Ohio Tea Party Groups Still Simmering Over IRS Scandal

May 29, 2013

The holiday week continues for lawmakers in Washington – which means no more hearings on the IRS scandal. But there's no break for Ohio groups who say they were targeted - and are angry. 

Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler reports.

The head of the Ohio Christian Alliance says he was surprised when his group applied for tax exempt status in early 2011 – and nine months later, he received a letter demanding answers to several questions within two weeks. And Chris Long says he felt a question about whether his group intended to file lawsuits – as he says the ACLU does often – was intended to be intimidating. And he was also concerned about a question about his group’s activity over the next 12 months.
“That’s of course, would be the presidential election year.” And our application already indicated what our activities would be, and that was to register church congregants across the state of Ohio in a non-partisan way and also to offer educational materials.”

There’s no standard form the IRS has for tax exempt status – there’s vagueness on the IRS questions side, but also on the side of the groups, which only have to prove they spend 51 percent of their money on a social welfare idea such as “education” to get tax exempt status. But other conservative group leaders were outraged – including Tom Zawistowski with the Portage County Tea Party. Zawistowski says when his group got a similar letter with what he felt were unusual questions, he wrote back saying the group would not comply.
“I knew that it was political in nature. The questions did not have anything to do with our tax forms. They were – ‘give us a list of all the people who attend your meetings’, ‘give us a list of your speakers’, ‘tell us what they said’. You know, those types of questions. So it was pretty apparent that something more was going on.”

Zawistowski, who’s also with the Ohio Liberty Coalition, says he reached out to Maurice Thompson at the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, the Tea Party backed group that’s an offshoot of the conservative Buckeye Institute. Thompson says this kind of scrutiny wasn’t news to him – he says he got extra examinations from the IRS in 2010.
“There was no reference to anything to having to do with any Tea Party group in our application. What was interesting is they asked us about our relationship with the Tea Party. It seemed to us that they were trying to get at the Tea Party, kind of trying to establish an organizational chart of how different liberty groups work.”

Thompson is now working up a lawsuit against the IRS on behalf of dozens of groups in the Ohio Liberty Coalition. These kinds of groups don’t have to apply to the IRS, but donors often want to see IRS recognition before giving – and Thompson says he has proof of that. Thompson says the lawsuit also would seek to stop the IRS from targeting groups or individuals, as has happened in previous administrations.
“The fact that this happens over and over again means that there needs to be serious action taken to root out exactly what’s going on over there and to actually establish some precedents that stop it and assess criminal liability so that these IRS agents know that they can’t get away with this in the future.”

And Zawistowski says he has another goal in mind.
“Quite frankly, the only outcome that would satisfy me is for the IRS to be abolished, because in essence it is a political tool. It’s been used that way my entire life – JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Bush, here’s the Obama administration. The problem is that the IRS needs to be abolished.”

Chris Long with the Ohio Christian Alliance says his group isn’t joining the lawsuit right now, but is focused on the investigations by the Justice Department and both chambers of Congress.
“I think we take encouragement from that, that both parties want to get to the bottom of this of exactly what happened.”

But what Long and others say they really want a specific reason why their applications for tax exempt status were delayed. There are reports that as the Ohio Liberty Coalition’s application was in waiting, Zawistowski sent out e-mails inviting members to campaign events for Mitt Romney – an activity that many would perceive as partisan, though he says he was advised was ok.