CHAMPAIGN — The leaders of four area tea party groups said Monday that they were not subject to harassment by the Internal Revenue Service.
Last week, the head of the IRS division on tax-exempt organizations, Lois Lerner, apologized to tea party and other conservative-related groups for unwarranted scrutiny of their applications for tax-exempt status.
Members of Congress on Monday called for further investigation of the issue. Also on Monday, President Obama called the charges "outrageous" and said, "I will not tolerate it."
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, believes "it is completely irresponsible for the IRS to be targeting specific types of groups, regardless of their political leanings," said spokesman Andrew Flach. "Actions like this from the government are unacceptable and betray public trust."
But the IRS apparently did not target any of the tea party groups in East Central Illinois. Two of the groups, in fact, said they never sought tax-exempt status from the IRS.
"We've never had much money to operate on anyway. We specifically organized it as a club because we knew some of that stuff might have been going on," said Jan Peterson of the Ford County Tea Party.
Al Reynolds, most recently affiliated with the Illiana Tea Party, said none of the three groups he's been associated with had sought tax-exempt status.
"Most of the tea parties in central Illinois are too small," said Reynolds, who lives in Danville.
But people associated with tea party groups in Champaign-Urbana and Decatur said they sought the status but were never intimidated.
"I know that our treasurer, Karen Olsen, was very adamant that we just keep everything informational and not political, that this is what's going on, but you make up you own mind. We didn't get into putting down political candidates, or making endorsements. Even when I ran they had me speak a couple of times, but they never endorsed," said Reynolds, who once ran as a candidate for state senator in the district that includes most of Champaign-Urbana.
Pam Johnson of Decatur, coordinator with a tea party-affiliated group there, said she was unaware of any harassment.
"We definitely would have been targeted because the name of our groups is Restore Our Constitution. But thankfully we have not," she said.
Two of the tea party members said they were not surprised by the disclosures leveled against the IRS.
"It doesn't surprise me a bit. It's interesting that it has always been a threat for anyone who disagrees with the government that they'll sic the IRS on them. But it's always been a threat," said Norm Davis. "This is the first time, outside of criminal enterprises, where it has come to fruition. To me on a personal level, I find this very, very disturbing that it would be used in such a way against any group."
He compared the extraordinary IRS scrutiny of tea party and other conservative groups to the FBI investigations on college campuses in the 1960s and '70s, and probes into communism in the 1950s.
"Whoever authorized this in the first place, whether it was one person or a group of people, they should lose their jobs. That's the bare minimum," said Norm Davis. "I don't believe anyone was financially harmed in this, which I guess remains to be seen. But we should have safeguards against the government running anything against us if we are in a legal situation. And the tea party was not doing anything illegal."
Reynolds was matter-of-fact about the disclosures against the IRS.
"That doesn't surprise me. That's the way politics is. I'm not surprised at all," Reynolds said. "They're trying to demonize who the tea party people are, and not just the tea party. It's all those quasi-patriot groups. They're hitting them all."
Three of the tea party groups have fallen on hard times in the last year, their members said.
Norm Davis, the last head of the Champaign group, said "it is in the process of being dissolved."
Peterson, of the Ford County group, said "we're still going to some degree, but I'm trying to find new leadership. Phil (her husband) and I are kinda burned out on that. We would work our tails off to get people to come and it just was a waste of time with all that hard work and so few people would turn out."
Reynolds said he hopes to bring back the Illiana group.
"Nothing is happening and I've had people ask since the election what they've been doing. I inquired with a few people so I'm probably going to take the reins back of the Illiana Tea Party and get things going again, schedule some rallies and things like that," Reynolds said.