Tea Party Class Action Suit Says IRS Violated Constitutional, Privacy Right Acts

Fred Lucas | May 31, 2013 | 10:25am EDT
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Tea party members sing the Star Spangled Banner at the start of a meeting, Wednesday, May 29, 2013, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

(CNSNews.com) – As many as 400 conservative and tea party groups could join a class-action lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service, being led by a northern California group that charges the agency engaged in the “muzzling of free expression” and “used its power to intimidate, coerce, and chill the political activity of conservative and libertarian groups.”

The Colfax, Calif.-based NorCal Tea Party Patriots, its members and “the class it seeks to represent” is suing the Treasury Department, the IRS and employees of the IRS that targeted Tea Party and conservative organizations. The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, in Cincinnati.

The lawsuit is seeking unspecified damages and states the IRS violated the First and Fifth Amendment rights of plaintiffs with overly burdensome and person questions, and violated the Privacy Act of 1974.

Dozens of conservative groups have already contacted the counsel for the plaintiffs in the case, said Mark Meckler, president of Citizens for Self Governance, the organization helping to fund the lawsuit on behalf of the NorCal Tea Party Patriots. The attorneys will vet the groups for a legitimate claim, Meckler said.

“The reason it’s a class action is because there are a minimum of 200-plus groups that were targeted,” Meckler told CNSNews.com. “The plaintiffs expect about 400 or so groups that we don’t even know about.”

The lawsuit states, “The IGR [inspector general report] identifies 296 applications singled out for review based on the groups’ name or conservative or libertarian political views. Other reports suggest the number may exceed 500. Only through discovery will the full scope of this discrimination be identifiable.”

The venue, Cincinnati, is the location of the Determination Unit for the IRS Exempt Organizations division. IRS officials admitted, just before the release of an inspector general’s report, that the Determinations Unit targeted for extra scrutiny groups with words “tea party,” “patriots,” “9/12 Project,” “we the people,” “take back the country,” “make America a better place to live,” and “how the country is being run.”

“We hope to get answers, but we expect significant stonewalling from the IRS during the discovery process based on what we’ve seen,” Meckler said. “This is a very unusual case in that the government has already admitted wrongdoing, but not admitting how far up the chain of command it goes. The question is how forthcoming will the government be in litigation. We may see contempt citations to compel the federal government to come forward.”

Virginia Rapini, chairman/secretary of the six-member board of directors for the NorCal Tea Party Patriots, said she never believed the government’s claim that the abuse was limited to lower level employees.

“Lower-level employees are regular people earning a living trying to feed their families,” Rapini told CNSNews.com. “They are not going to go outside the chain of command. They don’t want to lose their jobs.”

Rapini said since the lawsuit was filed, Google Analytics showed the group’s website was viewed by not only the IRS but also from computers at the Justice Department, the Homeland Security Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. 

“Some people have said to me ‘I can’t contribute to come to your meetings anymore,’ because they are afraid the IRS would destroy them,” Rapini said. “When people fear the government and are afraid to say what they believe, that is tyrannical.”

“NorCal and its members suffered years of delay and expense while awaiting the exemption and spending valuable time and money answering the IRS’s questions,” the lawsuit said.

“The result was a muffling and muzzling of free expression. Hundreds of other citizen groups who met the IRS’ criteria—at first, groups with “tea party”-sounding words in their names, but later, groups whose members shared purposes and beliefs similar to NorCal’s—suffered the same fate. Accordingly, NorCal brings this suit on its own behalf, on its members’ behalf, and for the putative class,” the lawsuit added.

The suit stated that the NorCal Tea Party Patriots first applied for tax-exempt status in March 2010 but approval wasn’t granted until Aug. 2, 2012.

“As the IGR points out, inappropriate criteria were in place for at least 18 months which resulted in substantial delays in processing applications of conservative and libertarian groups,” the suit stated. “The IGR also found that for the majority of conservative and libertarian organizations who applied for tax exempt status, no work was completed for 13 months.”

The IRS demanded information from the NorCal Tea Party Patriots on Jan. 27, 2012 with 19 questions broken into subpart a, b, c and d. Thus the total number of questions was almost 100.

The IRS gave the NorCal group until Feb. 17, 2012 to respond. The suit claims, “The scope of the information demanded in the January 27, 2012 letter is outrageous, oppressive, and illegal.”

The questions included, “the names of NorCal’s members and the amount of time each person would spend on the event; and the percentage of time and resources the NorCal Tea Party Patriots planned to spend conducting these activities in relation to its total activities for the year;” “information about NorCal Tea Party Patriots’s direct or indirect communications with members of legislative bodies;” “information about NorCal Tea Party Patriots’ membership, including the number of members, the nature of its membership (individuals or organizations), copies of member application forms, membership fee schedule, the roles and duties of its members;” “information about NorCal Tea Party Patriots’ board of directors and the board’s activities, including all copies of corporate minutes from August 2010 to present, the titles, duties, work hours, and compensation of the board members, officers, and employees, and the names of any board members or officers who has or intends to run for a public office;” “information on the income NorCal Tea Party Patriots received and raised from its inception to the time the information was requested, and its projected income for 2012 and 2013;” “the names of donors, contributors, and grantors and whether these persons had or intended to run for office and which office, the amounts and dates of the contributions, and a detailed description of how NorCal Tea Party Patriots used these monies;” and “detailed information about the expenses NorCal Tea Party Patriots had incurred from its inception to the time the information was requested and all anticipated expenses for 2012 and 2013; the compensation, salary, wage, and reimbursement expenses for each year of NorCal Tea Party Patriots’s existence.”

The lawsuit stated, “NorCal Tea Party Patriots was given this unreasonable deadline to respond to this onerous request, like so many other similarly situated conservative and libertarian groups, in January 2012. As the IGR points out, conservative groups were given unreasonable periods of 11 times to respond to these unnecessary and onerous requests even though the IRS had done nothing to process their request for tax exempt status for 13 months.”

The lawsuit cited the IG report that said, “For Fiscal Year 2012, the average time it took the Determinations Unit to complete processing applications requiring additional information from organizations applying for tax-exempt status (also referred to by the EO function as full development cases) was 238 calendar days according to IRS data. In comparison, the average time a potential political case was open as of December 17, 2012, was 574 calendar days (with 158 potential political cases being open longer than the average calendar days it took to close other full development cases).”

“In sum, because of their political viewpoints, conservative groups were subjected to harassment, intimidation, delay, discrimination, expense, intrusiveness, and embarrassment all as a part of a scheme by IRS agents and officers John Doe 1-100 to suppress their political activity and punish their political views,” the lawsuit said.

“Wherefore, NorCal Tea Party Patriots and its members experienced damages, including loss of constitutional rights, interference with their liberty, delay and denial of government benefits, unequal treatment, loss of donations, increased tax burdens including state and local, loss of postal privileges, the expense of responding to the harassing tactics of the IRS, court costs, and attorneys fees,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit stated the IRS decided to charge “a special ‘price’ to Mrs. Rapini and her associates because of their decision to join their voices together. That price was two-fold: a lengthy and costly delay in recognition of their tax-exempt status, and the required disclosure of the personal political beliefs, writings, thoughts, and activities of Mrs. Rapini and her associates in Norcal.”

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