The IRS Just Handed the Tea Party Its Biggest Victory Yet

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 13 2013 7:05 PM

Just 55 Questions, Ma’am

How the IRS just handed the Tea Party its biggest victory yet.

Tea Party member William Temple holds court during the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference.
Tea Party member William Temple holds court during CPAC in March.

Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call

Tom Zawistowski lived the classic Tea Party origin story. He started a business. He raised a family. Then came 2009 and the Obama presidency, and he discovered politics from the couch of his Portage County, Ohio, home.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

“Quite frankly my wife and I were apolitical people,” he remembers. “Glenn Beck was on TV, and we were learning things we didn't know. There was a Tea Party rally scheduled in Cleveland, and the local media was bagging on them. If nobody showed up at the rally, it really would have hurt, you know? So we called every registered voter in Portage County, and people showed up.”

One meeting at a Cracker Barrel later and boom, a local Tea Party group was born. As it grew, it got happily ensnarled with politics. “We were handling money,” says Zawistowski. “We were taking bus trips. We talked to lawyers, and they told us that we’d have to apply for 501(c)(4) status,” which would make the Portage Tea Party a charitable organization. “We filled out the 1024 forms, like we were supposed to. We were supposed to hear back in 90 days.”


Thus began the saga that would, incredibly, make the universally despised Internal Revenue Service even more despised. Zawistowski was one of many amateur Tea Party activists who applied for tax exemptions and received lengthy questionnaires, containing up to 55 questions  about possible political activity, asking them to prove that they were clean. According to an Inspector General’s report, due this week but leaked to the Associated Press, dozens of groups with “patriot” or “Tea Party” in their names were given the same Room 101 treatment.

Zawistowski, who’s now with the Ohio Liberty Coalition, has been busily sharing the letters the IRS was sending around. All of them were sent long after the groups asked to be considered. “We contacted them in 2010,” he says. “The first we heard from them was in a letter dated January 25, 2012, asking for the answers—get this—by February 16.”  Toby Walker, performing the same task for the Waco Tea Party in Texas, says it took “eight to 10 months” to answer all of the questions.

That’s easy to believe. A typical letter looked like the one sent to the Ohio-based Liberty Township Tea Party—35 questions, most of them with multiple sections. Question 3: "Provide details regarding all of your activity on Facebook or Twitter." Question 5 asked for biographies of “each past or present board member, officer, key employee, and members of their families,” to check whether any of these people might run for office, or might have filed a 501(c)(4) request for somebody else. Question 12 asked for a tally of all activity ever engaged in by the group, by percentage, adding helpfully that the “total of all activities should equal 100 percent.” Question 34 asked for “copies of articles printed or transcripts of items aired” if the Tea Party had been covered by the media.

“I’ve got to write this down when we’re done, write down that I talked to you,” laughs Tim Savaglio of the Liberty Township Tea Party. “We have to submit this interview to the IRS, for approval!”



Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.