WASHINGTON -- When the South Florida Tea Party applied last year for tax-exempt status as a nonprofit group, the IRS demands were probing and relentless:
Provide copies of all 7,000 Web pages. All blog posts, newsletters, bulletins, fliers and handbills. Provide copies of the agendas and minutes of board meetings and résumés of each board member. The percentage of time spent on activities, sources of money
Faced with round after round of such questions, the group abandoned its attempt, disbanded and reinvented itself under the name National Liberty Federation.
It was a nightmare. We basically just gave up on it, said Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the group based in Palm Beach Gardens. Whatever they could do to send you around in circles, they would. A lot of other [tea-party] groups just closed their doors or changed their status to for-profit or just didnt file anything.
This kind of special scrutiny singling out groups that had words such as tea party, patriot or 9/12 in their names was termed intolerable and inexcusable behavior by President Barack Obama and has prompted Congress and the Justice Department to launch investigations into Internal Revenue Service practices.
The emerging scandal also has given the tea party, a political movement that lost momentum in the 2012 election and seemed to be fading, a kind of vindication and rallying point. It touched groups in Florida, even those not seeking a special tax status.
It scared me to death, said Keith Wilson, founder of DeLand 9/12, which decided not to seek nonprofit tax status.
I was afraid to do anything after what they were doing to the other groups, Wilson said. We wanted to take some donations and put up some billboards and advertising. I decided that wasnt a good route to go. I just basically paid for everything out of my pocket.
No one wants problems from the IRS.
Wilson traveled to Washington on Wednesday to huddle with other tea-party leaders and with U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., founder of the congressional Tea Party Caucus. They plan to share their stories, hold a news conference Thursday and assist congressional inquiries.
The disclosures reinforced conspiracy theories that the government encroaches on the liberties of its citizens, a major theme of the tea-party movement.
One of its main allies in Congress, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced legislation this week that would impose criminal penalties on IRS workers who violate the constitutional rights of citizens. Rubio also turned the cause into a fundraiser for his Reclaim America Political Action Committee.
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, he told prospective donors. With this issue, the very message of the tea-party movement has been validated.
Most tea-party groups are small, loosely organized and built around a website, while also holding occasional rallies. Few generate enough donations to warrant seeking special tax status. But even some of the smaller groups felt a chill.
Its a hassle, and you feel like youre being harassed. But then, any interaction with the IRS makes you feel harassed, said Peter Lee, director the East Side Tea Party in Orlando, who did not file for tax-exempt status but knows others in the movement who did.