(CNSNews.com) - The Internal Revenue Service, in a letter dated November 16, 2011, asked the Albuquerque Tea Party why it didn’t host a "candidate rally" in 2010 for the lone Democratic gubernatorial candidate in New Mexico after it had hosted a "question and answer forum" for the Republican candidates.
On the Democrat side, then-Lt. Gov. Diane Denish was running for New Mexico governor unopposed, but five Republicans were running in the primary for the opportunity to face Denish in November.
On page four of the IRS letter, question 8 asked the Albuquerque Tea Party:
"In describing your Event Rallies you stated that you hosted a question and answer forum with the GOP Primary Candidates for Governor of the state, and that not all GOP candidates attended. You stated that since there was only one candidate in the Democratic primary, there was no comparison to be made in the primary."
In Question 8a of the letter, the IRS directed the Albuquerque group to “Describe in detail the GOP Event Rally, including questions asked, and state the reasons you did not have a candidate rally for the lone Democratic candidate."
An IRS spokeswoman declined to comment Friday on the agency’s rationale for asking the Albuquerque Tea Party why it had not held an "event rally" for Lt. Gov. Denish in early 2010 and how that might affect the organization's application to become a 501(c)(4) group.
Rick Harbaugh, president of the Albuquerque Tea Party, told CNSNews.com that the reason his group did not have a forum for Denish was “very simple.”
“When there’s no opposition, there’s no point,” he said, adding that the Republican primary was contentious, given the fact that multiple candidates were running.
The event in question took place on February 27, 2010 on the campus of Central New Mexico Community College. All five Republicans running in the June 1 gubernatorial primary were invited and all five accepted the invitation. The eventual winner of both the GOP primary and the November 2 general election, Susana Martinez, had to cancel at the last minute due to a family matter.
Harbaugh said his group had no intention of getting Democrats and Republicans together for a forum. The goal of the gathering, he said, was to bring the Republican primary candidates together to provide tea party members with “an educational opportunity” to help them make a more informed decision when it came time to vote.
Democratic voters didn’t have the same kind of decision to make, he noted.
Harbaugh said he is unaware of any legal requirement for his organization to offer equal access to the Democratic candidate. He declined to provide the responses his organization sent to the IRS for privacy reasons.
David French, a senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), says that the Albuquerque Tea Party, as an organization hoping to receive tax-exempt status, had no compelling legal reason to provide equal access for a particular party or candidate.
“The reality here is that it’s a 501(c)(4) and not a 501(c)(3), and there is a greater level of flexibility. A 501(c)(4) has a greater level of flexibility than a 501(c)(3),” which may not engage in political activity, he told CNSNews.com. But a 501(c)(4) organization “can spend a percentage of its time on political activities.”
Harbaugh and the Albuquerque Tea Party came to the ACLJ’s attention after various tea party groups began to ask in national conference calls in November 2011 whether any other tea party group had received letters from the IRS that “required hours and hours of work.”
For Harbaugh’s group, it took 6 to 7 weeks to gather the necessary information for the IRS. When one organization after another said that they had undergone the same experience, they collectively asked, “What’s going on here,” French said. The ACLJ is now representing 27 tea party groups that plan to sue the IRS.
Ten of those groups, including Harbaugh’s, are still waiting for the IRS to make a decision on granting tax-exempt status. Harbaugh said his group has been waiting around 1,200 days since filing its application.
He said he and the group’s members are not angry, but they would “like to get it behind us. But to get it behind us, we have to have the truth and have to get this 501(c)(4) thing resolved.”
Harbaugh said he’s not satisfied with the responses IRS officials gave Congress last week. Lois Lerner, the woman in charge of the IRS’s tax-exempt office, refused to testify after giving an opening statement in which she denied any wrong-doing.
Outgoing IRS Commissioner Steven Miller denied any partisanship on the part of the IRS. And former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman could not remember if he had talked to anyone at the White House about the tea party. No one could or would name the person who ordered the inappropriate scrutiny of conservative groups that were applying for tax-exempt status.
“There are things going on here that are wrong,” Harbaugh said, adding that he wonders “what’s happened to the inability to get good information.”