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.
“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!”