By Bernie Becker - 06/04/13 06:25 PM EDT
In often emotional testimony on Tuesday before a House panel, Tea Party and conservative activists said the IRS had stonewalled tax-exempt applications and chilled their First Amendment rights.
Representatives from groups singled out by the IRS, in their first appearance before a congressional panel, said that they received a string of intrusive questions from the agency as it considered their applications, and that the IRS targeting had been a significant burden on their organization.
Becky Gerritson of the Wetumpka Tea Party in Alabama, one of 25 groups to have filed suit against the IRS last week, said that the agency’s made her so uncomfortable that she considered no longer seeking tax-exempt status.
“This was not an accident,” Gerritson said in her tearful opening testimony.
“This is a willful act of intimidation to discourage a point of view. What the government did to our little group in Wetumpka, Ala., is un-American. It isn't a matter of firing or arresting individuals. The individuals who sought to intimidate us were acting as they thought they should, in a government culture that has little respect for its citizens.”
Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said that Tuesday’s testimony showed that the extra attention given to conservative groups went beyond what was detailed last month in a Treasury audit that found Tea Party groups were singled out for extra screening on their tax-exempt applications.
Other GOP members of the panel agreed, with Rep. Pat Tiberi (Ohio) saying the panel’s investigation into the matter had only “scratched the surface.”
For instance, the National Organization for Marriage, a group that opposes same-sex marriage, saw its confidential tax documents end up in the hands of a political opponent, the Human Rights Campaign. Camp also cited recent reports that the IRS was using the gift tax to target conservative groups.
“I thought the hearing was actually a very powerful hearing. And it’s very clear that this is not just a list of a few people,” Camp told reporters after the hearing. “This really gave a voice to hundreds of Americans.”
The Michigan Republican added that the committee’s upcoming work on the IRS targeting will likely be closed-door interviews with agency staffers, and that the interview phase was only starting and would include employees in the Ohio office at the center of the controversy.
“We still don’t know who initiated this, and how it far it went in the chain,” Camp said.
Acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel, who was appointed to the position after the controversy broke, called the stories troubling, inappropriate and unacceptable.
“These are not the kind of interactions people should have with the IRS,” he said. "The actions taken were inappropriate and unacceptable, and we owe it to the nation to do better.”
Werfel said it was clear that inappropriate questions were asked, burdensome document requests were made and it took too long for the IRS to process applications.
The groups’ testimony came the same day that the controversy swirling around the IRS only grew, with a new audit finding that the agency spent close to $50 million on conferences between 2010 and 2012. The House Oversight Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on that report, also from Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration, on Thursday.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Kevin Kookogey of the Linchpins of Liberty said that his application for tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status had been delayed for close to two-and-a-half years, when the wait time had previously been two to four months.
In the interim, Kookogey told the committee, he lost a $30,000 grant and plenty of his own money, and his education group had been asked for information on students as young as in seventh grade.
“That the IRS would ask to know the identity of those students is unbelievably, unconscionably chilling,” Kookogey said.
Kookogey’s group, like three others at the hearing, is also part of the suit filed by the American Center for Law and Justice on behalf of 25 groups.
Susan Martinek of the Coalition for Life of Iowa said that an IRS staffer told her group that their tax-exempt application would go through if they promised not to “picket/protest or organize groups to picket/protest outside of Planned Parenthood.”
And John Eastman of the National Organization for Marriage, whose group is against same-sex marriage and is separately suing the IRS, said donors to his group were concerned that the publication of the group’s tax records was meant to intimidate them.
“To boycott their businesses, to target their families, and more significantly for our purposes, to chill them from donating again so we can keep up the political fight that we're in the middle of,” Eastman said.
Lawmakers from both parties apologized to the groups at the hearing, with Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the top Democrat at Ways and Means, calling the IRS’s actions “inexcusable” and “inappropriate.”
But Democrats also criticized Republicans for trying to tie the current scandal to the White House, after Russell George, the inspector general, said he found no evidence that the White House was involved.
Democrats, who often declined to engage the conservative groups, also said that IRS targeting of groups on the left had occurred during Republican administrations, and called once more for the IRS to more broadly address how tax-exempt applications are reviewed.
“I get the feeling that many of you, and my Republican colleagues, just believe you should be free from political targeting but that you should be free from any scrutiny at all,” said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.).
This story was posted at 10:46 a.m. and updated at 2:25 p.m.