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Tea Party activists are calling for a full investigation, and possibly lawsuits, following revelations that the Internal Revenue Service flagged so-called patriot groups for extra scrutiny in applications for federal tax-exempt status.
Among those claiming unjust and unconstitutional targeting by the IRS is a group called TheTeaParty.net, which bills itself as the largest grass-roots conservative Tea Party organization in the country.
Washington-based attorney Dan Backer, who represents the group, says he does not have a problem with the IRS checking to make sure applicants for nonprofit status are legitimate.
They wanted us to not only give our members, but the federal ID number of every group that is part of our organization.Tom Zawistowski, Portage County Tea Party
"It's one thing to ask us to document the activities we engaged in, which is not unreasonable, and we complied with that," Backer says. "It's wholly another to ask these questions that had nothing to do with the exemption application."
The IRS was dealing with a large number of applications from the newly burgeoning Tea Party movement in 2009 and 2010, as groups sprung up all across the country. An inspector general's report released Monday night said initially just one staffer, then several, were handling all of the applications.
Backer said that's no excuse.
"Hire more employees, hire temps [and] hire contractors," he says. "Reallocate resources; find more efficient ways to review applications."
Backer supplied one of the questionnaires the IRS sent to his clients. There are four pages of questions, single-spaced. Many seem basic, and the very first cites the educational activity the group says it will engage in.
The questions related to that topic include: What does the activity/service entail? Who conducts the activity/service? When and where is the activity conducted?
Also included was the question: Will you conduct rallies, exhibitions or other activities for or against any public officers [or] political candidates?
Backer says that crosses the line, as do detailed requests for copies of Facebook, Twitter and other Internet activity, including blogs and newsletters. There are requests for detailed breakdowns of what percentage of an organization's time is spent on each activity.
Backer represents a big, national group that can hire an attorney. Smaller groups across the country report going through the same thing.
Tom Zawistowski is a former leader of the Ohio Liberty Coalition and the current head of the Portage County Tea Party. He also runs the We the People Convention.
"I've had a lot of fun with the IRS over the last year or two years or so," Zawistowski says.
He says he first filed for tax-exempt status in 2009, and for close to two years heard nothing. Emails, letters and phone calls were ignored. Finally, he says, written requests for more information started to come in, including for lists of donors and membership.
"In our case, we are a statewide organization, so our members are groups," he says. "They wanted us to not only give our members, but the federal ID number of every group that is part of our organization."
Zawistowski says the IRS wanted a list of everyone who attended every one of their meetings.
"For anyone to say this isn't about the Obama campaign, I defy them to look at the facts," he says.
Ultimately, Zawistowski decided not to comply. He started a regular conference call with other Tea Party groups around the country to swap IRS horror stories. One regular participant was Marion Bower of Fremont, Ohio. She and her husband started a group called American PAGE, or American Patriots Against Government Excess.
Bower says they use the money they raise to buy pocket Constitutions to hand out, and they are all unpaid volunteers. She said they did note, on one form, that they are an educational group that occasionally holds book study groups. She says they were then asked by the IRS for a written summary of each book.
"I don't have time to write him a book report; I did that in high school," Bower says.
She says the group had read two books. The first was endorsed by talk show host Glenn Beck, called The 5000 Year Leap. The other was the pocket Constitution they've been handing out. So she packed both up and sent them to the IRS, saying they could read the books for themselves.
Bower, Zawistowski and Backer have something else in common: Each did eventually get tax-exempt status for their groups.
All of them, however, are also quick to say this is bigger than a bad call made by some bureaucrat at the IRS. Each points a finger at the president, something Tea Party members have been doing ever since their movement began.