In the feverish heyday of the "birther movement," conspiracy-hungry readers swarmed to a website called WorldNetDaily for the latest on the specious yet viral theory that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
The site's founder, Joseph Farah - a former newspaperman with a dense, jet-black mustache and a cloak-and-dagger mystique - boasted in 2010 that he was well on the way to generating $10 million a year in revenue. His Northern Virginia-headquartered news site, known by the acronym WND, was having its moment by stoking rumors about Obama.
But Farah - a conservative internet pioneer who'd once been labeled by the Clinton White House as part of a right-wing media conspiracy and was known to sport a pistol on his hip in the office - saw bigger things. Years earlier he'd launched one of the first large-scale digital newsgathering operations; now he wanted to be a player in Christian-themed movies and book publishing, churning out titles by big-name conservatives, such as anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly and the future House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes, R-Calif.
He was building an empire.
A decade later that realm is being sucked into a tornado of unpaid bills, pink-slipped employees, chaotic accounting, declining revenue and diminishing readership, according to interviews with more than 25 former employees, shareholders, company insiders and authors associated with the firm's flailing publishing units, as well as a review of hundreds of internal documents, including emails and financial statements obtained by The Washington Post.
Even though Farah claimed in WND columns and emails to supporters last year to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations - including tax-deductible contributions - some former employees and contractors have been laid off or had their deals canceled without being paid money they say they were owed. Many authors who signed on with the site's publishing arm, including former Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, are fuming about allegedly not receiving royalties owed to them.
Coburn recalled in an interview that he had a "very frank and disturbing" conversation last year with Farah about unpaid royalties for his 2017 book, "Smashing the D.C. Monopoly."
"I accused him of not being honest," Coburn said. "He doesn't keep his commitments. He doesn't keep his word."
Other authors, initially attracted to WND by the image Farah crafted for himself as a devout evangelical Christian, have groused that they paid WND's pay-to-publish division thousands of dollars to have their books printed but haven't received the royalties they were promised or other items, such as audio versions of their works. Their complaints, requests for basic accounting statements and pleas for help were largely ignored, according to emails and interviews with more than a dozen authors.
Reached by phone last week, Farah's wife, Elizabeth - the site's co-founder with her husband - declined to discuss the accusations in detail, but added that "the angst of a former employee does not impress me as to the legitimacy of complaints."
"It's a he-said, she-said," Elizabeth Farah said.
Less than two hours after she was contacted by The Washington Post, WND posted a story saying Joseph Farah had recently suffered a serious, previously undisclosed stroke.
Once a niche juggernaut with a devoted following and dozens of employees, WND has undergone a dramatic transformation. The site has left behind its upscale offices in Chantilly, Virginia, and now operates remotely via a small group of staffers scattered around the country. Farah wrote in a WND column in January that most of his staff is gone.
"We are struggling to survive," he wrote.
For months, Farah has blamed his site's troubles on a supposed cabal of powerful technology companies that he believes are suppressing traffic to WND and other conservative sites. He recently wrote that his company has lost 80 percent of its revenue since 2017 and has stopped publishing new books and making movies.
"There has never been a force like the combined power of Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Amazon and Apple in the world before - at least not since the Tower of Babel," Farah wrote in a column earlier this year. "I'm talking about real 'collusion' - and having nothing to do with Russia."
But interviews and documents show an organization that existed in almost constant crisis mode, chronically late in paying its employees and vendors, and wrestling with internal allegations about questionable spending by its founders and claims they were withholding information from the company's board and using company funds to support a comfortable lifestyle in the Washington suburbs.
"Where did the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised by WND in 2018 from readers and other donors go?" said Felicia Dionisio, a longtime WND news writer and editor who ran the books division before being laid off last year. "It didn't go toward author royalties, it didn't go toward rehiring any of the many loyal employees who were laid off, it didn't go toward providing accurate and timely paychecks, and it didn't go toward making those who suffered due to cutbacks at WND whole."
In the pre-internet era, Joseph Farah was a mainstream newsman, serving as executive news editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, a major daily that competed with the much larger Los Angeles Times before shuttering in 1989.
Later, as editor of the conservative Sacramento Union, he irked some staffers by taking a pointedly antiabortion stance. He made headlines by defending a decision by the paper's publisher to ban advertisements for movies rated NC-17.
