The initial firestorm surrounding the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups may have subsided, but tea party leaders say the situation has only become worse and may lead to more lawsuits against the embattled agency.
New documents show the depth of information the IRS is seeking from Tea Party Patriots, a leading conservative group that first applied for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status in late 2010 and one of many organizations singled out for extra scrutiny by the Obama administration.
An IRS letter sent to the group last week and obtained by The Washington Times contains a laundry list of requests related to virtually all the group's activities, including its involvement in the 2012 election cycle and its get-out-the-vote efforts, fundraising activities, all radio and TV advertising, and other information.
The IRS also is asking for detailed financial records, including "the amounts and percentages of your total expenses that were for fundraising activities in the tax year 2011, 2012 and 2013."
The Aug. 20 request came as a shock to Tea Party Patriots, which said it already has provided to the IRS extensive information on all of its activities and thinks it is long past time to receive a "yes" or "no" answer.
The letter also is proof that, while President Obama and other liberals have referred to the situation as a "phony scandal," conservative organizations still are targets, said Cleta Mitchell, a Washington, D.C., lawyer representing the Tea Party Patriots and several other conservative groups.
"This is tantamount to an audit. This is the continuation of the same thing they've been doing for four years. They have not stopped," she said Thursday. "Tea Party Patriots has responded to all of the requests of the IRS to date, but that has gotten us nowhere. They just keep asking more questions. We are now looking at potential legal remedies, but that's not easy. Congress has made it quite difficult to sue the IRS."
The letter, according to the IRS, is simply an attempt to gather information necessary for the agency to determine whether the Tea Party Patriots is eligible for tax-exempt status under current law. Meeting the tax-exempt criteria requires that a group's "primary" function and activities not be political in nature.
Since news of the IRS targeting scandal broke this spring, the agency also argues that it has made significant progress in sifting through a backlog of groups — including the Tea Party Patriots — that have been waiting years for a decision.
As of last week, the IRS said, it has closed 64 percent of outstanding cases and approved 65 of 85 organizations for 501(c)(4) status.
But for the groups still awaiting approval, last week's letter represents nothing more than a delaying tactic, said Jenny Beth Martin, president and co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots.
Reviewing information on the group's activities in the 2012 election cycle pushes an IRS decision even farther down the road. It also raises the possibility that the organization's future efforts, including in the upcoming 2014 political contests, also will be subject to detailed review as part of a never-ending approval process.
"What that letter said to me is, 'We got away with discriminating against you and we're not stopping.' [The letter] comes as a complete surprise," Ms. Martin said.
On Thursday, the IRS said it couldn't comment specifically on the Tea Party Patriots case, but did defend its information-gathering efforts and argued that it has made great strides in its tax-exempt approval process.
"There are instances when IRS must seek more information before we can determine if an organization's application for tax-exempt status meets the necessary legal requirements," the agency said in a statement. "Effort and care has been taken to limit the number and nature of these follow-up questions to focus only on the information that we need in order to properly evaluate the application."
The agency also referred back to an Aug. 9 statement from acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel, who said that political campaign intervention will be reviewed without regard to specific "labels," indicating that tea party or other conservative groups no longer will face extra scrutiny.
In its attempts to clear the backlog of agencies awaiting tax-exempt status, the IRS in June — after news of its political targeting had come to light — offered a deal to organizations such as the Tea Party Patriots.
In exchange for agreeing that no more than 40 percent of its "spending and time" would be related to political campaigns, a group's tax-exempt application would be expedited.
The Tea Party Patriots has yet to accept that deal, and Ms. Martin said it has no intention of doing so.
"I'm being punished because I didn't take them up on their made-up expedited process," she said.
Twenty-nine applicants have taken part in that process in recent months, according to the IRS.
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