July 4, 1776, was the date leaders of a hodge-podge collection of British colonies decided to thumb their collective nose at globular King George and form a fledgling nation.
One catalyst for this American declaration of independence occurred three years earlier, in Boston, Massachusetts, after the British Parliament thought taxing East India Company tea for American consumption was an exceptionally good idea. In response, a group of Americans dressed as Native Americans tossed a shipload of this taxed tea into wet Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. The British responded by tightening rather than relaxing the economic noose around Americans. Not the brightest move.
First, let me preface my remarks here by saying I have never been to a Tea Party meeting or event, only know three people in this area associated with the Tea Party, and have discussed with only one of them anything substantive about what the Tea Party is or does. The latter was attorney Andy Johnson, a Mankato Tea Party organizer, back a couple years ago. Our telephone conversation then lasted perhaps fifteen minutes and was strictly related to gathering information for an issue of this magazine, for which he was quoted.
Heck, I don’t even know whether to call it the Tea Party or the tea party.
Some people speaking for the Tea Party really jolt me. Others inspire. Most I don’t know a darn thing about. Yet I recognize their First Amendment right to free speech. The two people I know locally involved with the Tea Party—besides Andy Johnson, assuming he’s still involved—definitely aren’t card-carrying Republicans, but more libertarian and independent. They are business owners.
Let me take you back to May 2013, when the Mankato Tea Party organized a protest outside a Mankato IRS office. According to eyewitnesses I interviewed, who are the two unnamed business owners I mentioned, a Department of Homeland Security officer showed up that morning before the protests. The officer drove a marked Homeland Security vehicle and had a handgun, handcuffs, billy club, camera, and binoculars. One of my eyewitnesses reported seeing the DHS officer writing down onto a notepad what the eyewitness said were license plate numbers. In addition to the DHS officer, the IRS had its own security personnel, perhaps to squelch any protest gone sour.
To one business owner, the DHS presence felt intimidating, and demeaning. The other wasn’t so concerned, and believed its presence was simply standard operating procedure.
Recently, the two both claimed the IRS audited their tax returns within months following the protest. They had never been audited before in their combined entire lives, they said. Not ever. They said there might have been a connection between their Tea Party activities and the audits, but no one will ever know for sure, of course.
About the same time as the Mankato protest, national news outlets were reporting on the IRS having made Tea Party and conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status answer a number of intrusive and legally unnecessary questions—a series of questions not asked of other types of groups, such as: asking for donor names; a list of issues important to the organization and the organization’s positions on the issues; the political affiliations of the officer and director, and if the officers or directors had or would run for public office; and finally, the types of conversations members and participants had during the (organization’s) activities.
Sometimes the questions were far more intrusive. From a June 2013 USAToday article, Dianne Belsom of the Laurens County (SC) Tea Party said the IRS had wanted her Facebook postings, meeting agendas, ads, press releases, and any videos she had of event speakers. The IRS had gone so far as to ask some groups applying to describe the content of their prayers.
Then in May 2014, the Washington Times reported that not all the 24 secret lists the IRS had of Tea Party donors had been destroyed—as had been reported. Of the three lists not destroyed, it was discovered the IRS had audited ten percent of these donors after the donors’ names had shown up on the lists. The “ten percent” figure came from the IRS itself after a House committee request. About one percent of overall IRS filers get audited annually.
This IRS scrutiny of Tea Party groups applying for tax-exempt status most certainly suppressed the Tea Party’s ability to raise cash for the 2012 election cycle. It infringed upon its members’ free speech rights. Many Tea Party groups did not get tax-exempt status until after the 2012 election, after more than two years of trying. Dozens of like-minded groups withdrew their names from the application process due to their fears and the hassle.
The IRS has admitted submitting Tea Party and other right-leaning groups to additional scrutiny. The IRS has not treated everyone equally. About 75 Tea Party groups around the U.S. were affected directly, including one in Rochester, and at least one indirectly, in Mankato. The Mankato group was waiting on the Rochester group to be approved in order to use Rochester’s application as a template.
I write all this—and I have touched on only a mere fraction of what the IRS has done to these groups—not because I’m a Tea Partier or rabble-rouser or anti-IRS. It’s because I’m a business owner and a free speech advocate. I’m an American.
When the federal government itself infringes upon the free speech rights of the Tea Party or any group of American citizens, or of business owners in Mankato, we all have had our freedoms infringed upon—all of us. We’re all in this experiment called “America” together: us liberals, conservatives, libertarians, greens, tea partiers, independents, and socialists.
What the IRS did was un-American. They played the role of bully.
As for the business owners who were eyewitnesses, they will be reading this column, just like you. They chose not to identify themselves for this magazine, and I don’t blame them. That’s exactly why the 1773 Bostonians disguised themselves as Native Americans. They also were afraid.
Thanks again for reading Southern Minnesota’s first and only locally owned business magazine, the only one reaching 8,800 business decision makers in nine southern Minnesota counties. See you next issue.