Jillian Kay Melchior at National Review Online:
A tea-party group targeted by Democrats gets attention from the IRS—and the FBI, OSHA, and the ATF.
Catherine Engelbrecht’s tale has all the markings of a classic conspiracy theory: She says she thinks that because of her peaceful political activity, she and her family was targeted for scrutiny by hostile federal agencies.
Yet as news emerges that the Internal Revenue Service wielded its power to obstruct conservative groups, Catherine’s story becomes credible and chilling. It also raises questions about whether other federal agencies have used their executive powers to target those deemed political enemies.
These formative experiences prompted her to found two organizations: King Street Patriots, a local community group that hosts weekly discussions on personal and economic freedoms; and True the Vote, which seeks to prevent voter fraud and trains volunteers to work as election monitors. It also registers voters, attempts to validate voter-registration lists, and pursues fraud reports to push for prosecution if illegal activity has occurred.
In July 2010, Catherine filed with the IRS seeking tax-exempt status for her organizations. Shortly after, the troubles began.
That winter, the Federal Bureau of Investigation came knocking with questions about a person who had attended a King Street Patriots event once. Based on sign-in sheets, the organization discovered that the individual in question had attended an event, but it was a come-and-go thing, and they had no further information on hand about him. Nevertheless, the FBI also made inquiries about the person to the office manager, who was a volunteer.
The King Street Patriots weren’t the only ones under scrutiny. On January 11, the IRS visited the Engelbrecht’s shop and conducted an on-site audit of both their business and their personal returns, Catherine says.
“What struck us as odd about that,” she adds,”is the lengths to which the auditor went to try to” it seemed like ”to try to find some error. She wanted to go out and see [our] farm, she wanted to count the cattle, she wanted to look at the fence line. It was a very curious three days. She was as kind as she could be, and she was doing her job [but] it was strange.”
Two months later, the IRS initiated the first round of questions for True the Vote. Catherine painstakingly answered them, knowing that nonprofit status would help with the organization’s credibility, donors, and grant applications. In October, the IRS requested additional information. And whenever Catherine followed up with IRS agents about the status of True the Vote’s application, “there was always a delay that our application was going to be up next, and it was just around the corner,” she says,
As this was occurring, the FBI continued to phone King Street Patriots. In May 2011, agents phoned wondering “how they were doing.” The FBI made further inquiries in June, November, and December asking whether there was anything to report.
The situation escalated in 2012. That February, True the Vote received a third request for information from the IRS, which also sent its first questionnaire to King Street Patriots. Catherine says the IRS had hundreds of questions, “hundreds and hundreds of questions.” The IRS requested every Facebook post and Tweet she had ever written. She received questions about her family, whether she’d ever run for political office, and which organizations she had spoken to.
On the same day they received the questions from the IRS, Catherine says, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) launched an unscheduled audit of their machine shop, forcing the Engelbrechts to drop everything planned for that day. Though the Engelbrechts have a Class 7 license, which allows them to make component parts for guns, they do not manufacture firearms. Catherine said that while the ATF had a right to conduct the audit, “it was odd that they did it completely unannounced, and they took five, six hours. It was so extensive. It just felt kind of weird.”
That was in February. In July, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration paid a visit to Engelbrecht Manufacturing while Bryan, Catherine, and their children were out of town. The OSHA inspector talked with the managerial staff and employees, inspecting the premises minutely. But Bryan says the agent found “only little Mickey Mouse stuff”, like, “You have safety glasses on, but not the right kind; the forklift has a seatbelt, but not the right kind.” Yet Catherine and Bryan said the OSHA inspector complimented them on their tightly run shop and said she didn’t know why she had been sent to examine it.
Not long after, the tab arrived. OSHA was imposing $25,000 in fines on Engelbrecht Manufacturing. They eventually worked it down to $17,500, and Bryan says they may have tried to contest the fines to drive them even lower, but “we didn’t want to make any more waves, because we don’t know [how much further] OSHA could reach.”
A few months later, True the Vote became the subject of congressional scrutiny. In September, Senator Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) wrote to Thomas Perez, then the assistant attorney general of the civil rights division at the Department of Justice (who has now been nominated for labor secretary).
And in October, Representative Elijah Cummings (D., Md.), the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, attacked True the Vote in a letter. [...] He also decried True the Vote on MSNBC and CNN.
The next month, in November 2012, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental agency, showed up for an unscheduled audit at Engelbrecht Manufacturing. Catherine says the inspector told her the agency had received a complaint but couldn’t provide any more details. After the inspection, the agency notified the Engelbrechts that they needed to pay for an additional mechanical permit, which cost about $2,000 per year.
Since then, the IRS has sent two further rounds of questions to Catherine for her organizations. And last month, the ATF conducted a second unscheduled audit at Engelbrecht Manufacturing.
Catherine says she still hasn’t received IRS approval for her nonprofits, though she filed nearly three years ago.
That was just one couple’s experience. I wonder how many more of these stories will emerge in the coming days?
Yes, it can happen here.