May 16, 2013 -- Tea party activists descended on Washington today, promising to sue the Internal Revenue Service and claiming vindication in their long-held complaints about perceived government overreach.
At a news conference on Capitol Hill this morning, activists joined Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., to lambaste the federal government for targeting them with extra scrutiny as they applied for tax-exempt status as public-advocacy groups.
Tea partiers say the lengthy questionnaires, some of them 30 questions long, cost them hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars as they sent stacks of paperwork to the IRS and were held in legal limbo for years, uncertain of what activities they could pursue, and cut off from skeptical donors scared away by their pending status.
"This is not only unconstitutional, it is illegal," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative civil-rights group that says it is suing the IRS on behalf of 17 clients who were targeted for extra scrutiny because of their groups' leanings.
The IRS has admitted to targeting groups with the words "Tea Party" and "patriots" in their names, but documents obtained by ABC News reveal that the IRS targeted other groups with conservative leanings from 2010 to 2012.
The American Center for Law and Justice represents 27 tea party groups that received questionnaires from the IRS asking for information on their donors, members, finances, educational materials, events and, in at least one case, connections to another group and another individual. Sekulow said 17 of his clients are prepared to move ahead with a civil lawsuit against the IRS.
"This is extremely troubling because the axiom is: The power to tax is the power to destroy," Bachmann said at the news conference, held outside the Capitol.
"These horror stories of the government attempting to quiet the voices of critics is apparently rather rampant," added Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
After the news conference, activists met with Senate staff in the Capitol basement, according to a McConnell spokesman.
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky also joined the activists and lawmakers, lambasting the IRS for targeting conservative.
"This is a civil rights issue," said Adam Brandon of Washington-based FreedomWorks, which has facilitated organizing and communication between local and state-level tea party groups since 2009. "It's more like a Third World junta than a constitutional republic."
Later this afternoon, Brandon's group hosted nine activists at FreedomWorks headquarters on Capitol Hill to speak with reporters. Of the activists who attended, six are represented by the American Center for Law and Justice and plan to sue the IRS.
Some of the groups attained 501(c)4 tax-exempt status last year, some this year, and some said they have yet to receive a ruling from the IRS.
"We would have needed a U-Haul truck of about 20 feet to get it back to the IRS in Cincinnati," said Toby Marie Walker of the Waco Tea Party, speculating at how much paperwork it would have taken to satisfy all the IRS' requests.
"It's a month away from being three years [since her group requested tax-exempt status], and there is no resolution to this situation," said Dianne Belsom of the Laurens County Tea Party in South Carolina.
Others echoed the sentiment.
"We had to stop raising funds, and it has all but killed my organization," said Jay Devereaux, who said his group, Unite in Action, formed as a corporation before requesting 501(c)4 status and still has not been granted a decision, one way or another, by the IRS.
His group hosted a civic-engagement training session at the Omni Shoreham hotel in Washington and the IRS requested details on all speakers and educational materials disseminated in the 78 classes the group held, Devereaux said, a request he simply could not meet.
Now, his group remains in limbo, he said, owing money to funders and wondering about its status. His group would owe "somewhere in the neighborhood of $70,000 in back-taxes" if his request for 501(c)4 status were denied, Devereaux said.
But while the activists said extra IRS scrutiny had crippled them financially, they also said the IRS controversy has brought more interest to the tea party movement. Asked whether they'd gotten more member signups and donations since the IRS' apology brought attention to the incident, the activists nodded and affirmed.
"Not money, but support," Walker said.
Tom Zawistowski of the Ohio Liberty Coalition said, "They're afraid of the money. We need this to be settled. We're going to have a problem for a little bit."
FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe said interest in his group has spiked on social media since the IRS story became big news.
To all the activists who spoke to reporters, the IRS activities meant vindication of the tea party movement's central complaint about perceived government excess and a bloated, overbearing federal government. When the movement began in 2009, accusations of President Obama's "socialist takeover" were common at rallies, and the movement's opposition to government spending, taxes and debt were couched in allegations that the government had grown too big and too intrusive.
"It's a vindication of us, of all the terrible, horrible things that were said about us," Zawistowski said.
The irony of the situation was not lost on the activists who came to Washington to decry it. The tea party movement has opposed taxes and, at times, tea party GOP candidates have proposed eliminating the IRS. A movement dedicated to opposing government overreach now finds itself a victim of the very thing it warned about, activists said.
"The irony of us all being here, again talking about the IRS is amazing," Susan McLaughlin of the Liberty Township Tea Party in Ohio said, "because that's what started the tea party movement in our community."