July 17, 2013

‘A rogue government’

Chattanooga Tea Party head questions IRS actions

Charles Oliver

— The Internal Revenue Service took 1,231 days — over three years — to approve the Chattanooga Tea Party’s request for nonprofit status.

That’s almost nine times longer than the 150 days it takes the agency to rule on a typical application.

“We want to get to the bottom of this,” said Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West, who spoke at the Dalton Tea Party’s meeting Tuesday night. “We want to find out why this was taking place and who directed it and knew about it.”

The Chattanooga Tea Party is one of 40 groups from across the nation that have joined in a lawsuit against the IRS, claiming the organization violated their constitutional rights.

“It’s mostly tea party groups but not exclusively. They are all liberty groups, but they don’t all go by the tea party name,” he said.

Lois Lerner, a senior official at the IRS in Washington, admitted in May at a meeting of the American Bar Association that the agency had singled out tea party groups for extra scrutiny when the groups filed for 501(c)(4) nonprofit status. According to federal regulations, such groups can engage in political activity but they must be “primarily engaged in promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the community.”

Lerner was later placed on administrative leave after invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself and refusing to testify before Congress on the targeting of tea party groups.

During congressional investigations, pro-life groups, religious organizations, pro-Israel groups and other conservative organizations have claimed they were also singled out for additional scrutiny by the IRS.

“What they all have in common is that they oppose the policies of Barack Obama,” West said.

A Treasury Department inspector general found only a handful of progressive groups were singled out by the IRS for extra scrutiny.

West said the IRS did more than just drag its feet in approving his group’s application for nonprofit status.

The group applied for nonprofit status in November 2009. It did not hear back from the IRS for another eight months. That’s when the IRS sent it a letter demanding, among other things, a description of all topics discussed at its meetings for the past six months and information on any debates it had hosted for congressional candidates, including promotional literature and a list of any questions it asked candidates.

An inspector general’s report later found several of those questions unnecessary.

West said he sent the information to the agency. Eighteen months later, the IRS wrote back with an even more extensive list of questions.

“They wanted a copy of all the speeches we’d ever given, every video, every recording. They wanted all of our agendas, a list of our speakers and what they spoke on, a list of our volunteers,” he said. “Several of the questions were the exact same questions they’d asked us previously, and I pointed that out.”

IRS officials originally said that the extra scrutiny of tea party groups came from its Cincinnati office. West said he knew that wasn’t true because the letters to his group came from two IRS offices, one in Maryland as well as the one in Cincinnati.

IRS agents in Cincinnati told congressional committees looking into the issue that they were ordered to focus on tea party groups by supervisors in Washington, and several IRS agents in Washington connected to the tea party controversy have stepped down or been reassigned since the story broke.

“This isn’t rogue agents. It isn’t a rogue agency. It’s a rogue government,” West said.

West said that people who aren’t tea party members should be concerned about the way the group has been treated.

“If this can be done to tea party groups and like-minded groups today, it can be done to other types of groups tomorrow,” he said.