Hearing Gives Groups Targeted By IRS Their Say

The House Appropriations Committee hears from groups that were chosen for additional scrutiny by the IRS based on their conservative-sounding names. That revelation has set off a round of investigations into the agency and their conduct. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

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Ever since the IRS scandal emerged some lawmakers have been eager to hear from the people they see as victims of government overreach, the leaders of conservative groups who applied for tax-exempt status. According to the recent Inspector General report, these groups were giving unfair scrutiny if their names included terms such as Patriot and Tea Party.

As NPR's Tamara Keith reports, today, leaders of some of those groups told their stories before a congressional committee.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: These are not the big name groups with $100-million budgets running television ads and trying to sway elections, without disclosing their big money donors. These are the little guys, grassroots organizations. Dianne Belsom is with the Laurens County Tea Party.

DIANNE BELSOM: On July 22nd, 2010, we filed for 501c4 status with the IRS and paid the application fee of $400.

KEITH: And then, as detailed in the Inspector General's report, like many groups, she waited and waited.

BELSOM: Nothing more was heard until September 6th, 2012 when we received a communication from the IRS requesting extremely burdensome additional information.

KEITH: Questions like: Who attended her group's events, what questions were asked to politicians at a candidates' forum, information about what was posted on the group's Facebook page. There were a lot of questions.

Texas Republican Kevin Brady was among many Democrats and Republicans alike who expressed outrage at what had happened to groups like Belsom's.

REPRESENTATIVE KEVIN BRADY: Did you ever imagine that the government could target you like this?

BELSOM: I mean, you know, that wasn't something I was thinking about. You know, I thought we lived in a free republic. But honestly, I feel like our country has turned a corner into tyranny. And it's - I honestly have lost sleep over just being in fear of what our government might do next.

KEITH: Belsom is still waiting for the IRS to decide on her group's tax status. It's been three years. In a statement, the new acting head of the IRS, Danny Werfel, said that although he couldn't talk about specific cases, it was clear to him that inappropriate questions were asked and burdensome document requests were made. He also acknowledged it has taken too long to process these applications.

Congressman Jim McDermott, a Washington Democrat, questioned why some of these groups even applied for tax exempt status in the first place.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM MCDERMOTT: I will not hesitate to say the IRS was wrong. But as I listen to this discussion, I'd like to remind everyone what we're talking about here. None of your organizations were kept from organizing or silenced. We're talking about whether or not the American taxpayers will subsidize your work. We're talking about a tax break.

KEITH: This prompted a strong reply from Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan.

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: So you're to blame, I guess, is the message here. Do you think that you were targeted based upon your political beliefs, your religious beliefs or just because you chose to apply?

BELSOM: Our beliefs, our views.

KEITH: Becky Gerretson and her husband formed the Wetumpka Tea Party, after getting upset about the bank bailout and the stimulus package passed by Congress. And she, too, had trouble with the IRS. She says she got a questionnaire asking 90 questions, some of which she felt were inappropriate.

BECKY GERRETSON: This was not an accident. This is a willful act of intimidation to discourage a point of view.

KEITH: The Inspector General's report didn't go that far. And thus far, congressional testimony hasn't revealed any clear motive behind the flagging of conservative groups. But after her first appearance before a congressional committee, Gerretson says she feels like Congress is on the case.

GERRETSON: I feel confident that they will continue an investigation. And I do believe that they're earnest in their desires to get to the bottom of this whole thing. But we need to keep watching and making, you know, holding them accountable.

KEITH: At least two committees are interviewing IRS employees involved in the targeting. And there will be more hearings.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.

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