Before there were the lost Lerner emails, the congressional hearings and the retaliatory budget cuts, there was the Albuquerque Tea Party, a group of politically minded folks in New Mexico who wanted to get together and share ideas for taking back their country. The IRS had other ideas about them.
Five years after the Albuquerque Tea Party applied for tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, they remain in limbo — their application apparently no closer to being approved or denied than it was the day they mailed it to the IRS on Dec. 29, 2009.
They have watched as other groups have been approved in less time, and they say they are mystified as to why the application has been held up so long, after they provided hundreds of pages of evidence and documents that the IRS requested.
“If the IRS, with its massive staff, read only 1/2 of a page daily of all the paperwork we have had to send them, they could have read it all three years ago,” Rick Harbaugh, secretary of the board of the Albuquerque group, said in an email describing his group’s five-year battle with the tax agency.
Worse yet, he said, they still don’t know why they were targeted in the first place, and every explanation from the IRS — that the targeting was by low-level employees in Ohio, for example — has been wrong. Mr. Harbaugh said they have letters from the Treasury Department saying their file was being reviewed in Washington.
The targeting exploded onto front pages in May 2013 after Lois G. Lerner, head of a division charged with scrutinizing applications for tax-exempt status, planted a question at a law forum so she could break news of the activity.
SEE ALSO: Christine O’Donnell, tea party figure, says IRS mistakenly placed levy on bank account
She was trying to beat an inspector general’s report due out a few days later, which said the IRS singled out hundreds of conservative and tea party groups for intrusive scrutiny and refused to approve those applications, which had piled up for years.
In the 20 months since, most groups whose applications were held up have been approved. They include the NE Tarrant Tea Party in Tarrant, Texas, which was approved in December after a four-year wait.
Julie McCarty, an official with NE Tarrant, said the organization learned about its approval from its attorney at the American Center for Law and Justice.
It’s unclear what triggered the IRS to approve the group after years of waiting. Ms. McCarty said the most recent reply to the IRS included nearly 600 pages of documents submitted a year and a half ago.
“All the back and forth questions were just stall tactics,” she said in an email. “I mean, come on — they’ve been targeting us for four years.”
The IRS, citing taxpayer privacy laws, said it cannot comment on the delays in specific cases such as the Albuquerque Tea Party or NE Tarrant.
PHOTOS: 20 Age-Defying Celebrities
In its latest public data on the tea party targeting scandal, from just before Christmas, the agency said nine organizations that were part of the initial backlog of 145 targeted groups were still awaiting final decisions.
Of the 136 cases that had been cleared, 104 of them were approved. The others were a mix of groups that withdrew their applications — often citing the long wait — or groups that didn’t respond to IRS questions, which the agency took as an indication that they were no longer seeking tax-exempt status.
As of April, the agency had formally denied three of the applicants after years of waiting.
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told Congress that the remaining cases were usually because the taxpayer group asked for more time or filed a lawsuit against the IRS.
The Albuquerque Tea Party is part of a lawsuit against the IRS — but so was NE Tarrant Tea Party, which received its approval after years of waiting, so it’s unclear what the difference was for the IRS.
Soon after the scandal went public in 2013, the IRS offered the targeted tea party groups a deal: Agree to keep overt political activity to less than 40 percent of what they do and the agency would approve them. Forty-three groups chose to accept that deal, but the ACLJ and other attorneys advised their clients not to take it, saying it would have meant giving up their rights.
Conservative groups argue that under current interpretation of the law and regulations, tax-exempt organizations are allowed to conduct politics as long as it represents less than half of their activities.
The agency in late 2013 also tried to impose rules on 501(c )(4) groups to further limit their activities, including prohibitions on inviting federal officeholders to speak to groups, printing voter guides or conducting voter registration drives.
In the face of tens of thousands of adverse comments from across the political spectrum, the agency put that effort on hold. Mr. Koskinen, however, vowed to try again early this year, though with both chambers of Congress firmly in the hands of the Republican Party, he may have a tougher time getting those rules through congressional scrutiny.
Republicans in Congress have vowed to continue investigating the IRS targeting. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, under new Chairman Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican; the Senate Finance Committee under new Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican; and the House Ways and Means Committee under new Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, all said they remain on the case.
The Finance Committee is awaiting final word from the inspector general about which of Ms. Lerners’ emails have been recovered, while a senior House source said the Ways and Means Committee will begin to look at how the IRS chooses whom it audits. That would expand the tea party probe beyond initial applications for tax-exempt status.
The IRS has assured a federal court that it is no longer targeting, and a judge has agreed. He denied a request from tea party groups to issue an order banning future targeting.
But Mr. Harbaugh said it’s difficult to see how the targeting is over given his own experience.
Mr. Harbaugh said his group filed the paperwork for its application on Dec. 29, 2009. On April 21, 2010, it received a two-page, 10-question reply asking for documents on the group’s activities, including copies of its Web page, newsletters and brochures, and handouts and minutes from meetings.
In November 2011, the IRS fired back with a round of 17 more questions, seeking much of the same data for the two years that had elapsed while the IRS delayed the application. Several other rounds of back-and-forth followed, including the 2013 offer to agree to the 40 percent rule. The Albuquerque Tea Party rejected that offer and has been waiting ever since.