When a gaggle of local Tea Party leaders came before the House Ways and Means Committee, complaining that their organizations had been unfairly and unconstitutionally “targeted by the Internal Revenue Service for their personal beliefs,” the reception by the Republicans who control the committee was predictably credulous. Once more the June 4 hearings provided Tea Party groups an opportunity to play the victim and listen to politicians praise their courage and patriotism.
But a closer examination of these particular Tea Party outfits by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights found copious evidence of political activity that might well have disqualified their requests for 501(c)(4) non-profit status – notably the San Fernando Valley Patriots, the Wetumpka Tea Party, and the Laurens County Tea Party.
In weepy tones, Karen Kenney, the founder of the San Fernando Valley Patriots (SFVP), told the committee of her concern “about the jackboot of tyranny upon the field of our Founding documents. To whisper the letters I-R-S strikes a shrill note on Main St., USA, but when this behemoth tramples upon America’s grassroots, few hear the snapping sounds.”
Kenney’s emotional testimony was long on the language of patriotism, but short on the facts of the case. Her testimony, like the entire hearing, ignored the dubious political conduct engaged in by her group, which appeared to have trampled all over IRS non-profit regulations.
Consider the group’s Meetup site, run by Kenney, which bluntly states: “Our aim is to promote — by political action or events — the core Constitutional and conservative values that built America [emphasis added].”
Indeed, Kenney and the San Fernando Valley Patriots actively engaged in partisan political campaigning. This year, they organized rallies for the only Republican in the Los Angeles mayoral race. Listed as the organizer and event host, Kenney wrote, “We have a total of 15 campaign or city issues posters, plus some U.S. flags to draw attention to Kevin James’ campaign for Mayor of Los Angeles. Our silent ‘rally’ with smiling patriots is a fun way to get boots on the ground for a true fiscal-conservative and our friend, Kevin.”
The San Fernando group also appears to have openly endorsed other candidates. Its website published a list of endorsed candidates and ballot measures for the Los Angeles County election. The post clearly states that the list names the candidates that “we are recommending.” In another post, the group tried to pass the endorsement list off as a “Voter Guide,” but it only contains a list of candidates the group had approved. On another page, Kenney posts her own “SFVP Selected Personal Choices (Karen Kenney, coordinator, SFV Patriots)” for the election, listing the candidates she endorsed for mayor, city attorney, and board of trustees.
Still another SFVP webpage features a declaration by Lydia Gutierrez: “I have looked over the list of candidates and I am making the following recommendations. Seat 2: John C. Burke. Seat 4: Jozef Essavi. Seat 6: Tom Oliver. After you have marked these three candidates on your ballot, please forward these recommendations email with 10 voters you know who care about our young people’s future.”
Nor did the SFVP neglect national and statewide political contests. In October, 2012, the group organized a get-out-the-vote flash mob in front of the local headquarters for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and GOP state senate candidate Todd Zink. The group also hosted a brainstorming session in October, 2011 “on local and state politics with a GOP insider!”
SFVP is an affiliate of the national faction known as the Tea Party Patriots, an outfit with its own history of questionable political involvement.
Such activities clearly represent the “indications of significant political campaign intervention” highlighted by the May 14 report of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration – namely, indications that would tend to disqualify a group from obtaining IRS non-profit status. Yet none of these activities were discussed during the hearing supposedly investigating the tax-exemption controversy.
Becky Gerritson of the Alabama-based Wetumpka Tea Party did her best to heighten the melodrama of the hearings. Gerritson emphasized her Tea Party entitlement, making a federal tax exemption sound like a birthright for her and her group. “I am not here today as a serf or a vassal. I am not begging my lords for mercy,” she told the committee. “I am a born-free American woman – wife, mother and citizen – and I’m telling my government that you have forgotten your place.”
