Conservative Ohio groups more than a year ago raised the alarm that the Internal Revenue Service was holding up their applications for tax-exempt status, leading Ohio U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Urbana) to request the audit that led to the IRS's admission that it targeted Tea Party-related groups for close scrutiny.
The scandal on Wednesday broadened enough to prompt President Obama's Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to request the resignation of acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller.
Mr. Jordan, who chairs a Tea Party-leaning conservative caucus in the House of Representatives, sent a letter on March 27, 2012, to the IRS, seeking a response to complaints from Ohio groups. His committee followed that up in June, 2012, with a request for an IRS audit. He has continued to focus House GOP heat on the IRS.
“We still do not know why the targeting began, how extensive it was, who initiated it and who knew about it. The IRS must be held accountable to the American people, which requires a full investigation of the circumstances surrounding the facts established in this audit,” Mr. Jordan said Wednesday.
He recalled that Lois Lerner, the IRS director of exempt organizations, in 2012 "assured us there was nothing to be suspicious of."
"We continued to pursue this topic through Committee correspondence and are pleased that our requested report is completed and look forward to hearing from Ms. Lerner in front of the Oversight Committee next week," Mr. Jordan said.
Mr. Jordan chairs a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is chaired by U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R., California). His 4th Congressional District stretches from Mercer County to Lorain County, and includes Sandusky and Seneca counties and part of Erie County.
Also responding to conservative groups’ complaints was U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) who was the lead author of the first Congressional action, a letter on March, 12, 2012, complaining to the IRS that excessive demands were being made on a lot of conservative groups in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas.
Tom Zawistowski, the head of the Portage County TEA Party, and a recent unsuccessful candidate for Ohio Republican Party chairman, credited Mr. Jordan and Mr. Issa.
In a February, 2012 letter to the IRS, Mr. Zawistowski complained the IRS' requests for information from the Ohio Liberty Council, now the Ohio Liberty Coalition, were "unreasonable, overly burdensome, intrusive and possibly politically motivated." One of the IRS questions: "Please explain in detail your organization's involvement with the Tea Party."
"Jim Jordan was one of the first people to help us after I sent out the letter on Feb. 16 saying we wouldn't cooperate with the IRS demands. He and Darrell Issa initiated an investigation into the IRS activities," Mr. Zawistowski said.
He expressed frustration that the story didn't surface in 2012 and said the emphasis on right-leaning political groups benefited President Obama's re-election effort and "absolutely" affected the outcome.
"There were Tea Party groups that were shut down, that couldn't raise money," Mr. Zawistowski said. "The questions were political in nature. This was opposition research."
Conservative groups met in February, 2012, in Lancaster, Ohio, to discuss their common problems with gaining tax-exempt status, said John McAvoy, the northwest region coordinator for the Ohio Liberty Coalition.
He cited the request to Fremont-based American Patriots Against Government Excess from the IRS for a synopsis of books used by that group.
Such obstacles discouraged him from seeking tax-exempt status for the Toledo Tea Party, which he founded.
“I’m not going to waste my time and energy and postage stamps to fight these clowns. But, now that this is over, or that now this is at least hitting the media, I would be willing to bet that I could apply today and have approval tomorrow,” Mr. McAvoy said.
The Northwest Ohio Conservative Coalition chose to register as a political action committee instead of seeking tax-exempt status because its leaders heard rumblings about getting "blowback" from the IRS, said coalition board chairman Linda Bowyer of Perrysburg.
“I particularly felt I was better off dealing with [the] Federal Election Commission than with the IRS,” said Ms. Bowyer, a University of Toledo professor emeritus of finance.
Operating as a PAC requires more filings and documentation than if the organization had gone the IRS-route, she said.
“It’s been a great decision, but it’s a tremendous amount of work,” she added.
U.S. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green) said the scandal highlights the Obama administration’s "disregard for open government and Constitutional rights."
"The decisions made by the IRS to target organizations based on their beliefs and ideals is an abuse of government power and those involved must be held accountable," Mr. Latta said in his prepared statement.
U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), said the IRS's "inappropriate activity" highlights the "deep political polarization" in the country.
"Regardless of political party or philosophical bias, there can be no place for this type of activity by the IRS or its employees," Miss Kaptur said.
Tax-exempt status for conservative political groups was a frequent complaint of Democratic and pro-Obama groups after the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling allowing 501(c)4 organizations to spend money in support of candidates, and not disclose their donors.
Brian Rothenberg, executive director of the left-leaning ProgressOhio, said, "I don't think the IRS should target anyone." He said his group applied for tax-exempt status seven years ago. "We had to wait a while and had some questions, but nothing like that [reported by the Tea Party groups]."
He said he wishes Mr. Jordan's committee would go beyond the targeting of Tea Party groups into looking at Citizens United, which he called "the root of a lot of these issues."
Contact Tom Troy at email@example.com or 419-724-6058.