"NC-17 films are nothing more than X-rated films with a polite new name," Farah told United Press International in 1990.
Farah's tenure at the Union was less than two years. Unmoored from the executive suite, he had a fallback. He wrote punchy columns - a chain-smoking dynamo whose colleagues marveled at how fast he could spin out prose.
Farah, now in his mid-60s, was known for his promotion of the theory that deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster might have been the victim of foul play rather than committing suicide. He founded a nonprofit called the Western Journalism Center, then a for-profit venture, WorldNetDaily.
Farah's new outfit seemed to some investors like a potential moneymaking internet play. At a time when traditional news operations were struggling to grasp the power of the internet, Farah was ahead of almost everyone, carving a path occupied by few others beyond Matt Drudge.
Farah and his wife took an unusual route to cyber-success. They leased a 250-acre ranch in a stretch of rural southern Oregon known as "the imaginary state of Jefferson," according to Farah's book "Stop the Presses!" They invited staffers to move there with them, and called their ranch, with its cabins converted into offices, "the compound." The Farahs lived across the road in a log cabin.
Farah was the face of the site. In 2000, he beat the world to the story of Jane Fonda becoming a born-again Christian. He's since described Fonda as a "whacked-out traitor" for her anti-Vietnam War activism. He wrote in his book that he'd served as a bodyguard for Fonda during a peace campaign tour in 1972; in those days he, too, was a Vietnam War protester.
A few years after the Oregon move, the Farahs decided to relocate to the Washington, D.C., area. It was a place he called "the belly of the beast."
Farah's scoops and his site's Clinton bashing attracted investors who shared his philosophy. But his spending habits, and those of his wife, were setting off alarm bells among some insiders who considered the couple reckless and undisciplined, according to interviews and internal documents obtained by The Post.
As the firm's 10th anniversary approached, the Farahs planned a splashy celebration. They signed a contract with the Washington Hilton in 2006 but were saddled with huge cancellation and other costs when they were unable to generate enough interest to pull it offf, according to an internal memo. Executives turned to a wealthy donor to cover the costs.
"We needed 200,000+ to bail out the Hilton 10th Anniversary snafu," the memo said.
In 2008, Farah bought a book publishing firm, World Ahead Press, which took the name WND Books. In the years to come, he would also launch a filmmaking operation, complete with high-tech studios in Chantilly, and host a film festival.
"They ran off in more than one direction," said a shareholder and former board member on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal company matters. "The spending control was less than ideal."
A change in corporate structure had stripped minority shareholders of much power, which was further concentrated in the hands of the Farahs, according to one internal document. Some complained that Farah needed to be more transparent about how much he and the rest of his family were being paid, according to emails and interviews.
The shareholders said they wanted Farah to focus on his core business: the website, which was drawing up to 4 million unique visitors a month. Obama's election had given Farah the perfect foil: In 2009, the site dug in on the birther theory, publishing hundreds of articles pushing the notion that Obama's birth certificate was questionable. PolitiFact dubbed WND "the conductor of the Birther train."
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Then and now, Farah has attracted well-known figures to write for the site, including Jerome Corsi, who wrote a book questioning Obama's eligibility to be president and is a key witness in the special counsel probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election; and evangelical Christian leader James Dobson. His daughter, Alyssa Farah - now Vice President Mike Pence's press secretary - wrote for WND briefly in 2013 and 2014.
Farah cultivated a secretive persona. He refused to meet at his office for a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times, only agreeing to sit down at a Starbucks in Virginia if the name of the town wasn't given.
Inside the operation, troubles were percolating. A high-ranking executive had been raising concerns about Elizabeth Farah's spending on a company credit card, citing charges made to a wine shop, a clothing store, a cosmetics seller and a company that supplies materials for home-schooling, according to an internal memo obtained by The Post that lists each charge.
"How are these specifically work related?" an internal April 2012 memo states. "Optically, these types of expenses look bad, especially when the company is upside down in terms of cash flow and accounts payable."
"Huge red flag," the memo says.
In spring 2015, Floyd Brown, an internet entrepreneur who served on WND's board, traveled to Missouri to tour the warehouse that shipped books and other materials sold in WND's online store, which still sells numerous items, including survivalist gear, such as water filtration straws and "Russian gas masks."
