WASHINGTON (AP) — Anger over President Barack Obama's policies drove businessman Tom Zawistowski to file paperwork with the Internal Revenue Service nearly three years ago to create the Ohio Liberty Coalition.
His nonprofit organization largely attracted conservatives who were new to politics but concerned about the growth of government, fiscal issues and perceived threats to Americans' constitutional protections. It eventually swelled to more than 20,000 members, becoming one of the region's largest groups affiliated with the national tea party movement that emerged in the early months of Obama's first term.
Over the next few years, the Ohio Liberty Coalition would raise thousands of dollars to bus activists to rallies, run phone banks, rent a tent at a local fair, and knock on roughly 40,000 doors across Ohio to challenge the president and his fellow Democrats in the 2012 elections.
All the while, the organization was locked in a battle with the nation's tax enforcement agency over whether it should be granted tax-exempt status.
"They expected me to turn over the names of our members to the IRS. You'd have to kill me to get me to do that," said Zawistowski, who was among the first tea party leaders to formally protest the agency's actions last year. "I wouldn't accept tyranny."
It often takes a year for "social welfare organizations" to get tax-exempt status, which requires them to prove they're not primarily devoted to politics. But the IRS acknowledged last week that it inappropriately applied heightened scrutiny to conservative groups even though it's supposed to regulate the nation's tax laws without political interference. The revelation drew criticism from Republicans and Democrats, sparked a Justice Department investigation and prompted Obama to call the allegations "outrageous" if true.
The episode has pumped new energy into the tea party movement after a disappointing 2012 election season and created a bipartisan political headache for Obama at a critical time as he looks to get as much of his agenda passed as possible before all the focus shifts to next year's midterm congressional elections.
Zawistowski's experience is not uncommon among tea party and conservative groups.
As it did with other conservative groups, the IRS largely ignored Zawistowski's application for a year and a half and then refused to approve his nonprofit status unless he revealed the identity of the group's members, times and location of group activities and printouts of its website and Facebook pages, according to IRS correspondence reviewed by The Associated Press.
The IRS also requested "detailed contents of the speeches or forums, names of the speakers or panels and their credentials" for all future and past public events, according to one of the IRS letters.
"The intent of this was to hurt the ability of tea party groups to function in an election year. They were successful to a degree," said Zawistowski, a 57-year-old businessman who had virtually no political experience before joining the tea party movement. "It took an enormous amount of time and energy for me to handle this."
The IRS has refused to discuss individual cases, but it has apologized for "inappropriate" targeting of conservative political groups during the 2012 election to see whether they were violating their tax-exempt status. The agency blamed low-level employees in a Cincinnati office for targeting applications with words such as "tea party" and "patriot." In January 2012, the criteria for additional screening were updated to include references to the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.
In some cases, the IRS acknowledged, agents inappropriately asked for lists of donors.
There is no definitive listing of the hundreds of tea party groups that sprung up across the nation in the past four years, but an AP analysis of 93 organizations that describe themselves as "tea party" or "patriot" groups found that many, like Zawistowski's, appear to have operated on small budgets.
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