active.  He was, for example, a major backer of the referendum for private-school vouchers in Utah in 2007, which went down to ignominious defeat.

But number four is the killer (and the impetus for this diary entry): the left has begun to take notice of him.  And what is worse, apparently Byrne (no doubt via Bagley) has gone on the attack against them in his own, non-constructive, and arguably illegal way.  (Thanks to Gary Weiss for the heads-up on this, and yes, that’s the latest in another collection of blog articles about Byrne, if you somehow haven’t had enough already.)

Ignoring Byrne has arguably been the best course up until now, but with the developments of the past couple of weeks, he has, in my opinion, crossed the line into becoming dangerous.  I don’t know what is to be done about the man (the SEC taking those Overstock.com accounting issues seriously would be a good start, but that’s not something we can really influence), but given the GOP’s penchant for turning on its own, and doing so with relish, I’m sure there’s someone out there with an idea or two.

As Don Knotts used to famously say, we gotta nip this in the bud.

(Edited to correct Mark Mitchell’s name — 7/30/09)

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