Are Texas-based tea party groups being unfairly singled out for persecution by crazed IRS agents? Or, rather, are they in fact actually violating federal election laws and thus deserving of careful scrutiny? If you read Milwaukee's daily newpaper, you might think the former; but if you read Houston's daily paper, you might think the latter.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel jumped into the continuing fray over the Internal Revenue Service's handling of tea party requests for tax-free status last week by localizing the story. The paper's prominently placed headline fairly shouted: "IRS asked about Wisconsin recall, Texas tea party group says". The story went on:
The Northeast Tarrant Tea Party posted on its website that IRS officials asked for extensive information about the group's activities, including copies of all the tweets, Facebook posts and fliers that the group had sent out.
Julie McCarty, president of the Fort Worth, Texas, area tea party group, said the IRS also asked it to "explain our relationship with Verify the Recall," an effort to confirm the signatures that had been turned in last year as part of the petition to recall Gov. Scott Walker.
McCarty said she thought it was clear that group had been unfairly targeted and was still waiting for a decision on its tax-exempt status. Her group had minimal involvement with the recall fight in Wisconsin or Verify the Recall, she said.
The group's application for 501(c)4 status, which would enable it to operate tax-free and accept anonymous donations, is still pending. But while that case is unresolved, check out what has happened with respect to another Texas-based tea party group. This headline just ran in the Houston Chronicle: "Judge rules tea party group a PAC, not a nonprofit". The story begins:
A Travis County district court judge ruled this week that a Houston-based tea party group is not a nonprofit corporation as it claims, but an unregistered political action committee that illegally aided the Republican Party through its poll-watching efforts during the 2010 elections.
The summary judgment by Judge John Dietz upheld several Texas campaign finance laws that had been challenged on constitutional grounds by King Street Patriots, a tea party organization known for its "True the Vote" effort to uncover voter fraud.
The ruling grew out of a 2010 lawsuit filed by the Texas Democratic Party against the King Street Patriots. The Democrats charged that the organization made unlawful political contributions to the Texas Republican Party and various Republican candidates by training poll watchers in cooperation with the party and its candidates and by holding candidate forums only for GOP candidates.
Unlike the Journal Sentinel, the Chronicle story noted that as a nonprofit, King Street Patriots does not have to list its funders but by law then must not participate in partisan activity. To support a party or a candidate, a nonprofit must create a political action committee. PACs can be involved in partisan politics, but must list their donors.
Which is why tea party groups and massive outfits like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS want to be simultaneously treated as both political and not political. Because then they get to accept anonymous donations, they aren't taxable and they can be partisan, all just by asserting it. The IRS strained to figure out that intestinally designed argument. No wonder it took many months for a small band of low level IRS staffers to finally approve every single tea party application to date. The only real outrage is that they approved very single tea party application to date.
We'll wait with high expectations for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to catch up with this story and balance its early report with word of the Houston case. Yes, it's true: Important legal people looking at the goals and aims of the tea party [the name alone sounds kinda political, huh?!] are skeptical that those supposedly betrodden, intimidated groups should in great numbers so far have been approved for non-profit status by the IRS. Although, realistically speaking, we'll probably be waiting a long time to read about it in the Journal Sentinel.