Sunday, June 24, 2018
Politics

IRS may have looked beyond 'tea party' and 'patriots'

WASHINGTON — A group of antiabortion activists in Iowa had to promise the Internal Revenue Service it wouldn't picket in front of Planned Parenthood.

Catherine Engelbrecht's family and business in Texas were audited by the government after her voting rights group sought tax-exempt status from the IRS.

Retired military veteran Mark Drabik of Nebraska became active in and donated to conservative causes, then found the IRS challenging his church donations.

While the developing scandal over the targeting of conservatives by the tax agency has largely focused on its scrutiny of groups with words such as "tea party" or "patriot" in their names, these examples suggest the government was looking at a broader array of conservative groups and perhaps individuals.

Emerging stories from ordinary people raise questions about whether the IRS scrutiny extended beyond applicants for tax-exempt status and whether individuals who donated to these tax-exempt groups or conservative causes also were targeted.

Former IRS leaders have apologized for inappropriate scrutiny of conservative organizations. They haven't to date, however, divulged who developed the criteria, how they were developed or when.

Widening congressional investigations and federal lawsuits are likely to reveal more about the scope and intent of the inappropriate treatment of conservative groups by the IRS. The House Ways and Means Committee plans a hearing Tuesday to allow victims to testify for the first time.

The Treasury Department inspector general who's investigating IRS activities, J. Russell George, recently acknowledged he's looking into other watch lists created by IRS employees. He said he was barred by law from disclosing anything more.

Sue Martinek of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, already knows what happened to her and others involved in the Coalition for Life of Iowa.

She first sought tax-exempt status for the group in 2008, maintaining contact by mail and phone with a woman identified only as Ms. Richards in the Cincinnati office of the IRS that's now at the center of the scandal.

Richards told Martinek by phone in early 2009 that the group's application had been approved. But Richards added a condition, according to Martinek. Board members first needed to sign a letter promising not to picket in front of Planned Parenthood offices, Martinek said.

"We were pretty surprised," Martinek said. "I was sort of, 'If we have to, we have to, but this doesn't seem a good thing to do.' "

Engelbrecht, 43, can sympathize. Concerned about government regulation of her family's manufacturing business, she became dissatisfied with the political process and particularly the 2008 presidential choices.

She discovered like-minded viewpoints and attended rallies, organizing a group called the King Street Patriots.

After witnessing what she called voter irregularities in the Houston area, Engelbrecht formed a group called True the Vote. With a paid staff of five, it aims to educate 1 million poll workers nationwide on spotting election fraud. Liberal groups view it as a conservative effort aimed at restricting minority participation, a claim that True the Vote officials deny.

In summer 2010, the groups sought IRS tax-exempt status. Six months later, Engelbrecht and her husband faced their first audit.

IRS agents "came to a small family farm, counted the cattle, looked at the fence line," she said.

The IRS continued to pepper True the Vote with questions, Engelbrecht said. In February 2012, the IRS sent the organization a 10-page letter with 39 questions including a request for "all of your activity on Facebook and Twitter." Last week, still without a decision, True the Vote filed suit in federal district court asking for tax-exempt status.

The experience of retired Army Lt. Col. Mark Drabik suggests a possible new dimension to the IRS story.

After retiring in 2009 from a distinguished military career, he was free to express political beliefs openly. He frequently wrote to elected officials and participated in conservative marches in Washington, attending national tea party events and donating to conservative talk show host Glenn Beck's 912 movement.

Then came an audit letter from the IRS. The agency questioned him about church donations, deductions for family respite care and his daughter's equine therapy, he said. A doctor prescribed the last two as necessary because of the stress of caring for Drabik's 19-year-old autistic son. The deductions had been claimed for almost a decade without IRS complaint.

Amid the IRS scandal, Drabik wonders whether his support of conservative causes is to blame.

"I have to feel that that was a potential trigger" for the audit, he said, noting the sum of his donations and deductions was pretty constant over a decade.

"I am just a common citizen, who honorably served his nation for 23 years, who has not had this experience before and now honestly questions the actions and motivation of the IRS and how far they have gone in their actions."

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