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Rochester Tea Party among groups scrutinized by IRS

An internal IRS document made public Wednesday shows the Rochester Tea Party Patriots were one of 162 groups applying for tax-exempt status that were targeted for additional scrutiny.

USA Today obtained the internal 2011 document , which includes comments by Washington, D.C.-based IRS attorneys listing concerns about each group's application. More than 80 percent of the groups listed were conservative, according to the newspaper. Issues raised by attorneys included anti-Obama comments and "inflammatory" or "emotional language." In the case of the Rochester Tea Party Patriots, the attorneys wrote the group was involved in lobbying, and there was "little to no education aspects other than bare description of legislation; no substantive discussion of issues."

The fact that the local group made the list comes as no surprise to former Rochester Tea Party Patriots Chairwoman Cindy Maves. The group spent nearly three years fighting to get tax-exempt status and is one of 41 conservative groups suing the IRS and other federal officials alleging the additional scrutiny violated their constitutional rights.

"We want to make sure that this isn't going to keep happening. We're really not looking for financial benefit from this. We are more looking to make sure this stops, that this doesn't happen to anybody," Maves said.

She also takes issue with the IRS attorneys' assertion the group does not engage in education activities, noting it holds monthly meetings that feature speakers talking about a wide range of public policy issues.

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Also making the IRS's "political advocacy cases" list in 2011 was the Minnesota Campaign for Liberty , an organization that describes itself as "dedicated to promoting the ideals of liberty and limited government in Minnesota."

'Inappropriate criteria'

An inspector general's report in May concluded the IRS in early 2010 began using "inappropriate criteria" to flag organizations seeking tax-exempt status for additional review. That included singling out groups based on their names, such as those with the name "Tea Party" in the title and their policy positions.

Maves said the group's quest for tax-exempt status began in 2009 when it applied for 501(c)(3) status as a charitable organization. In order to gain that status, groups are prohibited from campaigning for candidates or having lobbying be a substantial part of the group's activities. After hearing nothing for months, the group contacted the IRS and was told they had never received the application. They sent a second application and for months heard nothing again.

On Feb. 19, 2012, the Rochester group received a letter from the IRS demanding they turn over documentation dating back to the group's creation in 2009. The letter asked for all meeting minutes, a list of speakers and their speeches, all Facebook posts, all tweets posted on the group's Twitter account and a list of all members with their addresses and whether board members had considered political office. The group had until March 13, 2012, to provide the requested information, or the group's application would be voided.

Maves said the group requested additional time but had no intention of handing over any of the information. They contacted the national Tea Party organization to report what was going on with the hope that the IRS' actions would come to light.

In June 2012, the IRS contacted the group and informed them they should apply for 501(c)(4) status instead, which covers not-for-profit civic leagues or organizations operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare. On Sept. 6, 2012, the group received 501(c)(4) status.

Federal lawsuit

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The American Center for Law and Justice, a legal nonprofit organization that is focused on "protecting religious and constitutional freedoms," is representing the Rochester Tea Party Patriots and other conservative groups in the federal lawsuit. David French, senior legal counsel for the group, said it is "absurd" that it took 34 months for the Rochester group to get its tax-exempt status. He said this latest internal document with the list of 162 organizations offers more proof these groups were unfairly targeted.

"They are essentially making up categories of evaluation here for these groups and providing highly subjective, arbitrary definitions to try and categorize and delay and sometimes not grant these applications," French said.

The lawsuit is still in the initial phase. The IRS and other individuals being sued by the group have until next month to file a response to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are seeking an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive monetary damages.

Maves said the group's desire to join the federal lawsuit was motivated in large part by DFL Sen. Al Franken's decision to write a letter to the IRS commissioner calling for greater scrutiny of social welfare organizations seeking tax-exempt status. As such, she said the group felt it was important that a Minnesota organization be represented in the lawsuit.

In February 2012, Franken did write a letter asking the IRS to take a closer look at groups seeking 501(c)(4) status to make sure they were not engaged in substantial political activity, which would violate the law. The letter did not specifically mention tea party or conservative groups.

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