Tea party groups in Tampa and statewide say they were targeted
by the Internal Revenue Service for what they consider excessive scrutiny when
they applied for tax-exempt status.
A Pinellas group was among those saying they gave up on the applications, or never applied, because of the onerous paperwork required.
"We have known this has been going on for nearly two years. The media didn't care," said Tom Gaitens of Apollo Beach, co-founder of the Tampa Tea Party, who compared the IRS actions to "Gestapo tactics."
The IRS director has resigned over the selective scrutiny of tea party-style groups, President Obama has decried the practice, and the FBI is investigating.
Meanwhile, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has capitalized on the scandal, using it to raise money for his political action committee and giving a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday in which he blamed the Obama administration for "a culture of intimidation" and "tactics of the third world."
Rubio needs to heal his relationships with his base among tea party-style Republicans, many of whom are outraged over his support of an immigration bill that would include a path to legalized status or citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.
Karen Jaroch, organizer of the Tampa 9-12 Project, said she believes the organization was one of the first nationwide singled out for extra scrutiny after it applied for a tax-exemption in early 2010.
Jaroch, who's also a board member of Tampa's mass transit system HART, board member, said it took members including herself about 16 man-hours, or two workdays, to fill out the initial application for the group's status as a tax-exempt organization under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code.
"We fully answered every question," she said, but in reply, a few months later, she received a letter seeking more information -- which she said took another full workday to comply with.
"We had to give them lots and lots of material -- what literature were we passing out, copies of our educational classes on the Constitution. They wanted to know what voter registration drives we were doing, a lot beyond what would be normal."
She said the organization got its certification in December 2010.
Billie Tucker, co-founder of the First Coast Tea Party in Jacksonville, which she said is the state's largest with more than 9,000 people on its email list, told a similar story.
It took two years, starting with a fall 2010 application, for the organization to get its status.
"In March 2011 we started getting requests -- we need this, we need this," Tucker said. "We found out other tea parties were getting the same kind of letters."
Among the items requested, she said, was a list of the group's donors and screen shots of every page of its web site, including password-protected, members-only chat pages.
A group member who assembled the responses took four pounds of paper to the post office for mailing, she said.
Barbara Haselden, organizer of the South Pinellas 9.12 Patriots, said she chose not to apply after "hearing stories of what I felt was targeting." Instead, she says, her group works without donations.
"We live on air," rejecting offers of donations, she said. The alternative would be for the group to pay taxes on its income.
"It has put a damper on the type of events we could hold if we were free to operate," she said. "There were many people scared off -- there would be more involved if we'd been able to organize."
Jason Hoyt of Orlando said one of several tea party organizations he works with also gave up on obtaining the tax-exempt status after the IRS asked about subjects including a website he'd set up three years earlier for a radio show unconnected to the organization.
To qualify, an organization must be a non-profit "operated exclusively to promote social welfare ... further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community," according to the IRS web site.
Unlike 501(c)(3) tax-deductible charities, its donors cannot take a tax deduction for their contributions, but the organization itself pays no tax.
It also may lobby for legislation, and "may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity," the IRS says.
The IRS collects information from groups applying for the status to determine how much of their activity or purpose is political. The initial application, IRS Form 1024, is 19 pages but, the IRS notes, "Additional information may be requested if necessary to clarify the nature of your organization."
In his speech, Rubio accused the Obama administration of "a culture of intimidation, a willingness to play hardball politics against your political opponents," for the purpose of winning elections.
He has sought to amend legislation to allow criminal prosecutions in the scandal and called for the resignation of the acting commissioner of the IRS, Steven Miller, who was deputy commissioner when the targeting began under his predecessor, Bush administration appointee Douglas Shulman.
Miller did resign later Wednesday.
Rubio also sent an email to his backers citing the scandal and seeking donations.
"A line has been crossed by our federal government that should send a chill down the spine of every freedom loving citizen of this nation," Rubio said in the Tuesday email to supporters of his Reclaim America PAC.
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