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!”
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’ odd focus on these conservative groups. To a person, 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 Parsi, 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, Americans for Prosperity 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 is 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.”
David Weigel is a columnist for Slate.