While it is well known that the so-called IRS scandal has been used by Tea Partiers to bash the IRS, less well known are the actual facts of the case.
Specifically, while the IRS delayed confirming the tax-exempt status of some groups, and some also faced additional scrutiny, not a single Tea Party organization was denied tax-exempt status.
A May 14 draft report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration found that none of the 296 questionable applicants had been denied: “For the 296 potential political cases we reviewed, as of December 17, 2012, 108 applications had been approved, 28 were withdrawn by the applicant, none had been denied, and 160 cases were open from 206 to 1,138 calendar days (some crossing two election cycles).”
In fact, the only known 501(c)(4) applicant whose request for tax-exempt status was recently denied happens to be a progressive group: the Maine chapter of Emerge America, which trains Democratic women to run for office. Although the group did no electoral work, and didn’t participate in independent expenditure campaign activity either, its partisan nature disqualified it from being categorized as working for the “common good.”
The Inspector General’s report found that in the “majority of cases, we agreed that the applications submitted included indications of significant political campaign intervention.” In fact, only 91 of the 296, or roughly 31 percent of the applications reviewed for the report, did not have “indications of significant political campaign intervention.” In other words, more than two-thirds of groups flagged for processing by a team of specialists had those indications.
That sort of political campaign intervention would normally disqualify a group from 501(c)(4) status, but the deluge of Tea Party applications combined with the politicization of the process has allowed them to slip through. A closer look at the activities of some of the Tea Party groups that are currently under review or have received non-profit status from the IRS reveals a difficult and potentially dangerous situation.
The First Coast Tea Party Inc. of Jacksonville, Florida, for example, which applied for 501(c)(4) status in 2009 — and received it in 2011. Commenting about the recent IRS controversy on Facebook, the group declared “We file a tax return, account for every penny. We do not endorse candidates, that is a no no.” Yet the First Coast group has boasted about directly helping Republican campaigns. In an August 30, 2012 Facebook post, for instance, the group advertised a Jacksonville rally for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, adding, “bring your chairs and your signs, make sure they know that the First Coast Tea Party is and has been helping their campaign.”
Three weeks later, the same group declared a “state of emergency” on Facebook, pleading with supporters to campaign for Romney: “FLORIDA FRIENDS, IF YOU LIVE IN ANY OF THESE 3 COUNTIES GET OFF THE COUCH NOW, GET YOUR FRIENDS OFF THE COUCH. GET TO THE REPUBLICAN HEADQUARTERS AND OFFER AND THEN DO SOME WORK. PHONES, (YOU CAN EVEN DO THESE CALLS FROM HOME) AND WALK AND KNOCK. NOW. WE CANNOT LOSE FLORIDA TO OBAMA.. NOW. THIS IS MOST CRITICAL [emphasis in original].” These weren’t posts from some random supporter on the group’s Facebook page; they were posts from the official account of the organization.
Similarly, the IRS granted 501 (c)(4) tax-exempt status to the Louisville Tea Party in 2009. The same group published a list of “officially tea party endorsed candidates for the 2011 Kentucky primary.” They also published an article headined “The Rationale for Romney-Ryan,” arguing that Tea Partiers should vote for the Republican candidate.
Then there is the Katy Tea Party Patriots, which filed for 501(c)(4) status in 2009. This group actually ran an “Oust Obama 2012” campaign, organizing block-watching with the Fort Bend GOP and phone-banking against Obama at GOP headquarters in Sugarland and Houston, Texas. Still featured on the front page of the group’s website is an October 4, 2012 article titled “Our Country’s Future,” by Katy Tea Party Patriots president Darcy Kahrhoff, who urged members to vote for Romney. “Please take time to talk with friends and family you may have living out of state, and try to convince them to vote for Governor Romney, especially if you have friends and family in Florida, Colorado, or Ohio. Also, find a Senatorial candidate to support in these states, and go to FreedomWorks to phone bank for these patriots. Everything you can do to help will matter. We can, and we must, win this!
Not to be outdone was the Central Valley Tea Party Inc., a regional California Tea Party group that won the much more politically restrictive IRS 501(c)(3) tax status in 2009. It should be noted that 501 (c)(3) status explicitly prohibits any partisan political activity. “Under the Internal Revenue Code,” as the IRS explains, “all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. The prohibition applies to all campaigns including campaigns at the federal, state and local level. Violation of this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”
Despite its 501 (c)(3) designation, the Central Valley Tea Party group appears to have been involved in partisan political activity. Currently, the front page of the group’s website features “upcoming events” instructing members to “Volunteer for Measure G,” and “Volunteer for Vidak for Senate.” In the latter case, the website simply instructs members: “Please volunteer to do phone banking or precinct walking to help win the election.”
Further stretching IRS regulations, the same group’s newsletter endorsed and advertised conservative candidates. In an article in the October, 2012 issue of the Central Valley Tea Party Times — headlined “Why You Should Be Excited to Vote for Mitt Romney” — Paul Szopa told fellow Tea Partiers to get out and campaign for the Republican presidential candidate. “So it’s time to get excited to vote for the better candidate. It’s time to talk him up to friends and family. It’s time to join with groups like Operation Swing State (www.operationswingstate.org) and make calls in support of his candidacy.” Published on the front page of the newsletter was a “Voter Guide” that seemed even less ambiguous, listing all the candidates that the group recommended as well as their positions on all of the ballot measures.
The newsletter also featured advertisements for conservative candidates. The April-June, 2012 edition of the Central Valley Tea Party Times carried an ad for Whelan for Congress on page 27, another for Frank Bigelow for the 5th District California Assembly seat on page 38, and an ad “Elect Richard J. (Rick) Farinelli, Madera County Supervisor District III” on page 39. The newsletter’s August-September, 2010 edition featured an ad for Diane Lenning, a write-in candidate for California Superintendent of Public Instruction; so did the October-November, 2010 edition.
Another Tea Party group granted the 501(c)(3) non-profit status by the IRS, is the Tifton, Georgia-based Tiftarea Tea Party Patriots, Inc., which received the designation in 2010. This group too appears to have engaged in openly political activity, including publicly endorsing candidates. On October 9, 2012, in a post on its website — “Are you ready to vote?” — the Tiftarea group strongly endorsed Romney: “The choice is simple. Obama has stated, He will transform America and acted to do such. Everything this Administration stands for, is Government and control of every aspect of life. This is the pipe dream of a Socialist’s mentality, for in their eyes, you the individual, do not know and cannot do, what is right, so someone else has to make decisions for you, to ensure, you do not make the wrong choices or actions. Or you chose Romney, who does not want to transform America, the greatest nation in history of human kind. He wants to allow, the individual, to have the right, to succeed and fail on his own regard, while ensuring those freedoms, given by our Creator and to assure those inalienable rights, written about in the Declaration of Independence are retained by their proper owners, ‘We the People.’”
These are but a few of the many examples of political intervention by Tea Party non-profits catalogued by IREHR. There are many, many more and they’re not difficult to find. Rather than the so-called IRS scandal cooked up by Tea Party groups and their partisan supporters, the real criticism of the IRS may be that it has permitted so many of these groups to obtain tax-exempt status despite apparently egregious violations.
After the firing of several high-level IRS employees over this incident, how likely is it that Tea Party groups will be sanctioned for these kinds of violations in the future?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.