CINCINNATI - Justin Binik-Thomas wants to know why a question about him is among 35 the Liberty Township Tea Party was instructed by the Internal Revenue Service to answer as part of the organization’s application for tax-exempt status last year.
“Provide details regarding your relationship with Justin Bink-Thomas,” question 26 reads.
With that single, misspelled query, Binik-Thomas, of Deer Park, believes he became the only individual to be singled out in any of the hundreds of questions asked by Cincinnati IRS employees who gave extra scrutiny to applications for tax-exempt status filed by conservative groups.
“That raises quite a few red flags of concern,” Binik-Thomas, 31, told WCPO Digital Thursday. “Why are you asking about me? What are you going to do with that information?”
The extra scrutiny the IRS gave to conservative groups like the Liberty Township Tea Party is raising more than red flags in Washington. The disclosure last week that the IRS had improperly targeted conservative groups ignited a political firestorm, launched congressional hearings and investigations and lead to the ouster of IRS Commissioner Steven Miller.
President Barack Obama, who has promised a full inquiry, is facing increasing political heat over what looks to be a practice of targeting conservative groups rooted in Cincinnati for more than two years.
The Cincinnati office is tasked with determining which organizations were qualified to be tax-exempt under section 501 (c)(4) of the tax code, which allows not only tax-exempt status but lets those groups keep their donors anonymous. They also can lobby and participate in political campaigns as long as their primary purpose is the promotion of “social welfare.” A 501 (c)(3) nonprofit is prohibited from supporting political candidates and have limits on lobbying.
Republicans Call for Deeper Look into Targeting
Ousted IRS Commissioner Miller has blamed the practice on two “rogue” employees in the Cincinnati IRS office. Congress and notably Republicans are looking deeper.
Binik-Thomas has no idea why he was singled out in the questionnaire in a letter to the tea party group dated March 1, 2012. While he’s a co-founder of the Cincinnati Tea Party, the business owner isn’t even a member of the Liberty Township group.
He is so concerned that he’s flying to Washington, D.C., to be present during the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee’s hearing Friday. The Senate Finance Committee also plans to launch an investigation into the practice.
Binik-Thomas said he doesn’t expect the hearings to give him answers. But he said he thinks it’s important to be there to show the face of someone who has been directly affected by the scandal.
Former Rep. Jean Schmidt tried to help Binik-Thomas get answers last year. But all he got back was a letter stating that that the IRS would never ask about an individual by name.
The letter that asked about him by name, now made public, shows just how wrong that IRS response was.
“They haven’t clarified it, apologized for it or even acknowledged it,” Binik-Thomas said. “I’m very concerned about what the data is used for.”
Three Years, Hundreds of Hours and Still No Ruling
Tim Savaglio is concerned, too. He’s the Liberty Township Tea Party board member who has been trying to get the organization’s tax-exempt status approved for more than three years.
He still hasn’t gotten a ruling on the group’s request for 501 (c)(3) status. Savaglio is more than a little frustrated.
“We’ve let the process work for three years,” he said. “All we want to do is sit down with the IRS and have them tell us where we’re at, what their concerns are and give us an opportunity to assuage their concerns and move forward. I am of the opinion right now that it’s time to come to a conclusion. I think it is reasonable.”
After all, Savaglio has lived the scandal that much of the rest of the nation has just learned about.
A retired project manager, Savaglio estimates he’s spent hundreds of hours over the past three years answering the additional questions his group has gotten from the IRS.
Some of those questions made sense to Savaglio, like one that asked whether the group has conducted educational events or rallies. “Educational events, yes,” he said. “Rallies, no.”
Others, he found intrusive and even odd.
There was the question about Binik-Thomas. Several others asked how many volunteers the group had, how many volunteers were devoted to each of the group’s activities and what types of resources were devoted to each activity.
“It’s like the Obama campaign is doing opposition research,” Savaglio said. “That’s what these questions appear to be in retrospect.”
Savaglio estimated he’s spent hundreds of hours over the past three years answering the IRS’s questions.
Yet he still has no ruling.
Although he’s been at work trying to secure tax-exempt status for the group for years, Savaglio still has no ruling.
“I don’t need my government doing this to me,” said Savaglio, an unpaid volunteer. “I served my government for 24 years in the Air Force. So I don’t need this.”
Local Woman: Process 'Kind of Intimidating'
Laura Hoyer did receive 501 (c) (4) tax-exempt status for the Cincinnati 9/12 Project – after waiting two years.
The organization describes itself as being focused on “preserving the principles and values of our Founding Fathers, as captured in our nation’s constitution.” Like “tea party,” the term “9/12” was among those used by IRS employees to determine which groups should get extra scrutiny in their applications.
Hoyer, the group’s volunteer treasurer, got her first batch of questions in November 2011, a full 20 months after the Cincinnati 9/12 Project had applied for 501 (c) (4) status.
She answered those and then got a second batch of questions in March 2012.
“I work two jobs,” Hoyer said. “I’m a volunteer. I know I spent 100 hours between the two letters, assembling all the information.”
As treasurer, Hoyer had to sign her name on all the documents.
“It was kind of intimidating,” she said. “I’m signing my name on these documents that – if they don’t like it – then I’m liable for this. It’s frightening.”
That’s why the Northern Kentucky Tea Party decided not to seek tax-exempt status at all, said Garth Kuhnhein, former president of the organization.
Conservative groups have known for some time they were being targeted, Kuhnhein said.
“It was a chilling effect the IRS put on groups,” he said. “A lot of people involved in the tea party own their own companies, and they understand the power of the federal government, particularly the IRS.”
Because of that, Kuhnhein said, the Northern Kentucky group decided to steer clear.
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Justin Binik-Thomas wants answers.