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Tea Party Patriots, originally formed as a 501(c)(4) non-profit corporation in 2009, has a history of questionable electoral activity.  Nevertheless, as one of the largest of the movement’s national factions, it is taking advantage of the so-called IRS scandal to re-ignite the anger of Tea Partiers, encourage their (false) sense of victimhood, and increase their ranks.

Dubbed “Rein in the IRS,” nationwide rallies were organized to protest IRS scrutiny of Tea Party non-profit applications. The announcement, posted on the group’s website Monday, called for “anyone and everyone to protest the IRS’ complete abuse of power” at noon local time on Tuesday. Dozens of local Tea Party Patriots chapters around the country emailed their members about the protests.

The Tea Partiers claim that “the IRS has waged a three-year war against the Tea Party, harassing our groups and even auditing our individual members. This abuse of power is unacceptable and un-Constitutional, and it must stop.” No mention was made of the Inspector General’s findings that that not a single Tea Party group has been denied 501(c)(4) non-profit status, and that more than two thirds of the scrutinized Tea Party-like groups had engaged in political activity that would usually disqualify them.

The effort is also being used to fuse anger over several different political issues, from the Affordable Care Act to immigrants. For instance, in sample Letters to the Editor they distributed, the group links the IRS controversy with their attack on comprehensive immigration reform. “The IRS’s abuse of power highlights why the Senate needs to slow down with its amnesty bill. We simply cannot trust bureaucrats to make the right decisions. Immigration policy is too complex and too important for us to delegate to a group of bureaucrats who may be pursuing an agenda that doesn’t match Americans’ best interest.”

It should be noted that until late Monday, the Tea Party Patriots were using the official group website listed on their IRS form 990, and the resources of their 501(c)(4), plus their network of local groups—many of which have filed for 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) status)—to organize the protests against the IRS. Suddenly Monday evening, after a day of soliciting volunteers to organize anti-IRS protests, all traffic to the group’s domain name teapartypatriots.org was directed to the group’s political action committee, The Tea Party Patriots Citizen Fund (http://teapartypatriotscitizensfund.com), which features a “protest the IRS” page alongside a photo of Tea Party Patriots co-founder, Jenny Beth Martin.

The new PAC was formed in January 2013. Despite the current enmeshing of the 501(c)(4) and the PAC on the IRS protests, forms filed with the Federal Elections Commission curiously state that the PAC has no connected organization.

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The sudden crossover to the group’s political action committee may be at least a tacit omission of questionable activity for a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization. It also begs the question as to why any Tea Party groups so focused on politics would want to be a non-profit rather than a PAC.

Such concern about crossing the line and engaging in political activity was absent from the Tea Party Patriots, Inc. a year ago when the group threw its support behind Wisconsin governor Scott Walker in his recall election.

As IREHR noted last year, Tea Party Patriots, Inc., which registered with the IRS as a 501(C)(4) non-profit organization, may have run afoul of its tax exempt status with this electoral activity.  Federally registered non-profit organizations with a 501c4 status are prohibited from devoting a majority of their energy and resources to support electoral campaigns.

On April 29, 2012, local Tea Party Patriots groups across the country voted 98 percent to 2 percent to throw all their energy and resources into Wisconsin for the recall elections. “We are deploying hundreds of volunteers into each of the targeted recall districts,” noted Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin in an email to supporters. “That’s 4,000 patriots going door to door and making phone calls” she added.

Tea Party Patriots brought activists to Wisconsin and did door-to-door canvassing, and had others make calls from their homes and spread the word on social media. Some of those activists were sponsored, with their costs covered by Tea Party Patriots.

At times, Martin and other Tea Party Patriots leaders have tried to suggest that the group was just engaged in GOTV (Get Out the Vote) efforts or some form of civic engagement, other times they’ve told their supporters that they’re directly intervening politically: “Tea Party Patriots—in conjunction with other local and national Tea Party groups—will spearhead efforts to help Walker and other candidates.”

There is also a question as to whether the funds of the group are going to “social welfare” as required. In 2010, the organization raised $12 million in fiscal 2010. But only about $3 million of that went to its “social welfare” mission, according to an IRS 990 form filed in May 2012. For fiscal year ending May 31, 2012, Tea Party Patriots raised over $20 million, but spent just $5.9 million on program service. Millions of dollars went to pay professional telemarketing firms, extensive travel costs, and legal fees from suing other Tea Party groups over control of the “Tea Party” brand.

Tea Party Patriots leader Martin has had her fair share of troubles with the IRS before. As noted in Tea Party Nationalism, according to court documents, Martin and her husband, Lee Martin (who served at the group’s “assistant secretary” and was intimately involved in the group’s financial matters), owed over $680,000 in tax debt, including over half a million dollars to the Internal Revenue Service, when the pair filed for bankruptcy in August of 2008.

Whether or not Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest national factions, can turn this scandal into a chance to regain lost ground will, in some measure, depend on the reception their protests receive by an informed public.

This is adapted from a special report of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. To request a printed version of the report, complete with exhibits, please email the Institute at info@irehr.org.

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