Tea Party Maui was among hundreds of groups targeted by the Internal Revenue Service for extra scrutiny when it applied for tax-exempt status in May 2010, said Bill Doyle, the group's president in 2012.
"It's chilling," the Kihei resident said Tuesday in a phone interview while he was visiting relatives in Arizona. "What's going on in America where political views make you a target for intimidation?"
The Maui Tea Party has about 500 individuals and groups who receive email and other information from the nonpartisan group that advocates good government, fiscal responsibility, free enterprise and constitutionally limited government, among other issues, Doyle said.
In May 2010, the group applied for nonprofit status under the IRS Code's Section 501c(4), which allows an organization to engage in political activity as long as it's not more than 50 percent of its activity, he said. The application process was expected to take six to 12 weeks.
In late August of 2010, the group received a request for additional information from the IRS, Doyle said.
"That in itself was outrageous," Doyle said, because of the level and depth of information sought. Nevertheless, the group met a two-week deadline to submit the information, which was reviewed by an attorney, he said.
"We expected that would be enough to satisfy" the IRS' demands for more information, he said.
But the group heard nothing from the IRS for the rest of 2010, and the request for tax-exempt status languished for much of 2011 as well, he said.
That year, he said, the group inquired about its application and found out its case was being reviewed by officials in an IRS office in Cincinnati, which has become the focal point of a national inquiry about the agency improperly targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they've applied for tax-exempt status.
At one point in 2011, a Tea Party Maui official went to the Maui IRS office but was rebuffed, Doyle said.
"He wasted an entire day in the office," he said. "Nobody was willing to help. No one was available."
The IRS was taking "kind of a stonewall approach," he said.
More inquiries received "wishy-washy" or "I'll get around to it" responses, Doyle said.
Then, at the end of January 2012, as Doyle was beginning his yearlong term as president of the Tea Party Maui, the group received a letter from the IRS regarding the group's request for tax-exempt status.
It said that the IRS wanted more information, he said. The letter demanded membership and donor lists, copies of all website pages, all copies of the group's "Pono Press" monthly newsletter, a list of all speakers who had addressed group meetings, copies of their texts of speeches, a list of family members related to members or former members of the group, a list of any members who've run for public office or intend to run for office and the identities of anyone with the group who had been arrested for being in a public demonstration.
"It was so onerous and overreaching that I bristled," Doyle said.
He said his reaction was: "This is wrong. This is an abuse of power."
The IRS letter violated the group's First Amendment right and right to freedom of assembly, he said.
The IRS intimidation was aimed at trying to "quiet the voices of those critical of the (President Barack Obama) administration," he said.
"They were trying to divert us from our mission," he said. "It was designed to get people to throw up their hands and give up."
Doyle said that the Maui group refused to submit the requested information, maintaining that the application should be granted based on previously submitted information.
Around then, the group discovered that Tea Party groups in Virginia and Texas were being targeted in the same way, he said. And eventually more than 300 groups nationally were involved in opposing the IRS' treatment of the groups.
Officials with the American Center for Law and Justice were "outraged" and took up the groups' cause, helping them with their fight with the IRS, Doyle said.
Then, in July, Tea Party Maui received its long-sought, tax-exempt status, he said. It was 26 months after the initial application that should have taken six to 12 weeks to process.
The harassment detracted from the groups' ability to be effective in the 2010 congressional and the 2012 presidential races, Doyle said.
The IRS acknowledgment that it was wrong to target the groups and its apology were "lukewarm," he said.
Doyle said that he hopes there will be a full hearing before Congress to get to the bottom of what happened with the IRS and its targeting of groups.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department is investigating the IRS, and there are investigations by three committees in Congress. An investigation by the Treasury inspector general for tax administration concluded that ineffective management at the IRS allowed agents to improperly target Tea Party groups for more than 18 months.
Obama has called the report's findings of IRS actions "intolerable and inexcusable."
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.