But Common Sense never reached the nonprofit stage. The organization gave up seeking tax-exempt status after two years of Internal Revenue Service demands for everything from the group’s blog posts to the names of “anyone who gave you so much as a dollar,” according to its officials.
“We were spending thousands of dollars between the filing fees and attorney fees,” Riehm said. “We realized that just paying the taxes would cost a whole lot less.”
Common Sense was one of scores of groups that faced months and even years of delays in seeking tax exemptions after the IRS started targeting groups with names containing “tea party,” “patriot” and other terms associated with conservatives. The practice, which appears to have lasted for about 18 months until early 2012, has set off a political firestorm in Washington and a criminal investigation by the FBI and the Justice Department.
Not only did IRS employees improperly target groups based on politics, but they also improperly demanded a host of details about the groups’ activities, according to a report on the abuses by a Treasury Department inspector general.
Some groups, including several interviewed by The Washington Post, were asked to provide names of donors or membership lists, which experts say the IRS cannot legally do. The agency also demanded names of board members, copies of meeting minutes and résumés, details of community organizing efforts and numerous other details, according to questionnaires obtained by The Post.
“It was pretty much a proctology exam through your earlobe,” said Karen L. Kenney, the coordinator for the San Fernando Valley Patriots, a tea party group in Southern California that was sent an IRS questionnaire with more than 100 questions on it.
The San Fernando group first submitted its application for nonprofit status in the fall of 2010, which was after the IRS’s Cincinnati-based “determination unit” had implemented its politically charged screening criteria. The group wrote the agency a $400 check to fast-track the process, but 19 months went by before the group heard anything, Kenney said.
That’s when the long list of questions arrived. Kenney said the group sent back a four-inch, seven-pound stack of documents before deciding that enough was enough. The group decided the questions were far too intrusive and could result in individual supporters being targeted.
“We couldn’t sic the IRS on our members,” Kenney said.
The delays were rampant. The inspector general found that “no work was completed on the majority of these applications for 13 months” while the “inappropriate criteria” were in place.
By 2011, after the criteria were put into effect, nonprofit approvals stopped entirely for groups whose names included “tea party” or “9/12,” a movement associated with conservative commentator Glenn Beck, according to a Post analysis of IRS data. After the criteria were revised in 2012, the backlog was broken and 27 groups with those names were approved, mostly in the second half of the year.