Tea party leaders say IRS scrutiny proves government is too powerful

Published: Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 4:10 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 4:10 p.m.

Far from being outraged that the IRS has singled out tea party groups for scrutiny, North Florida tea party leaders say they feel vindicated by the agency’s efforts.

Tea party presidents in Gainesville, Ocala and Jacksonville say the controversy proves what they’ve been saying all along — that the federal government has grown too powerful and has no qualms about using its power to silence political dissension.

“Even though I hate to see it happening, what it does is illustrate that the government will stop at nothing for its own gain,” said Laurie Newsom, president of the Gainesville Tea Party. “It illustrates that no one, not corporations or other entities, has police power. When the government starts going rogue, it’s a problem because they have resources for controlling the people that no one else has.”

IRS officials have acknowledged that organizations applying for tax-exempt status during the 2012 election season were singled out for extra scrutiny if they had “tea party” or “patriot” in their titles. The agency has apologized and insisted the practice was not politically motivated.

Tea party leaders scoff at such suggestions.

“They validated our purpose,” said Stephen Hunter, president of Tea Party Solutions in Ocala. “Like we say, the good thing about Obama is that he awakened the country to what’s going on in our government.”

But unlike other tea party groups that drew IRS scrutiny, the Gainesville and Ocala tea parties did not. That’s because neither applied for tax-exempt status.

“The reason we did that is to protect ourselves from attacks that might be coming from the other political spectrum that might accuse us of not paying sales tax on T-shirt sales and other merchandise that we sell,” Newsom said. “We weren’t thinking we’d needed to protect ourselves against the IRS.”

One area group that did get the agency’s attention is First Coast Tea Party in Jacksonville.

Executive Director Leanne King said shortly after First Coast applied for tax-exempt status in 2010, the IRS sent a letter demanding answers to questions about the group’s activities, along with documentation of its efforts.

King said the IRS was trying to determine whether the Tea Party was political in nature, or whether, as the group contends, its mission was based in education and advocacy.

The letter asked whether the group endorsed political candidates. But it also asked for documentation of all its events, past and future, and copies of all its literature, along with detailed accounts of all the speeches made at its events over time.

King said the First Coast Tea Party enlisted volunteers to gather all the documentation required, and had to put it all together in three weeks at the insistence of the agency.

“We sent four pounds of paper off in response to their questions,” she said, “Then they sent another letter asking for clarification and we sent off another pound of paper. We were thinking that this is such a drain on the organization, which is made up of volunteers anyway. So you wonder whether they were just trying to throw us off our focus during the election season, but we didn’t allow that to happen.”

First Coast Tea Party received its tax-exempt status on Nov. 18, 2012, 18 months after it first applied, King said.

King said the agency inquiry has strengthened the group’s cause.

“I told someone that we really need to be thanking President Obama for this because the tea party has finally gained some legitimacy,” she said. “I’m disappointed in the direction this country’s going, but I’m glad this is coming to a head now.”

Tea party leaders acknowledge they have strong political views but insist those views are non-partisan.

While they routinely call out politicians by name and blast government policies, they avoid endorsing candidates for election and don’t support political campaigns monetarily, they say.

“What we will do is say that this candidate comes closest to our views,” said Newsom, of the Gainesville Tea Party. “If you want to call that an endorsement, so be it.”

Much of their effort is also directed toward what they classify as educational efforts. Tea parties often hold forums on topics like the U.S. Constitution and government history, for instance, almost always to illustrate how governments have strayed from the principles outlined in the Constitution.

To Newsom, the IRS controversy and the more recent revelation that the FBI collected the phone records of Associated Press reporters to find the identity of the news organization’s source on a story, proves that.

“People are understanding now what we’ve been discovering the past four years,” she said. “I really hate to be validated, but hey, we have an opportunity to fix it.”

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