In the meantime, the paperwork and uncertainty were burdensome, organizers say, some complaining they spent hundreds of hours answering the IRS's questions. Activists told ABC News of thick binders and stacks of paper hundreds of sheets high, saved in their offices, of multi-year IRS correspondence.
"It's just hundreds of hours and plenty of money, and this was not something any American would want to have to deal with," said Larry Nordvig, executive director of the Richmond Tea Party, who joined the group earlier this year after its IRS saga was over.
After launching in 2009, the group was asked a series of questions by the IRS in September 2010, and even more in January 2012, before receiving its tax-exempt status that summer.
"There's like 500 pages of stuff back and forth," Nordvig told ABC. "There was kind of a cloud over us. ... It did curtail the things we could do. We could not go outside the IRS rules. Tax-exempt status allows you to do certain things, and we did not go outside them."
Issue-advocacy groups often apply for 501(c)4 status because it allows them to conduct political activity like campaigning for and against candidates, as long as it's not their primary purpose. Had the groups been designated under section 501(c)3 by the IRS, they would be restricted in when and how they could mention political candidates. On the other hand, if they were designated under section 527, they would have to disclose their donors.
"I think it was totally unnecessary, I mean we were not different from any other 501(c)3 or (c), out there, and I think there was a reason why they chose to pick on the Tea Parties, because they didn't want us to have an impact," said Margie Dresher, who launched the OKC Tea Party in Oklahoma City in 2009.
She heard nothing from the IRS until she received a questionnaire in February 2012, then finally received tax-exempt status in July 2012.
"Maybe it was a scare tactic, I don't know," Dresher said.
Toby Marie Walker, who heads up the Waco Tea Party, along with Carol Waddell, the treasurer of the group, were also targeted, they told ABC News.
Waddell said "a lot of the questions that were asked they wanted to know very specific details concerning people that came to our meetings, people that spoke they wanted transcripts of what people said at our meetings."
"We felt it was intimidation and harassment just because it tied up a lot of our time and kept us from doing other activities that we would have normally been doing in an election year last year," Waddell said. "It was a hassle, it was expensive, it was time-consuming and it was pretty frightening."
As for Stefano, who now works for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, she wants an investigation that goes all the way to the top comparing the scandal to Watergate:
"It became very frightening, the IRS has the power to target the political opposition of a sitting president."