A Texas group dedicated to combatting voter fraud applied for tax-exempt status in 2010 and has suffered three years of delays, been through four different IRS agents, undergone six FBI inquiries and submitted thousands of pages of documentation -- and its still hasn't been approved.
True the Vote is just one of the dozens of groups caught up in the IRS plan to give extra scrutiny to conservative groups in the 2010 and 2012 elections.
As Congress delves into the question of whether the burgeoning scandal was bureaucratic malfeasance, as the IRS now acknowledges, or a more sinister political witch hunt, as some Republicans believe, True the Vote's experience is poking holes in the IRS' version of events, and lending credence to the nefarious explanations.
In one example, the IRS asked other Texas-based tea party groups what their relationship was with True the Vote -- a fishing expedition that group President Catherine Engelbrecht didn't learn about until the IRS scandal burst onto front pages.
"It suggests that they are trying to construct some kind of web in which to trap groups that they believe are somehow working together," Ms. Engelbrecht said.
The IRS' inspector general released a report last week that found the IRS targeted conservative groups for added scrutiny beginning in 2010, looking particularly at those that used "tea party," "patriot" or "9/12" in their names.
The IRS acknowledges asking inappropriate questions but bristles at other charges. Acting Commissioner Steven Miller said the agency was trying to weed out groups engaging in political activity in violation of tax laws. He said the scrutiny was enhanced because of a surge of new groups after the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case.
The IRS also said that the actions were taken by employees in an Ohio office, and that the agency has been taking steps to curtail inappropriate information requests in 2011.
But most of those claims appear to be untrue, based on the experience of True the Vote and other groups subjected to extra scrutiny.
Both Ms. Engelbrecht and True the Vote's lawyer, Cleta Mitchell, said they had conversations with IRS agents who indicated that the files were being scrutinized in Washington, not in the Cincinnati office blamed by the IRS.
"More than one agent in Cincinnati has advised me that his/her instructions regarding the processing of my 'tea party' related organization client(s) were coming from the Washington, D.C., office," Ms. Mitchell said in a letter to the IRS earlier this month.
And the probing letters continued well after the time the IRS said it began curtailing them, with the most recent inquiries to True the Vote coming in November and again in March.
True the Vote stemmed from Ms. Engelbrecht's experience in the 2008 and 2009 elections, when she said she worked the polls and saw everything from administrative dysfunction to situations that looked like they could lead to fraud.
In July 2010, she and other supporters formed King Street Patriots under the tax code's section 501(c )(4), which allows groups to do some politicking as long as it's not their primary purpose.
They also formed True the Vote, filing for status under that tax code's section 501(c )(3) governing charities, and dedicated it to training election workers and validating voting lists. True the Vote was an initiative of King Street Patriots, but the name was chosen carefully, Ms. Engelbrecht said.
"We didn't put 'tea party' in our names because we really hoped we would be able to work with all kinds of folks. And at the time, there was an awful lot of turf-war fighting," she said.
In December of that year, King Street Patriots received its first inquiry from the FBI about someone who might have attended one of its meetings. The FBI would make five more inquiries over the next year.
Meanwhile, True the Vote received its first IRS questionnaire in March 2011, followed by a second round that October, a third round in February 2012, a fourth set of questions in November 2012 and yet a fifth inquiry just two months ago.
Ms. Engelbrecht said as the inquiries proceeded, the questions grew weirder.
Along the way, True the Vote became a lightning rod for criticism from Democratic lawmakers and liberal groups who objected after the group became involved in Wisconsin's gubernatorial recall election last year with an initiative called "Verify the Recall."
That initiative involved asking volunteers to check the signatures of those who signed the petitions that put the recall election on the ballot.
Later, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, said he would investigate the group after a newspaper reported True the Vote was trying to challenge some voters' eligibility in other states.
Throughout, the group's application for tax-exempt status continued to languish.
But things became particularly strange last year when two other Texas-based groups, the North East Tarrant Tea Party and the Clear Lake Tea Party -- both of which had also applied for tax-exempt status -- received questions from the IRS about their dealings with True the Vote and King Street Patriots.
Amid the questions about resumes for every board member, volunteers' duties and speakers invited to talk to the group was question No. 2: "Provide details regarding your relationship with Verify the Recall. Indicate the activities of Verify the Recall. Is Verify the Recall a tax-exempt organization?"
Aside from the IRS asking another group about whether Verify the Recall is tax-exempt -- when the IRS itself was holding up the parent group's application -- the questions worried Julie McCarty, president of the board of the North East Tarrant Tea Party.
"Unless you are educated like a CPA or a tax attorney, something like that, you don't know all these rules and regulations," she said. "It makes you think you've done something wrong."
She said her group didn't answer any of the IRS's questions about True the Vote or anything else.
Instead, they are joining a lawsuit the American Center for Law and Justice plans to file this week demanding the IRS approve a number of applications it has held up.
Applications still pending
An IRS spokesman didn't respond Monday to questions about True the Vote and the letters sent to other tea party groups.
Last week, Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, raised True the Vote's situation with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. at a hearing, saying the extent of snooping on Ms. Engelbrecht suggested the only way to get to the bottom of the situation was to name a special prosecutor.
Mr. Holder, though, said the Obama administration can investigate itself.
"My point is that the notion that government has or that the Justice Department has credibility problems, I think, is belied by the notion that people, I think, more generally have of government and the good that government does and the need for, as I said, for good government," he said.
Ms. Mitchell, the lawyer representing True the Vote and other conservative groups still battling the IRS for tax-exempt status, said some in the federal government appear to be treating the scandal as if it were a thing of the past. She said that's wrong -- True the Vote is still awaiting approval, as are dozens of others.
Ms. Mitchell said usually it takes about six to nine months for a group filing as a 501(c )(3) to get approval, while a group filing for 501(c )(4) status might take nine to 12 months.
Both True the Vote and King Street Patriots are still waiting, and they hit the three-year mark in two months.
"Count original submissions and all the supplements -- five different submissions to the IRS over a period of three years, and we still don't have the tax-exempt status. Some of those submissions have involved 500 pages, 600 pages, and we still don't have the letter," she said. "This is a good case study of the kind of paperwork burden the IRS has imposed, and we still don't have the tax-exempt status. And it's been a huge cost."
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