The Common Sense Campaign, a self-described constitutionalist group based in Montgomery, Ala., aspired to be a smaller version of the National Rifle Association — powerful and influential, without having to pay federal income taxes.
“We wanted to have a voice too,” said the group’s chairman, Pete Riehm. “The biggest difference between us and them is money.”
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.
Groups with the word “progressive” in their names suffered no similar slowdown. The number of approvals for those groups increased each year, from 17 in 2009 to 30 in 2012, the data show.
Lois G. Lerner, who heads the IRS’s tax-exemption division, described the targeting campaign as a misguided attempt to deal with a wave of applications after the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited sums on politics. That decision and others led to a frenzy of spending by independent groups, surpassing $1 billion in 2012.
IRS standards are vague regarding how much political activity is allowed for nonprofit groups. They are generally not allowed to endorse candidates or directly participate in political campaigns, although they may influence elections through limited issue advertising and other efforts.
The case of Alabama’s Common Sense Campaign illustrates the challenges. Riehm, the group’s chairman, acknowledged that his organization has had favorite candidates, but it has not endorsed anyone directly.
The group felt strongly, for example, about Constitution Party candidate Bill Atkinson, who was defeated in a 2011 special election for a seat in the Alabama House of Representatives. Some of the group’s members worked on Atkinson’s campaign, Riehm said.
“He was very conservative, and the right kind of guy we wanted,” Riehm said.
Riehm said the group’s interaction with the IRS was filled with difficulties. Group officials said they first got the runaround and then were told that their file had been misplaced.
“The lady I spoke with was very rude and said they would get in touch when they’re ready,” said Callie Goodrum, an administrator for the group. “Two or three months later I called again, and she said our file had been totally lost and we would have to refile.”
Another IRS representative contacted Common Sense Campaign officials, telling them they would have to provide more information about the group’s activities: any candidate endorsements or comparisons, details of mobilization efforts, how much time was devoted to such activities and who would benefit from them.
The case handler also asked about the group’s political affiliations, Goodrum said. “He asked point-blank if we were a tea party group,” she said. “He said he saw on our Web site that we teach about the Constitution, and that’s when he asked.”
Many conservative groups say they refrained from applying for tax-exempt status because they had heard similar accounts from like-minded organizations.
“It was just horror story after horror story,” said Jeff Reuer, former chairman of South Carolina’s Goose Creek 9-12 Project. “People told us, if we weren’t on the IRS’s radar, we should hold off applying.”
The South Carolina group has yet to decide whether it will apply for tax-exempt status, Reuer said. He said the group focuses on voter registration efforts and state and local issues and does not support or endorse candidates.
Not all the groups caught up in the targeting campaign were clearly conservative. Several journalism-related groups, including one based in San Francisco and another that produced stories for the New York Times, said they experienced delays and scrutiny from 2010 to 2012.
James O’Shea, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, applied in 2010 for nonprofit status for the Chicago News Cooperative. He said he waited about a year before the agency sent a series of questionnaires asking the group to document its activities. He sent stacks of documents to the IRS and waited again.
After a long delay, O’Shea said, he received a series of questionnaires asking the group to document and describe all of its activities.
But then the donations began to dry up. “Donors want you to get your nonprofit status at some point,” he said. “We never got approval because we got caught up in that same kind of scrutiny. It didn’t really have much to do with liberal or conservative, it seems.”
The cooperative shut down in 2012.
Juliet Eilperin and Dan Keating contributed to this report.
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