Long before President Barack Obama told Americans they had the right to be angry over the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups, those groups in the Tampa Bay area already were.
Karen Jaroch, who co-founded the Tampa chapter of Glenn Beck's 9-12 group, remembers the hoops her group had to jump through when it applied to become tax-exempt in 2010. First came the standard 17-page application and the $850 filing fee, she said, but months later she got a letter from the IRS demanding detailed information about the group's activities. The agency wanted copies of the 9-12 group's educational literature, a breakdown of how members would spend their time and the names of political candidates the group would support.
"I really do think that we were singled out," Jaroch said.
The IRS recently acknowledged that it singled out conservative groups, including those affiliated with the tea party, for special scrutiny — activity that led this week to national criticism, denunciations by the president, and on Wednesday, the ouster of the agency's acting commissioner. According to an inspector general's report, the IRS began the scrutiny in March 2010, not long after Jaroch's group applied for tax-exempt status.
"I think they started with us," Jaroch said, adding that groups like First Coast Tea Party in Jacksonville, and another tea party affiliated group in Orlando, had been targeted. Later, she heard from the leaders of other conservative groups that they'd received far more intrusive questions, such as requests for groups' donor and member lists.
"I think they (the IRS) got emboldened and started asking for more. It really did have a chilling effect."
How long groups wait to hear back from the IRS varies, said Marcus Owens, a Washington, D.C., attorney who formerly led the IRS division that oversees nonprofit groups. The vast majority of the roughly 60,000 applications the IRS receives a year for tax-exempt status come from small groups like parent teacher associations and little leagues. Those groups usually hear back within three to four months, he wrote in an email. But about 30 percent of the groups that apply wait longer, sometimes significantly longer, to get their submissions reviewed.
"The actual processing time, once it begins, will depend on how complex an organization's proposed activities are, how completely and candidly the activities are described, and how complex any legal issues are that are raised by the application," Owens wrote.
The IRS approved the Tampa 9-12 group's application in late 2010, less than a year after the group applied, but Jaroch said she did not receive confirmation until early 2011. Other tea party groups decided not to apply.
One of them is the South Pinellas 9-12 group, which St. Petersburg resident Barbara Haselden organized. Haselden said she heard about other groups' experiences and was scared off.
"They were getting laundry lists of probing questions and delays and I just didn't feel like I wanted to put myself and the group through that," she said.
Not being tax-exempt has "crippled" her organization, which, she said, raises little money and holds its meetings in places that don't charge. To the outside world, it appears that Pinellas does not have much of a tea party movement, but "the tea party is not diminished," she said. "The tea party has not been able to wage a campaign because of this tamping down."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779.