The IRS wants YOU ; to share everything
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This is a Reblogged from http://www.politico.com
The Internal Revenue Service asked tea party groups to see donor rolls.
It asked for printouts of Facebook posts.
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And it asked what books people were reading.
A POLITICO review of documents from 11 tea party and conservative groups that the IRS scrutinized in 2012 shows the agency wanted to know everything — in some cases, it even seemed curious what members were thinking. The review included interviews with groups or their representatives from Hawaii, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas and elsewhere.
The long-awaited Treasury Department inspector general report released Tuesday says the agency itself decided some of its questions to conservative groups were way over the line — especially the one about donors.
The report shows that top IRS officials put a stop to some of the questions in early 2012, including the ones that asked tea party groups who their donors were, what issues were important to them and whether their top officers ever planned to run for office. And they told the investigators they planned to destroy the donor lists that had already been sent in.
But interviews with members of the groups paint a more dramatic picture than the bland language of the report, which just says the IRS “requested irrelevant (unnecessary) information because of a lack of managerial review, at all levels, of questions before they were sent to organizations seeking tax-exempt status.”
“They were asking for a U-Haul truck’s worth of information,” said Toby Marie Walker, the president of the Waco Tea Party.
Some groups even gave up in the face of the IRS questions.
Several of the groups were asked for résumés of top officers and descriptions of interviews with the media. One group was asked to provide “minutes of all board meetings since your creation.”
Some of the letters asked for copies of the groups’ Web pages, blog posts and social media postings — making some tea party members worry they’d be punished for their tweets or Facebook comments by their followers.
And each letter had a stern warning about “penalties of perjury” — which became intimidating for groups that were being asked about future activities, like future donations or endorsements.
In one instance, the American Patriots Against Government Excess was asked to provide summaries or copies of all material passed out at meetings. The group had been reading “The 5000 Year Leap” by Cleon Skousen and the U.S. Constitution.
The group’s president, Marion Bower, sent a copy of both to the IRS. “I don’t have time to write a book report for them,” she said.
The Albuquerque Tea Party was asked about connections to other groups — Conspiracy Brews, Marianne Chiffelle’s Breakfasts, Concerned Citizens for Limited Government, Concerned Citizens for Common Sense.
The Hawaii Tea Party was about Dylan Nonaka, the former head of the Hawaii Republican Party.
And then they asked whether one group knew Justin Binik-Thomas.
Never heard of him? He’s a former leader of the Cincinnati Tea Party, and clearly someone in the Cincinnati IRS office knew who he was.
So when the Liberty Township Tea Party applied for tax-exempt status, the IRS threw this question into its March 2011 letter to the group: “Provide details regarding your relationship with Justin Binik-Thomas.” (They didn’t know him well enough to spell his name right.)
In an interview Tuesday, Binik-Thomas said he has never worked with the Liberty group and isn’t sure why the IRS asked that group about him — although he says it’s “possible that they just Goggled ‘tea party’ and assumed that we’re all the same.”
But Binik-Thomas said it was a chilling experience when the Liberty group told him his name was in their letter — because now he wonders what else the IRS has in store for him.
“Will my personal taxes get audited? Will my small-business taxes get audited? Am I a pawn to try to get at another group?” Binik-Thomas asked.
“There are a lot of people involved in the tea party. Why was I isolated from thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people? Why was I singled out?”
Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine and an election law expert and blogger, said that it’s the IRS’s job to ensure that these groups are not primarily involved in campaign-related activities. “So it has taken a murky rule and tried to resolve disputes about status in some cases using a very fact-intensive and intrusive inquiry,” he said.
“It would be far better for the IRS — or even better, Congress — to have a bright line rule about who has to disclose what and keep the IRS out of this line of inquiry,” Hasen added. “For example, make every group regardless of tax status disclose major donors funding election ads to the FEC. That’s it. Then there would be no reason for political groups to take the (c)(4) status and the pressure would be off the IRS.”
The IRS investigations took time. Several conservative group leaders spoke of 18 months or more of delays, only to get missives in early 2012 demanding answers to detailed questions within a few weeks.
“The thing that would characterize the attitude of the IRS was silence. We submitted our application, and it would be almost a year before we would get an answer back,” said Laurence Nordvig, the executive director of the Richmond Tea Party. “It’s not like we were talking to someone every day and they were being polite or rude. We weren’t hearing from them at all.”
The Richmond group first applied for 501(c)(4) status in December 2009 and got final approval in July 2012.
The letters came from IRS offices in Ohio, California and Washington, D.C. And one letter — to American Patriots Against Government Excess — came under the name of Lois Lerner, the director of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations office. Lerner was the IRS official who announced last Friday the agency had singled out certain groups for review based on search terms like “tea party” and “patriot.”
Tea party groups felt that the requests for donors were particularly intrusive.
“They were asking for the names of the donors, which is exactly the opposite of what we were looking for because if people knew their names would be made public or known to the government, they stop giving,” said Nordvig.
“Why do you even need that? There’s no reason your tax status should depend on your donors,” Littleton said.
Toby Marie Walker, the president of the Waco Tea Party, says her group applied for 501(c)(4) status in July 2010 and didn’t get a response from the IRS until February 2012 — when it sent a letter with 20 questions, including requests for printouts of its Web page and social networking sites.
It also wanted copies of all newsletters, bulletins and fliers, as well as any stories written about the group.
“They were killing trees right and left,” Walker said.
The IRS also asked for transcripts of radio shows where her group had mentioned political candidates by name — a job she figured would have cost her group $25,000. And it asked whether her group had “a close relationship” with any candidates or parties, a question she considered especially vague.
Walker said her group eventually got the questions knocked back a bit, with the help of the American Center for Law and Justice — and the IRS agreed to drop items like the Web page and Facebook printouts.
In January, Walker said, the Waco Tea Party submitted its final responses to the IRS — and in March, it won its tax-exempt status. By that point, she didn’t really feel like celebrating.
“It was a win, but I didn’t feel like it was a win, because it took us 18 months,” Walker said.
Chris Littleton, one of the co-founders of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, said the group got a grilling from the IRS when it submitted its application, in letters the group has posted on its website. The IRS also gave him so much grief when he tried to apply for tax-exempt status for another group, American Junto, that “we just gave up on it,” he said.
But when he submitted an application for a third group — Ohioans for Health Care Freedom, now renamed Ohio Rising — “it went through just fine,” Littleton said. “They never asked a single set of questions.”
Julie Hodges of the Mississippi Tea Party said the group has less than $800 in its account and relied on volunteer lawyers to deal with the IRS. It withdrew its application for 501(c)(4) status in early 2012, citing the delays and questions.
“The government is harassing us over a political position,” Hodges said.
The Greater Phoenix Tea Party Patriots applied in January 2010, and two years later, received an inquiry from the IRS with 35 questions.
“I do recall our co-founder called the IRS and the agent on the phone pretended he had our case file open in front him,” said the group’s president, Chris Rossiter. “Then she asked him a question, and he said, ‘What’s your group’s name again?’”
Several said that because the tea party groups constantly spoke to each other, it was easy to see they were all getting the same questions from IRS.
“It was a mistake for the IRS to take on the tea party because what we do is organize, so we’re going to figure out we were getting the same letters,” Rossiter said.
Lauren French contributed to this report.