He found pallets of unsold materials.
"Inventory is a stone around your neck," Brown wrote in an email to a top WND executive. "You need to increase your writedowns so the board actually knows how that division is doing."
When Joseph Farah found out about the trip, he sent an email to the company executive who arranged it, accusing himof an "inexcusable breach of confidence."
"There is nothing materially new in the condition of the company's finances that would require alerting the board," Farah wrote. "We have been consistently behind on payables and obligations for years."
Brown confirmed the substance of the exchange with Farah, but added, "I have the greatest respect and admiration for Joseph Farah and what he has done at WND.com."
In early 2017, an email landed in the inbox of the husband of a stay-at-home mother of three in Wisconsin.
It was just what Diane Anthony thought she needed.
She'd been working on a novel titled "Supernova" about a worldwide calamity that killed hordes of people but gave super powers to the survivors. The email offered a deal: World Ahead Press, a publishing arm of WND, would publish her book for a fee, promote it for her and give her a share of sales proceeds.
Anthony sifted through the different publishing options, each with a different price tag attached.
"We thought that if we're helping our fellow Christians, that seems like a good road to go down," she said in a recent interview. "We went for the most expensive package."
It cost $9,999.
At points scattered across the country, others reached the same conclusion: They could trust WND because of its Christian values. In Florida, Patricia Feijo dug into her dwindling savings for $9,999 to tell her version of her husband's imprisonment for promoting unapproved cancer treatments through their ministry, Daniel Chapter One, in a book titled "Called to Stand: How a Small Christian Ministry Courageously Stood Up to Government Tyranny."
In Virginia, Rita Dunaway - an attorney who contributed columns to WND - struck a more traditional publishing deal, in which she would receive royalties but not have to pay for publication.
Each of the women would have their expectations shattered. Calls and emails went unreturned. Anthony and Feijo said they hadn't gotten audiobooks they'd been promised. Dunaway felt she was getting excuses about the months-long delay in publishing her book.
By January 2018 they got a clearer picture of what was happening. Joseph Farah wrote a column outlining WND's financial woes and saying his company faced an "existential threat."
"It pains me to tell you that many loyal WND staffers are working without salary to pull us through a crisis," he wrote. "I'm asking for the help of those who recognize the unique role WND plays in reaching the God-fearing audience that, like us, supports limited government, national sovereignty and the traditional Judeo-Christian values that made America truly great."
Within a few days of his January call for help, he announced that he'd raised $100,000. By March he'd announced that $200,000 had been raised in a column headlined "Mission accomplished! Operation 'Save WND' successful."
But before the month was out, payroll was late again, according to an email Joseph Farah sent to staff. His wife notified the staff that dental and vision insurance had been cut off. As the crisis worsened, Dunaway found another publisher for her book "Restoring America's Soul: Advancing Timeless Conservative Principles in a Wayward Culture." But not before telling Farah by email that "I really am at a loss to understand this kind of treatment at the hands of someone I considered to be a brother in Christ."
WND had a variety of publishing arrangements. Some of the better-known figures such as Coburn did not pay to have their books printed. Instead, they were promised royalties and in some cases received advances, according to internal documents and interviews. Coburn, who says his contract called for royalties but no advance, worked out a deal in which WND sent him copies of his book in lieu of royalties that he said he was owed.
"It's been a downhill ride ever since it was published," Coburn said. "Everybody seems to have problem with them."
While his company was reeling, Farah kept coming up with new plans to salvage it. In late 2018, he became entranced with bitcoin, the digital currency.
In a staff meeting, according to Dionisio and another person who participated, Farah outlined his plans to offer bitcoin to the public in return for donations, and he suggested that employees get in on the deal.
"We couldn't believe that here we were waiting for our paychecks and here he is asking us to buy bitcoin," Dionisio said. "We were like, 'Oh my gosh, we're in crazytown now.'"
Bitcoin couldn't save WND, either.
This month, Farah was once again asking for money and railing against the tech companies he blames for his site's troubles.
"There is no end in sight," the founder wrote. "There are only three forces on Earth powerful enough to take on this hateful, un-American, left-wing, anti-God monopoly - this new Tower of Babel. Those three forces are God, the U.S. government and you, the American people."