When the chairman of one of the tea party groups targeted by the IRS for special scrutiny saw the agency's questions, his first thought was that the queries were so outrageous that the Obama administration was engaging in campaign opposition research.
Tom Zawistowski, head of the Portage County Tea Party in Ohio, said when his group applied to the Internal Revenue Service for tax-exempt status, it was asked to print out every posting it ever made on its Facebook page and to turn over the names of every person who spoke at its meetings, along with topics, transcripts and handout materials.
"I'll tell you flat-out, I got the letter and the first thing I thought was, 'This is opposition research. This doesn't have anything to do with tax status, it doesn't even have anything to do with political activity," he said.
"Look at all the questions — they never ask us anything about political activity. They never say, 'Did you give money to a candidate or party?'" he said.
"So when I got it, I was thinking this is opposition research. They're coming after us in Ohio this year and they want to know how many people I have, who I have."
The Treasury inspector general for tax administration released an audit Tuesday that found the IRS gave special scrutiny to applications from groups that had "tea party" or "patriot" or "9/12" in their names — a move that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say appeared to chill First Amendment rights.
President Obama announced Wednesday night that the acting head of the IRS had resigned as a result of the scandal.
The IRS said it wasn't motivated by politics but rather by the flood of applications from groups that formed after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which opened up avenues for interest groups to have a voice in political debates — though they were still generally barred from donating directly to candidates for office.
Agency officials have said the extra scrutiny was their way of streamlining the processing of the flood of applications.
But Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who represents some of the organizations that were targeted, said that explanation makes no sense.
"Streamline? So you streamline by sending people requests and they have to submit 400 or 500 pages of stuff? That's streamlining?" she said.
She said the problem isn't just the intrusive questions, but also the delay in approving the applications. Groups that applied in 2009 and 2010 are still awaiting certificates showing their tax-exempt status, she said.
"This isn't in the past tense. This is all still going on," she said.
One of her organizations was asked 29 questions, including demands to provide: copies of bylaws; a resume for each organization officer; family relationships between officers; minutes of every board meeting; copies of all solicitations for money; a list of "all issues that are important to your organization" and their positions on them; a total number of volunteers and how they are used; and the amount of time spent on each activity.
Some organizations have given up and withdrawn their applications, while others said they opted not to apply after hearing about the scrutiny.
"There were already rumors in the mill to beware," said John Hull, chairman of the Summerville 9-12 Project in South Carolina, which is affiliated with the national Tea Party Patriots.
He said his group talked about the legitimacy that came with being tax-exempt, but members decided they didn't want the hassle or the potential harassment.
"We don't believe it's in our best interest to put a bull's-eye on our back," he said.
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