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WASHINGTON — “We want to know what they are doing and who is doing it,” said Washington attorney Cleta Mitchell in announcing a lawsuit intended to force the Obama administration to reveal the IRS’ new plans for tea party groups.
The Tea Party Patriots, or TPP, filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. against the IRS and the Treasury Department, asking the court to force the release of documents related to proposed regulations for 501(c)4 tax-exempt organizations that the group find “unduly restrictive, unreasonable and burdensome.”
The TPP believes the documents will also shed light on the roles played by former IRS official Lois Lerner and other administration officials in developing the regulations.
The documents the suit seeks concern the IRS’ “Guidance for Tax Exempt Social Welfare Organizations on Candidate-Related Political Activities,” announced November 29, 2013.
The TPP said it filed a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request on December 10, to try to obtain information on the proposed regulations, but filed suit after the IRS refused to provide any documents.
President and co-founder Jenny Beth Martin describes Tea Party Patriots as a national grassroots coalition with more than 3,400 locally organized chapters and more than 15 million supporters nationwide.
“Citizens shouldn’t have to go to court to find out what sort of secret activities their government is up to,” said Martin, adding, “It’s truly shameful; President Obama promised a transparent government but instead, people have to file lawsuits just to learn the truth.”
Mitchell has represented about a dozen conservative groups that believe they were subjected to dubious, invasive and extra scrutiny by the IRS while applying for tax-exempt status.
She said the process for devising these new regulations should be transparent but is not, and that “We have a right to know” where they are coming from.
Mitchell said she knows there are documents, memos and emails by individuals who have been working on the new regulations since June 2012, and her client wants access to that information.
When WND asked Mitchell if there is anything to prevent the IRS from merely implementing the new regulations, she said “The IRS has to follow the law just like we do” and that any changes they make would have to hold up in court.
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said on Monday the IRS is likely rewriting the proposed regulations announced in Nov. 2013, and will be reissued at some point.
“With Monday’s announcement that the IRS may issue revised regulations for groups such as Tea Party Patriots, getting to the origin of the Administration’s plans to muzzle us becomes even more urgent,” insisted Martin. “We plan to submit a new FOIA request this week to learn what has transpired behind the scenes since the proposed rules were first issued, and to add new claims to our lawsuit if the IRS and Treasury continue to ignore our requests for information.”
Martin said the suit argues the proposed regulations would impose significant burdens and restrictions on the First Amendment activities, speech, and associational rights of every social welfare organization in America.
She noted the proposed rules resulted in more than 150,000 public comments, which IRS officials described as a record number of responses to a proposed regulation.
The lawsuit notes IRS communications released by the House Ways and Means Committee, and claims, “high ranking individuals within the Treasury and the IRS began as early as June 2012 to develop new regulations ‘off plan’ and in secret.”
The suit specifically mentions email about the new regulations from Treasury official Ruth Madrigal to Lerner, the former head of exempt organizations at the IRS who may face criminal investigation and was found in contempt of Congress for her role in the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups seeking tax exempt status.
“The IRS is continuing to scheme behind closed doors to restrict our First Amendment rights. Tea Party Patriots intends to continue to force the IRS and the Obama Administration to comply with the law, to come out of the darkness and to conduct this process in the light of day,” said Martin.
Earlier this year, Martin and Mitchell outlined to WND how on Nov. 29, 2013 the day after Thanksgiving, the IRS quietly proposed regulations that they say would drastically change the nature of elections and severely limit the power of conservative grassroots organizations, such as tea parties, by redefining what is considered tax-exempt political activity.
The proposal would change the rules for a type of tax-exempt political organization called a 501(c)(4), which typically engage in citizen education and grassroots lobbying.
Numerous grassroots organizations (including many tea parties) are 501(c)(4)s, and many prominent conservatives see the proposed rules as an attempt to shut down such groups as the Tea Party Patriots, the Family Research Council and the American Family Association.
The new rules would remove tax-exempt status for certain political activities by redefining them as “candidate-related political activity.”
According to Mitchell, who represents a number of the tea-party groups targeted by the IRS, these proposals would treat as candidate-related activities virtually everything that a 501(c)(4) normally does:
- Grassroots lobbying
- Candidate forums
- Candidate debates
- Voter registration
- Voting guides
- Issue advocacy
- Any public statements by officers of 501(c)(4)s that reference incumbents and candidates
Additionally, any event at which any candidate for office appears within 30 days of a primary, or 60 days of a general election, would be automatically deemed a “candidate-related political activity.”
The rules would also treat meetings with public officials as taxable events, even if the appearance was in an official capacity and not as a candidate.
Mitchell said 501(c)(4) groups would be left with very little to do because almost everything would be a candidate-related political activity.
She predicted it would force citizens to get their information about candidates from 30-second television ads and the media rather than from candidate debates, candidate forums and by seeing public officials face-to-face in town hall and other meetings.
Martin told WND, “It’s going to affect our ability to have free speech and hold members of Congress accountable.”
“Speaking as one who’s been targeted by the IRS,” she said the regulations will severely hamper her groups members’ ability as citizens to coordinate with one another and understand what Congress is doing, and then to be able to decide when they need to hold Congress accountable.
That’s because, Martin emphasized, “It costs money to get a big group of people together to research bills and find out what Congress is doing and then get the information out to people.”
In the video below, Mitchell details how she believes the proposed IRS regulations would silence tea parties.
Confusion may arise over the 501(c)(4) designation because the IRS calls such groups "social welfare organizations," which may conjure images of neighborhood watches or volunteer fire departments.
In fact, on March 12, 2012, Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Al Franken, D-Minn., and five other
Democrats signed a letter demanding the IRS target conservative groupsand impose tighter restrictions on 501(c)(4) groups affiliated with the tea parties because, they claimed, the groups were "masquerading as social welfare organizations."
And, sure enough, just a few months later, in September 2012, Lerner announced the agency "will consider proposed changes"in the regulations governing eligibility for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status because of complaints that some "social welfare" groups were being used too politically.
That's the same Lerner who ended up, on May 10, 2013, apologizing for the IRS having inappropriately targeted conservative groups (such as 501(c)(4) tea parties) for years.
After sparking the entire IRS scandal, Lerner then invoked her Fifth Amendment right on May 22, 2013, and again this year on March 5, rather than explain her actions to Congress.
Follow Garth Kant on Twitter @DCgarth.