IRS scandal: Reinvigorated tea party eager to seize moment

With the Justice Department investigating whether IRS employees criminally misused their power by targeting conservative groups, tea party leaders see the scandal as a teaching tool about what tyranny looks like.

Al Behrman/AP
The John Weld Peck Federal Building, shown May 14 in Cincinnati, houses the main offices for the Internal Revenue Service in the city. The IRS apologized Friday for what it acknowledged was 'inappropriate' targeting of conservative political groups during the 2012 election to see whether they were violating their tax-exempt status.

Americans who snickered at the tea party movement’s warnings about the slow creep of tyranny may have paused this week after the IRS apologized for inappropriately giving special scrutiny to conservative groups.

“I told you so,” says Larry Nordvig, whose organization, the Richmond Tea Party, complained for two years about over-the-top scrutiny by the IRS. “It’s time to put the monster back in its cage.”

Attorney General Eric Holder has begun a probe into whether IRS employees criminally misused their power by unfairly targeting so-called “constitutional conservative” groups, and President Obama has called the practice “inexcusable.”

At the same time, the circumstances have breathed new life into the tea party, whose national support had dropped from 41 to 21 percent since 2011. The scandal has presented the movement in a largely sympathetic light, raising serious questions about the “tyranny” of Big Government and firing up a national debate about what The Boston Globe termed the “core principles” of a democracy.

More broadly, the IRS backlash also presents a unique moment, tea party activists say, to revive the brand and renew their current goals of educating Americans about the Constitution while working for a conservative majority in the Senate in order to defeat Obamacare.

“This is galvanizing; we’re sharpening our spears,” says Ron Hei, a tea party activist in Alabama whose organization has not sought tax-exempt status.

Most immediately, some groups targeted by the IRS have threatened to sue, and congressional testimony starting Friday is bound to raise the personal and political stakes for those involved, as well as keep the story on the evening news.

But the broader question tea party activists are asking is why groups arguing against Big Government were then targeted by said Big Government. The question of whether the IRS’s behavior constituted political bullying or not, activists say, could form the basis for a broader revival of the tea party’s antitax ideals, especially if the scandal can be used to raise more questions about the nature of Democratic leadership in Washington.

The IRS has denied that the special scrutiny was politically motivated. The problem, according to an Inspector General report issued Tuesday, is that groups espousing progressive causes were not targeted in the same way, creating at least the appearance of political motivation or direction.

“I think that Obama denying the whole thing and expressing feigned outrage is one more thing that makes me feel ill down to my shoes,” says Mr. Hei. “I don’t look at it as anything different than if some military organization took it upon themselves to go root out the people that weren’t agreeing with the current commander in chief, and taking them to FEMA camps – that’s the next step of what I’m seeing.”

In seeking 501(c)4 status, a group is asking to be exempt from taxes as a social welfare organization. Because some political activity is allowed, many so-called super PACs use the designation. The line of how much politics is too much politics is drawn by IRS agents.

According to the IRS Inspector General report, agents were concerned about a large number of applications and were mindful of warnings from Democratic Congressmen about some conservative groups being too political to qualify as tax exempt under 501(c) 4.

So from late-2009 to May 2012, IRS agents began to specifically target applications by flagging words like “patriot” and “tea party,” even the phrase “making America a better place to live.” The applicants were asked up to 53 “penalty of perjury” questions about Facebook posts, names of associates, books read, and even about their thoughts.

Ultimately, none of the applications were denied, but some are still pending. But the message to tea party activists was chilling, raising the specter of what Nordvig called an “enemies list.”

The agency blamed “low-level” employees in Cincinnati for the overreach, but according to the American Center for Law and Justice, internal IRS letters indicate that other offices were involved.

Meanwhile, some officials in Washington knew about the practice but did not alert Congress, despite having opportunities in hearings to do so, according to Republican aides briefed by the IRS and the Treasury inspector general for Tax Administration. Before last year’s election, then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman also insisted that there was “no targeting,” though senior IRS officials had been aware of the practice for over a year, the GOP aides reportedly said.

“Knowing what we know now,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah said in a statement, “the IRS was at best being far from forthcoming, or at worst, being deliberately dishonest with Congress.”

Whether the tea party will ultimately be revived by the IRS scandal is still an open question, but tea party activists say they hope that the flap has at the very least caused Americans to more seriously consider Thomas Jefferson’s warning that even the best government can be “perverted … into tyranny.”

“Right now the tea party is the conscience of the nation, that small still voice saying, ‘You’re off track, and this is the way back,’ ” says Nordvig.

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