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Tuesday
May142013

IRS Asked Tea Party Groups About Political Views

Comstock Images/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- When Jennifer Stefano of suburban Philadelphia tried to start a tea party group, the Internal Revenue Service sent her so many questions that she figured it was easier to quit.

"In the documents that were sent to me, if you did not tell the whole truth by not putting all your personal information out there by Facebook, by Twitter, of your personal relationship with candidates and parties...it could be considered perjury and perjury carried jail time," Stefano, 39, told ABC News.

"That was frightening and that's why I shut it down. I shut my group down," she said.

Stefano is among dozens of tea party organizers who received extra scrutiny from the IRS -- 75 in 2012, by the agency's own admission -- as officials sought to investigate the tax-exempt applications of conservative groups.

Faced with questions about their donors, members and -- in at least one case -- views on issues, tea partiers say they were mistreated by the IRS because of their political views.

The agency last week apologized for targeting conservative groups with names involving "tea party" and "patriots" for extra scrutiny of their applications for nonprofit, tax-exempt 501(c)4 filing status.  A forthcoming Inspector General report reveals that the targeting was more widespread and was happening earlier.

In letters obtained by ABC News, the Internal Revenue Service asked detailed questions of local tea party groups from 2010 to 2012.

"The reason for this attack by the IRS on the tea party was to make sure we were not as effective in 2012 as we were in 2010, and that's what they did," said Tom Zawistowski, former president of the Ohio Liberty Coalition.

Zawistowski told ABC News that after applying for tax-exempt status in 2010, he heard nothing from the IRS until February 2012, when he received a lengthy questionnaire.

He wrote back to the IRS, refusing to answer the questions and suggesting they were politically motivated.  Zawistowski heard from other groups who had received similar questionnaires and worked with the American Center for Law and Justice to coordinate their communication with the IRS.

"There's a name for that -- it's called 'opposition research,'" Zawistowski said of the questions IRS was asking, which included information on the groups with which his group associated.

The IRS asked another Ohio tea party organization, the Liberty Township Tea Party, about its political views and relationships with an individual and another group.

"Provide a list of all issues that are important to your organization.  Indicate your position regarding each issue," the IRS commanded in a letter with 35 questions, many including between three and six bullet-pointed subquestions.

"Provide details regarding your relationship with Justin Bink-Thomas," a Cincinnati-area activist, the letter also instructed.  "Provide information regarding the Butler County Teen Age Republicans and your relationship."

In questionnaires sent to other groups in February 2012, most of which are similar, the IRS demanded information on group members who helped set up events, on employees and recipients of money, and for the names of donors and how much they gave to the groups.

Several groups say they were finally granted 501(c)4 status in 2012 or later.

In the meantime, the paperwork and uncertainty were burdensome, organizers say, some complaining they spent hundreds of hours answering the IRS' questions.  Activists told ABC News of thick binders and stacks of paper hundreds of sheets high, saved in their offices, of multi-year IRS correspondence.

"It's just hundreds of hours and plenty of money, and this was not something any American would want to have to deal with," said Larry Nordvig, executive director of the Richmond Tea Party, who joined the group earlier this year after its IRS saga was over.

After launching in 2009, the group was asked a series of questions by the IRS in September 2010, and even more in January 2012, before receiving its tax-exempt status that summer.

"There's like 500 pages of stuff back and forth," Nordvig told ABC.  "There was kind of a cloud over us. ... It did curtail the things we could do.  We could not go outside the IRS rules.  Tax-exempt status allows you to do certain things, and we did not go outside them."

Issue-advocacy groups often apply for 501(c)4 status because it allows them to conduct political activity like campaigning for and against candidates, as long as it's not their primary purpose.  Had the groups been designated under section 501(c)3 by the IRS, they would be restricted in when and how they could mention political candidates.  On the other hand, if they were designated under section 527, they would have to disclose their donors.

"I think it was totally unnecessary, I mean we were not different from any other 501(c)3 or (c), out there, and I think there was a reason why they chose to pick on the Tea Parties, because they didn't want us to have an impact," said Margie Dresher, who launched the OKC Tea Party in Oklahoma City in 2009.

She heard nothing from the IRS until she received a questionnaire in February 2012, then finally received tax-exempt status in July 2012.

"Maybe it was a scare tactic, I don't know," Dresher said.

As for Stefano, who now works for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, she wants an investigation that goes all the way to the top, comparing the scandal to Watergate: "It became very frightening, the IRS has the power to target the political opposition of a sitting president."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio