WASHINGTON—Putting human faces to the ongoing Internal Revenue Service scandal, leaders of Tea Party and social conservative groups appeared before members of Congress on Tuesday, recounting how the IRS delayed their tax-exempt applications and bombarded them with questions and demands that threatened their constitutional rights.
The ground-level details of harassment and stonewalling came on the same day a government audit revealed that the IRS spent $49 million in taxpayer money to pay for 225 conferences between 2010 and 2102, including $4.1 million on a single conference.
In short, Tuesday was another bad day for the agency that is stereotypically known for giving bad days to other organizations and individuals.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., said the IRS targeting of conservative groups and individuals created a “culture of political intimidation and discrimination.” Camp said lawmakers are still trying to discover how widespread the activity was, who ordered it, and how it started.
The witnesses who testified on Tuesday, according to Camp, represented but “a small sample of Americans who have been treated differently … because of their individual, deeply held beliefs. There are many, many more.”
The groups here Tuesday included three Tea Party organizations, a pro-life group, a national group promoting traditional marriage, and an organization dedicated to teaching principles of liberty to seventh-grade students.
The leaders of these groups recounted the odysseys and roadblocks they faced from the IRS. Those applying for tax-exempt status went long spells without hearing from the IRS and then received what Camp called “onerous and intrusive questionnaires” from IRS agents across the country.
Those additional forms requested such information as: copies of Facebook and Twitter activities; whether past or present employees of family members planned to run for office; lists of personal information for donors, board members, and volunteers; resumes of all past and present employees; and detailed accounting of their interaction with the media. These requests went above and beyond the normal application process for tax-exempt status, forcing the groups to devote more time, incur additional costs, and endure extra stress.
“The questions were chilling, I was shocked that I was being asked," said Becky Gerritson, the president of Wetumpka Tea Party, based in Alabama. Gerritson fought back tears as she recounted how it took 635 days for her group to get tax-exempt approval. The IRS cashed her $850 application check in seven days.
“I’m telling my government that you have forgotten your place,” Gerritson said. “I’m not interested in scoring political points. I want to protect and preserve the America that I grew up in … and I’m terrified that it is slipping away.”
Two groups testifying on Capitol Hill recently recounted their stories to WORLD: The National Organization for Marriage had their confidential donor information leaked to a rival while the IRS wanted the Coalition for Life of Iowa to swear that they would not picket or pray outside of the local Planned Parenthood.
“We never thought we would have to defend our prayer activities,” said Susan Martinek with the Iowa pro-life group. “As Christians we knew we needed to pray for a better solution to unplanned pregnancy than abortion, why not at the source?”
Three witnesses testified that they had received letters directly from Lois Lerner, the IRS official in charge of the tax-exempt division. She has refused to testify before Congress and has been placed on paid administrative leave.
The San Fernando Valley Patriots of California got a follow-up inquiry from the IRS asking 35 additional questions broken into 80 sub-questions.
“My personal favorite was question No. 33, which in relation to protests asked for a listing of our ‘committed violations of local ordinances, breaches of public order or arrests’ then requested details on how we ‘conduct or promote’ illegal activities,” said Karen Kenney with the California-based group. She said she decided to stop seeking tax-exempt status and “survive on my credit cards and donations in our cake tin.”
Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., said the witnesses are “owed an apology” by the IRS. But Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., suggested that the groups brought this ordeal upon themselves by applying for a tax break.
“If you didn’t come in and ask for this tax break, you never would have had a question asked of you,” he said. “I get the feeling that many of you, and my Republican colleagues, believe that you should be free from any scrutiny at all.”
Republicans on the committee countered that the groups were well within their rights because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such groups can apply for tax-exempt status.
“It is the law of the land,” said Rep. Dave Reichert, noting that Democrats might not like that Supreme Court decision the same way Republicans might not like the court’s decision upholding Obamacare.
While lawmakers debated one another at the hearing, the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration released an audit on the agency’s elaborate conferences. The 225 events with a taxpayer price tag of $49 million included the budget for elaborate video skits complete with sets and staring IRS employees dressed up as characters from Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island.
A 2010 conference for 2,600 IRS employees held in Anaheim, Calif., included 15 guest speakers who were paid a combined $135,350. One speaker got $14,000 to talk about “how seemingly random combinations of ideas can drive radical innovations.” Another speaker received $17,000 for painting six portraits of famous people at two sessions.
The audit says that the IRS did not negotiate for lower hotel rates and event planners were paid $66,500 in commission from the hotels. IRS staffers took three pre-conference planning trips to California, costing about $35,800. The IRS forked over more than $30,000 for 45 IRS employees who lived in the local area to stay at the hotels.
And with the IRS blaming the targeting of conservative groups partly on an overworked, undermanned staff, the audit found that about $3.2 million of the conference budget came from dollars earmarked for hiring.