The first groups that claim they were unfairly scrutinized by the Internal Revenue Service have filed suit against the agency in federal courts, seeking damages and the granting of their long-delayed tax-exempt status application.
True the Vote, a Houston-based voter watchdog group, filed a complaint in federal court in Washington, D.C., today over what it is calling “unlawful actions by the IRS in the processing of its application for exempt status.” The group was founded in June of 2010 and is affiliated with the King Street Patriots, a Tea Party group started in December of 2009.
The group says it has been waiting three years for its tax exempt status to either be granted or denied, first applying in July of 2010. During that time, the group’s president Catherine Engelbrecht told ABC News she has been personally audited and even visited by agents from the Bureau of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The group wants the IRS Review Policy declared unconstitutional under the First Amendment and it is asking the court to “permanently enjoin the IRS from further implementing and applying the IRS Review Policy and any other similar policies.” Damages sought include the awarding of $1,000 for “each unauthorized inspection of its return information.”
True the Vote wants “actual damages in excess of $85,000 incurred as a result of the the IRS Review Policy and the IRS Employees’ violations of Plaintiff’s constitutional rights.” They seek the return of their attorney fees, any “other relief as the Court deems just,” amongst other financial and non-financial damages.
The NorCal Tea Party has also filed suit against the IRS. Citizens for Self Governance, which is run by the man who started the Tea Party Patriots, Mark Meckler, filed on their behalf in federal court in Cincinnati and set up a website: www.suetheirs.com.
The complaint does not specify damages like True the Vote’s, but it describes their suit as a “class action,” although Meckler told ABC News no other groups have jumped on board yet. He said he is talking to other groups and believes they will be added.
The suit, which names the IRS, Department of Treasury, and unnamed IRS employees, was filed Monday and Meckler told ABC News they wanted to file because they saw other groups using the scandal to raise money, but they want to see justice served.
“There is a focus on Congress, but from our perspective Congress is the problem,” Meckler said. “We don’t believe they will fix it. This will take citizen litigation.”
In its complaint, True the Vote says because of the group’s “perceived conservative policy positions and affiliation with Tea Party organizations, the IRS and IRS Employees systematically targeted True the Vote’s application for additional review and scrutiny, whereby True the Vote was deliberately subjected to numerous unnecessary and burdensome requests for information about its operations and affiliations.”
“Consequently, True the Vote was forced to furnish to the IRS information and documents wholly unnecessary to the determination of True the Vote’s tax-exempt status, which were repeatedly accessed and inspected by IRS agents. The processing of True the Vote’s application was deliberately delayed and its recognition as a tax-exempt organization has been improperly withheld as a result of Defendants’ actions,” the complaint reads.
“After answering hundreds of questions and producing thousands of documents, we’re done waiting. The IRS does not have the power to pocket veto our application. Federal law empowers groups like True the Vote to force a decision in court – which is precisely what we aim to do,” Englebrecht said in a statement.
Englebrecht said in her previous interview with ABC News that she was told during the application process by an analyst in Cincinnati: “I’m just following directions and the directions are coming from Washington,” which seems to contradict the IRS’ statements that the unfair scrutiny was solely coming out of the Cincinnati office.
True the Vote says the group is “dedicated solely to promoting election integrity in our Republic” and they “do not pick winners and losers,” but the group came under scrutiny during the election for its work monitoring polling places, with critics saying it was trying to suppress Democratic and minority voters.
True the Vote is being represented by attorney Cleta Mitchell, who has been closely involved in the case as the scandal unfolded.
“We are not going to allow the IRS to claim, as it has been doing in the past week, that the targeting of conservative groups is over and ‘everything has been fixed.’ It is not yet fixed and this litigation is a vital step both to resolve True the Vote’s status and to learn exactly what happened inside the IRS,” Mitchell said in a statement.
The suit names Steven Miller, the acting commissioner of the IRS who was forced to resign in the scandal, along with Douglas Shulman, the former commissioner of the IRS who left in November, but presided over the agency when this extra scrutiny was said to be taking place, and Lois Lerner, the director the IRS unit that oversees tax-exempt organizations.
Others named are Susan Maloney, Ronald Bell, Janine L. Estes, and Faye Ng, all IRS Exempt Organizations Specialists True the Vote says dealt with their application. They are also naming “unknown named employees of the Internal Revenue Service” who “developed, implemented, applied, approved or oversaw the unconstitutional IRS identification, review, and processing criteria and policies described herein.”
True the Vote is working with the ActRight Legal Foundation on the suit and the group says this is “just the first of several cases” they plan to file against the IRS. Another group, the American Center for Law and Justice, is planning on bringing a suit against the IRS as well. Theirs will be on behalf of at least 17 tea party groups, but possibly more.
And it’s not just conservatives. The group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed its own lawsuit against the IRS today to try to force the agency to be more clear and issue guidelines on what type of organizations qualify for status as 501(c)(4) groups.
The IRS did not immediately respond to request for comment on the suits.