WASHINGTON (AP) - The Internal Revenue Service is embroiled in battles with tea party and other conservative groups who claim the government is purposely frustrating their attempts to gain tax-exempt status.
The fight features instances in which the IRS has asked for voluminous details about the groups' postings on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, information on donors and key members' relatives, and copies of all literature they have distributed to their members, according to documents provided by some organizations.
While refusing to comment on specific cases, IRS officials said they are merely trying to gather enough information to decide whether groups qualify for the tax exemption. Most organizations are applying under section 501 (c) (4) of the federal tax code, which grants tax-exempt status to certain groups as long as they are not primarily involved in activity that could influence an election, a determination that is up to the IRS.
The tax agency would seem a natural target for tea party groups, which espouse smaller and less intrusive government and lower taxes. Yet over the years, the IRS has periodically been accused of political vendettas by liberals and conservatives alike, usually without merit, tax experts say.
The latest dispute comes early in an election year in which the IRS is under pressure to monitor tax-exempt groups - like the Republican-leaning Crossroads GPS and Democratic-leaning Priorities USA - which can shovel unlimited amounts of money to allies to influence campaigns, even while not being required to disclose their donors.
Conservatives say dozens of groups around the country have recently had similar experiences with the IRS and say its information demands are intrusive and politically motivated. They complain that the sheer size and detail of material the agency wants is designed to prevent them from achieving the tax designations they seek.
"It's intimidation," said Tom Zawistowski, president of the Ohio Liberty Council, a coalition of tea party groups in the state. "Stop doing what you're doing, or we'll make your life miserable."
Authorities on the laws governing tax-exempt organizations expressed surprise at some of the IRS's requests, such as the volume of detail it is seeking and the identity of donors. But they said it is the agency's job to learn what it can to help decide whether tax-exempt status is warranted.
"These tea party groups, a lot of their material makes them look and sound like a political party," said Marcus S. Owens, a lawyer who advises tax-exempt organizations and who spent a decade heading the IRS division that oversees such groups. "I think the IRS is trying to get behind the rhetoric and figure out whether they are, at their core: a political party," or a group that would qualify for tax-exempt status.
The tea party was first widely emblazoned on the public's mind for their noisy opposition to President Barack Obama's health care overhaul at congressional town hall meetings in the summer of 2009. Support from its activist members has since helped nominate and elect conservative candidates around the country, though group leaders say they are chiefly educational organizations.
They say they mostly do things like invite guests to discuss issues and teach members about the Constitution and how to request government documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Some say they occasionally endorse candidates and seek to register voters.
"We're doing nothing more than what the average citizen does in getting involved," said Phil Rapp, executive director of the Richmond Tea Party in Virginia. "We're not supporting candidates; we are supporting what we see as the issues."
One group, the Kentucky 9/12 Project, said it applied for tax-exempt status in December 2010. After getting a prompt IRS acknowledgement of its application, the organization heard nothing until it got an IRS letter two weeks ago requesting more information, said the project's director, Eric Wilson.
That letter, which Wilson provided to The AP, asked 30 questions, many with multiple parts, and gave the group until March 6 to respond.
Information requested included "details regarding all of your activity on Facebook and Twitter" and whether top officials' relatives serve in other organizations or plan to run for elective office. The IRS also sought the political affiliation of every person who has provided the group with educational services and minutes of every board meeting "since your creation."
"This is a modern-day witch hunt," said Wilson, whose 9/12 group and others around the country were inspired by conservative activist Glenn Beck.
Other conservative organizations described similar experiences.
A January IRS letter to the Richmond Tea Party requests the names of donors, the amounts each contributed and details on how the funds were used. The Ohio Liberty Council received an IRS letter last month seeking the credentials of speakers at the group's public events. In a February letter, the IRS asked the Waco Tea Party of Texas whether its officials have a "close relationship" with any candidates for office or political parties, and was asked for events they plan this year.
"The crystal ball I was issued can't predict the future," and future events will depend on factors like what Congress does this year, said Toby Marie Walker, president of the Waco group.
The IRS provided a five-paragraph written response to a reporter's questions about its actions. It noted that the tax code allows tax-exempt status to "social welfare" groups, which are supposed to promote the common good of the community.
Groups can engage in some political activities "so long as, in the aggregate, these non-exempt activities are not its primary activities," the IRS statement said.
"Career civil servants make all decisions on exemption applications in a fair, impartial manner and do so without regard to political affiliation or ideology," the agency said.
There were 139,000 groups in the U.S. with 501 (c) (4) tax-exempt status in 2010, the latest year of available IRS data. More than 1,700 organizations applied for that designation in 2010 while over 1,400 were approved. Such volume means it might take months for the IRS to assign applications to agents, said Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a Notre Dame law professor who specializes in election and tax law.
Ever since a 2010 Supreme Court decision allowing outside groups to spend unlimited funds in elections, such organizations have been under scrutiny.
Two nonpartisan campaign finance watchdogs called on the IRS last fall to strip some large groups of tax-exempt status, claiming they engage in so much political activity that they don't qualify for the designation.
Last month, seven Democratic senators asked the IRS to investigate whether some groups were improperly using tax-exempt status - they didn't name any organizations - because those groups are "improperly engaged in a substantial or even a predominant amount of campaign activity."