And that was a standard demand, from letter to letter. There’s nothing shocking about a new organization jumping through flaming hoops in order to win tax-exempt status. What’s shocking is the timing and the IRS’s odd focus on these conservative groups. To a man, small-scale Tea Party organizers report a very slow approval process taking place through most of 2010 and 2011, followed by an early 2012 letter making two or three dozen asks. The existence of those letters was reported at the time and flagged by Republican members of Congress.
Why wasn’t that controversial at the time? You could blame a pliant media, or you could point out that Democrats had been talking openly about the need to crack down on political groups that won 501(c)(4) status. In 2010 and 2012, the White House and Democratic groups warned voters that these groups were hoarding money from secret donors. Americans for Prosperity, chaired and funded to some degree by David Koch, won tax exemption in 2004 and went on to spend tens of millions of dollars on campaign ads. In their yearly reports, this wasn’t campaign money; it was money spent to “educate U.S. citizens about the impact of sound economy policy on the nation's economy and social structure.”
The IRS didn’t investigate Americans for Prosperity. According to Politico’s Ken Vogel and Tarini Parti, it didn’t even call them.* Instead, it issued those letters to Tea Party groups. If there was a strategy, if the IRS was responding to calls from Democrats to crack down on nonprofit politics, it may have been to get at the big guys by nailing the pygmies. On Monday, AFP provided a redacted letter sent to one Tea Party group that asked (in Question 6) for copies of “any contracts” or “training material” the group had exchanged with the Koch’s Death Star.
And that’s giving the IRS an awful lot of credit. The agency’s infamously better at nailing small-time scofflaws than nailing the ones that can hire top attorneys. Maybe it was just following the usual script. The Richmond (Va.) Tea Party, one of the fastest-growing groups of the movement’s early days, spent at least $15,000 on attorney’s fees even before the giant questionnaire arrived.
“Because of what the Richmond Tea Party went through, other Tea Parties were very conscientious about forming a different path,” says Jaime Radtke, who led the Richmond Tea Party for a few years before leaving to run for the U.S. Senate. “Imagine that people are donating to a group because it may become a nonprofit. What happens at the end of the day if it isn’t approved? Are we obligated to turn the donors’ names over, after they thought they were confidential? Are we going to have to all of a sudden file back taxes?”
Actually, the Richmond Tea Partiers passed their test. So did the Waco Tea Party. These were sweet victories. They pale next to the victory the IRS just handed the Tea Party—a yearlong, real-time campaign to prove that they were right about the government. It’s dumb and lumbering, and it’s out to get them.
"When the American people read the questions that were asked of these liberty groups," says Tom Zawistowski, "they will be outraged. They will bring up the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Those are the closest examples. That's how bad this is."
Correction, May 14, 2013: This article originally misspelled Tarini Parti's last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)