But the Wetumpka Tea Party’s political activism was well-documented prior to the hearing, notably in a New York Times article by Nicholas Confessore and Michael Luo. Confessore and Luo reported that the Wetumpka Tea Party “organized a day of training for its members and other Tea Party activists across the region in the run-up to the 2012 election. The training was held under the auspices of the Adopt-a-State program, a nationwide effort that encouraged Tea Party groups in safely red or blue states to support Tea Party groups in battleground states working to get out the vote for Republicans.” Yet nobody on the House committee asked Gerritson about the political activities of her group.
Dianne Belsom, president of the South Carolina-based Laurens County Tea Party, testified about some of the questions posed to her group by the IRS concerning their request for tax exempt status. Of the nine questions she mentioned, all indicated that the agency’s officials were trying to determine how deeply her group had engaged in significant political interventions. She was asked to describe “how much time/resources are devoted to vetting candidates,” and to specify “amounts expended in support of any candidate for federal, state, or local public office.” Other supposedly “invasive” items requested by the IRS included asking for the group’s articles of incorporation.
Even a cursory examination of the Laurens County group’s website shows plenty of reason for the IRS to have become concerned. The website notes proudly that in July, 2012, Belsom “spoke and outlined our strategy for the remainder of the year, with a large focus on how to defeat Obamacare and get the more conservative candidates elected. At a September, 2012, meeting the Tea Party group also voted on candidate endorsements.
In December, 2011, Belsom told The State newspaper that the Tea Party was working politically against President Obama, and that, despite disagreements over candidates, “There’s agreement that we need to replace Obama and get our country going back in the right direction.” The Laurens County Tea Party also served as a co-sponsor, with the Tea Party Express and CNN, of a September, 2011 Republican presidential debate in Tampa, Florida.
Aside from the Tea Party groups, representatives of several other conservative organizations testified about problems regarding the status of their tax-exemption applications, though none of those groups were apparently part of the keyword targeting by the IRS. John Eastman, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, a group opposing marriage equality for gays and lesbians, testified about an alleged IRS leak of their donor list. Sue Martinek of the Coalition for Life of Iowa testified about questions the organization had to answer regarding its application for 501(c)(3) status back in 2008. (The Inspector General’s report did not examine 501(c)(3) applications, however, only those for would-be 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations.)
Kevin Kookogey, founder and president of Linchpins of Liberty, which applied for 501(c)(3) status and conducts conservative training for young people, testified that his group had been waiting 29 months to gain non-profit status. He failed to mention that despite this two-year-plus period, his group’s board of directors still had not been fully constituted and remains “under construction.” Having a fully constituted board of directors is an important requirement for any prospective non-profit organization, as the board is legally and financially responsible for the conduct of the organization.
In the end, the Republican leadership demonstrated no interest in ascertaining the actual facts of Tea Party involvement in prohibited political activity. Instead, Republican committee members simply used the Tea Party witnesses as props to score political points against the Obama administration.
While apologizing to the witnesses and calling the IRS handling of the matter “inept,” “stupid” and “a whole lot of other things,” Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA) nevertheless insisted on raising the central issue. “I’d like to remind everyone what we’re talking about here. None of your organizations were kept from organizing or silenced. We’re talking about whether or not the American taxpayers will subsidize your work. We’re talking about a tax break. If you didn’t come in and ask for this tax break, you would’ve never had a question asked of you. You can go out there and say anything you want in the world.”
Congressman Sander Levin (D-MI) noted early in the hearing that while 298 organizations were set aside for review, only 96, or a third, contained “Tea Party,” “9/12,” or “Patriot” in their names, while 202 did not. In fact, according to the draft report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, none of the 296 questionable applicants had been denied a tax exemption by the IRS The unaddressed scandal is that the IRS let so many of these groups get away with what appear to be severe violations of the law. Toward the hearing’s conclusion, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) indicated that the IRS’ flagging of groups by name had been wrong but noted, “No one has a God-given right to a tax-exempt status.” Tell that to the Tea Party.
Devin Burghart is vice president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights (www.irehr.org) and co-author of Tea Party Nationalism: A Critical Examination of the Size, Scope and Focus of the Tea Party Movement and Its National Factions.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak