Conservative Groups Targeted by IRS Disclose Invasive Questions and Demand Accountability

(Photo: Shutterstock.com)

Since the IRS’s shocking news that it had been targeting conservative groups regarding their tax-exempt status, which it apologized for Friday, the “inappropriately flagged” victims have been coming out of the woodwork, explaining the level to which they were asked “invasive” questions leading to what some considered “political persecution.”

The founder of one such group — the Citizen Awareness Project — told TheBlaze Wednesday that his group had been targeted by the IRS as late as 2013, as his group responded to its questionnaire just a few weeks ago. Charlie Smith said the questions posed by the IRS included asking for everything from books they read to transcripts of media interviews and phone calls. He said they have spent thousands of dollars in legal costs “running through IRS hoops” as they pulled together information they needed to supply.

As an attorney based in Colorado, Smith said he has helped other nonprofits go through the process with their 1024 applications, but not like this.

Ultimately, he said the group, which according to its Facebook page is “a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to advocating for conservative policy solutions,” tried to comply with the IRS’ requests as best as it could. But he called the questions and inclusion that answers need be complete under penalty of perjury “intimidation tactics.”

“In all likelihood no one kept complete records” like those at the level being asked for by the IRS, Smith said.

Citizen Awareness Project’s first red flag regarding the IRS’ activity didn’t start with its probing questions into operations. Smith said they first became suspicious when they received a call from the IRS admitting they had illegally disclosed their application to a group. He said the IRS wouldn’t tell them when their information had been given up or to whom, but they later found out.

As TheBlaze reported Tuesday, ProPublica acknowledged that it had illegally been given applications for several organizations. It had received 31 applications from the IRS in its request for a total of 67 to expose “how dozens of social-welfare nonprofits had misled the IRS about their political activity on their applications and tax returns.” But nine of these were not yet approved applications, which means their information wasn’t yet public and the IRS never should have released it in the first place.

Combining this disclosure with the IRS questions, some of which he called “invasive,” Smith said his reaction was “it’s too much of a coincidence.” Smith said he believes the IRS “knew what they were doing” when they gave documents that should’t have been disclosed to ProPublica, which he called “left-leaning.”

Watch this report out of CBS Denver, which includes an interview with Smith:

Former board member and current active member of the Liberty Township Tea Party in Ohio, Mark Etterling, said the targeting from which many have been reeling for less than a week is something his group has known for the last three years.

Etterling pointed TheBlaze to a letter filled with questions for the group seeking 501(c)3 status sent from the IRS’ Cincinnati office in March 2011. Two provisions the group found questionable, among others, were related to a local group called EmpowerU and a reference regarding their relationship with Justin Binks-Thomas, the former leader of the Cincinnati Tea Party.

Conservative Groups Targeted by IRS Disclose Invasive Questions and Demand Accountability

The John Weld Peck Federal Building, shown Tuesday, May 14, 2013, in Cincinnati, houses the main offices for the Internal Revenue Service in the city. The IRS apologized Friday for what it acknowledged was “inappropriate” targeting of conservative political groups during the 2012 election to see whether they were violating their tax-exempt status. In some cases, the IRS acknowledged, agents inappropriately asked for lists of donors. The agency blamed low-level employees in a Cincinnati office, saying no high-level officials were aware. (Photo: AP/Al Behrman)

Current board member for the Liberty Township Tea Party Tim Savaglio told TheBlaze the group never received training, as indicated in the IRS letter, from EmpowerU nor did it have any affiliation with Binks-Thomas. The only thing Savaglio said he could think of is that Binks-Thomas’ group EmpowerU was hosting an event, which the Liberty Township Tea Party posted on their website, much like it could post an upcoming festival or movie date.

Binks-Thomas, speaking with Politico, too said he had no connection with this group:

[...] Binik-Thomas said it was a chilling experience when the Liberty group told him his name was in their letter — because now he wonders what else the IRS has in store for him.

“Will my personal taxes get audited? Will my small-business taxes get audited? Am I a pawn to try to get at another group?” Binik-Thomas asked.

“There are a lot of people involved in the tea party. Why was I isolated from thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people? Why was I singled out?”

Savaglio also noted how the IRS called out Liberty Township Tea Party’s outreach program for local youth.

“We offered a class to 10th grade students in 2010 …is that a threat?” Savaglio said. “I don’t think so.”

The questions didn’t stop with this one letter either. Etterling said follow-up questions continued and no matter how much they group complied, “it didn’t matter.”

“We knew they were playing games with us at that point,” Etterling said, noting they still have a pending status and are in a “limbo” state.

But why did the group comply with these types of questions in the first place? Savaglio said they were just providing they information they had to in order to get the status they wanted.

“We just need to tell the truth and let the truth speak for itself,” Savaglio said. “I have given [the IRS] the benefit of the doubt, but no more.”

Both members of both groups said they hope someone is held accountable and that policy be instituted prevent such targeting in the future.

“Where is the press release? Where is the proactive effort by the IRS?” Smith asked. “People involved need to be terminated [and there needs to be] new policy to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the first of those terminations happened as President Obama announced his administration asked for and received the resignation of acting IRS head Steven Miller.

Still, Smith said he hopes his stepping forward doesn’t lead to someone seeking retribution against granting the group official 501(c)4 status, which is still pending for the Citizen Awareness Project and many others.

“Clearly, they were trying to chill free speech here,” Smith said, including that some groups have just stopped trying to funnel through their application in the face of IRS audits.

Savaglio said while in the Air Force for 34 years, he kept his political opinions to himself.

“But I did that so when I was in the civilian world, I could have opinions,” he said.

Savaglio too said that he hopes the entire nonprofit process is examined.

“Why is it that I can’t open a 501(c)3 but Media Matters, Moveon.org can operate with impunity?” Savaglio questioned.

Related: