WASHINGTON — Tea party leaders spoke out Thursday about their experience with the Internal Revenue Service and warned others that it could happen to them too.
“We want to make sure every American understands what tyranny looks like and what we can do as citizens to regain our voice, to regain our rights, to ensure that this administration or the next one after it never does this again,” Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks said at a tea party roundtable Thursday afternoon.
Katrina Pierson of the Dallas Tea Party said that the scandal has shed further light on one of the reasons the tea party started: concern about overreach and abuse of government.
The IRS requested the Dallas Tea Party’s campaign contribution lists and membership communications. The group ended up having to compile and send about six inches of documents in two weeks. The group still has yet to receive its tax-exempt status.
“How many scandals is it going to take for the American people to stand up and take back what is rightfully theirs?” Pierson asked.
Toby Marie Walker president of the Waco Tea Party told of her group’s IRS struggles, applying for 501(c)(4) status in 2010 and not hearing back until February 2012 when the group was asked about relationships with public officials and candidates, lists of volunteers and all the news stories in which the group had been mentioned. She said the request was so onerous that if they had complied with all of the demands, the group would have needed a “U-haul truck of about 20 feet.”
Walker’s group received its tax-exempt status in March, but she explained that the process detracted from its locally focused mission and resulted in people being fearful to donate and participate. It further resulted in the loss of thousands of her organization’s dollars.
“This should happen to no one. If it happens to one organization in America, we should all be outraged. We shouldn’t wait until it happens to hundreds,” Walker said.
Dianne Belsom, a homeschool mom who runs the Laurens County Tea Party in South Carolina, explained how her organization filed for 501(c)(4) status in 2010. After extensive demands, the group is still waiting for tax-exempt status after nearly 3 years.
Anastasia Przybylski, co-founder of the Kitchen Table Patriots in Pennsylvania, explained how she was able to get 501(c)(4) status, but still received letters telling her group they are not in compliance.
“For a small organization, you know this is a mom and pop shop, to constantly be dealing with the headache of these letters and I get on the phone with the IRS and they ask me these invasive questions, for me I don’t know if it is worth it,” she said.
“I think we should all be alarmed about our civil liberties and what this actually means to all groups, regardless of your political affiliation, regardless of what you believe, this could happen to anyone,” she added.
Eric Wilson of the Kentucky 9/12 Project applied for tax-exemption in 2010 to formalize their status and protect their members, he said.
In February 2012, the group received a letter from the IRS with a total of 88 inquires about family members’ organization affiliations, names and resumes of meeting speakers. The group received tax-exempt status in April after retaining counsel.
“What you see here is a cross-section of America, the soccer dads, the homeschool moms and people like that who are part of the tea party and 9/12 Project, and that is who they went after. If they can go after us they can go after anybody,” he said.
Bob Smith, treasurer of the NE Tarrant Tea Party and practicing certified public accountant involved in nonprofit representation since the 1970s, explained his surprise at the process his group went through when applying for tax-exempt status. The process, he said, included the extensive questioning, a slow-walked application and confusion about the manner in which to file the group’s taxes.
“I want to tell you how ludicrous this whole process is,” he said. “We have about 180-100 folks that show up to our meetings, we bring in $10- $15,000 a year. Did you hear me! $10-$15,000 a year. We’re a pimple on the back of a dog, and yet the Internal Revenue Service — which we recently learned last week — had targeted us for political reasons. Folks, this is bad.”
Susan McLaughlin with the Liberty Township Tea Party spoke about the irony of it all, with her group still without tax-exempt status after three years.
“I’m amazed, the same IRS that wants to run our health care, that brought us together, and we are having the debate all over again,” she said.
Jay Devereaux of Unite in Action spoke about the financial toll the IRS has taken on him and his organization, which filed for tax-exempt status in March 2010 and received one of the onerous demand letters in January 2012.
The letter attempted to probe the organization’s donors and activities, specifically, Devereaux said, extensive information about an educational event the group had at the Omni Shoreham hotel in Washington D.C., which featured 78 classes on the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, the Federalist Papers and civic engagement, and over 40 vendors. The group has had five rounds of letters from the IRS and still no resolution to its tax status.
Devereaux said that with the group’s status still in limbo, it had to stop raising money.
“It has all but killed my organization. If out status is ruled as not exempt and we become a for profit organization we will likely owe somewhere in the neighborhood of $70,000 in back taxes,” he said. “It’s more money than we have in the bank and we dare not raise anymore because it is only going to make matters worse.”
He added that people are skeptical about giving money anyway because the IRS has not accepted them as a tax-exempt organization and warned that it could happening to other groups.
Tom Zawistowski, former leader of the Ohio Liberty Coalition and current president of We the People Convention, Inc. and head of the Portage County Tea Party, added that the revelation about the IRS targeted conservative groups has vindicated the tea party.
“It is a vindication of us for all the things, the horrible terrible things that have been said about us that are equally false: the racist claims, the bigot claims, homophobe, Islamophobe, all the other trash that came from the left. And unfortunately, it came from some of you in the media; that is equally not true,” he said.
Many of the groups have retained the American Center for Law and Justice — which is planning to sue on behalf of at least 14 of its clients — as their representation.