An Ohio Republican congressman says he is concerned that the IRS targeted more than just tax-exempt groups based on their political beliefs, and that one of the groups singled out for extra scrutiny by the IRS was an Ohio-based taxable nonprofit.
“We are only scratching the surface of where this goes,” said Rep. Pat Tiberi of suburban Columbus, a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee.
At a hearing of the committee Tuesday, Tiberi said he’d recently been contacted by Columbus lawyer Bill Todd who reported that “We the People Convention Inc.,” an organization headed by Portage County Tea Party Executive Director Tom Zawistowski, had had its tax return rejected in April.
The reason? The IRS told them they were a political organization, and had filed their tax returns using the wrong set of tax documents.
But Todd said the group, which has organized two conventions to date, doesn’t endorse political candidates, doesn’t give financial support to candidates, and does little more than serve as a corporate vehicle to handle money for the convention, which focuses on conservative issues.
“We educated on how things work,” Zawistowski said. “It really wasn’t political in nature as in electing people or trying to do things with raising money for candidates. That wasn’t the case at all. It was really, truly educational.”
With the advice of Todd, the organization filed as a corporation. The group prepared its taxes in February, and at the end of April, got a letter from the IRS: The tax agency was rejecting the organization’s return, arguing it was a political organization and needed to file on a different type of tax form.
But Todd said the only reason the IRS would’ve concluded that the organization was political was because of its name. “Somebody came to the conclusion — and this is a completely separate branch of the IRS — that because of the name “We the People Convention” it had to be a political organization.”
He said the scrutiny flies in the face of arguments that targeting of conservative organizations only occurred in the tax-exempt branch in Cincinnati.
“Clearly this is a trigger that they were using inside the IRS,” he said.
Tiberi brought up the anecdote as part of a sweeping hearing on the IRS’s handling of tax-exempt organizations. The head of the agency’s tax-exempt division apologized last month for giving extra scrutiny to organizations with the phrases “Tea Party” and “Patriot” in their titles.
Among those testifying Tuesday was Becky Gerritson of the Wetumpka Tea Party in Wetumpka, Ala., who said it took 635 days for the IRS to give her organization tax-exempt status — and only after it asked a long list of questions about donors, volunteers and detailed contents of all forums and speeches.
She called the questions “a willful act of intimidation to discourage a point of view.”
“What the government did to our little group in Wetumpka, Ala., is un-American,” she said.
Democrats on the panel said they couldn’t condone the targeting, but argued that the issue has become a “political circus.”
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., said while the IRS actions were “inept” and “stupid,” it was not malicious. “What happened to you was unfair and incredibly inconvenient,” he said, “but it was a mistake.”
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., argued that similar targeting had occurred during the Bush administration. “This has nothing to do with red versus blue,” he said.