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As members of Congress argue over claims the Internal Revenue Service was focusing on members of political organizations like the Tea Party, a local husband and wife claim they have been targets.
Anita and Terry Fraser founded the Tri-County Tea Party group in late 2009. The organization sponsored forums with former Congressman Jim Traficant and others and members have demonstrated against certain candidates and issues.
The Tri-County Tea Party received tax exempt status in early 2010. But within a matter of months, the Frasers said they and others in their organization started hearing from the IRS.
On Wednesday, Terry Fraser claimed his personal finances have been audited and members of his group have been watched from time to time simply because of their involvement with the conservative movement. He said while he and his wife have supported candidates in the past as private citizens, the overall Tea Party group doesn’t take sides.
“My group does not support any one candidate of either party. We simply provide a platform for all candidates, regardless of political affiliation. That would be Republican, Democratic or Libertarian,” Fraser said.
He said one of the issues that troubled him most was the insistence by an IRS agent to come to his home near Salineville to look around after a fire damaged a storage barn in 2011.
“I certainly told her ‘no.’ The attorney told her ‘no.’ The only way they can come on your property to interview you is by a warrant,” Fraser said.
Eventually the Frasers turned to Arizona-based tax lawyer Donald MacPherson, who said the couple is being targeted specifically for aligning themselves with the conservative Tea Party movement.
“Its unheard of. The very fact that that happened causes me great suspicion in this case,” MacPherson said. “You can be a member of a thousand organizations if you want to. But as an individual, you still have a First Amendment right to individually donate to whomever you want to donate.”
And despite claims the group is violating its tax exempt status, Fraser insists the organization has done nothing wrong.
MacPherson said the IRS is violating the couple’s First Amendment rights and they are planning to take the feds to court if the case is unable to be resolved.
At a Tea Party gathering in Cincinnati on Wednesday night, a Republican senator and a congressman from Ohio said the key question about the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status is who in the Obama administration was involved.
Sen. Rob Portman and Rep. Steve Chabot spoke to a hundreds-strong Tea party gathering near Cincinnati, which has been a focus, or “ground zero,” as one Tea party leader called it, of the IRS probe following disclosures that agency employees there subjected conservative groups for additional, often burdensome scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status.
“The question is, ‘How high up did it go?'” Chabot said, adding: “And what’s going to be done about it?”
The Obama administration has said no senior officials were involved in targeting.
Chabot said investigations are still unfolding, and it’s important to follow the facts and not to overreach in drawing conclusions. Portman linked the IRS scandal to the Benghazi attack investigation, and both he and Chabot said the Obama administration must be more forthcoming.
Portman said he finds it hard to believe that a couple of “rogue agents” in Cincinnati were responsible for the conservative targeting and that it was done as an efficiency measure to handle a large number of applications, as was initially suggested. IRS employees in Cincinnati have declined requests for comment, but some former workers in the office have said it was nonpolitical and that they doubt there were any partisan motivations.
Portman said he hoped whistle-blowers would come forward to let people know what happened.
He reiterated that a special prosecutor could be needed to investigate the IRS case, although he’s not calling for it yet. He said the possibility of a criminal investigation should at least be used as leverage to push for answers from the Obama administration.
Otherwise, Portman said, “We’re going to have to go up to the next level.”
GOP U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup, a doctor, said the IRS targeting raises troubling questions about how the Obama health care law changes will be carried out, saying people’s access might be affected by their political or religious beliefs.
Tea party speakers recounted their experiences with the IRS in a meeting carried live on a website. Cincinnati leader George Brunemann said he and his wife were audited after she became a tea party group treasurer.
Former Ohio Liberty Coalition leader Tom Zawistowski of Kent said the IRS should be abolished, and he urged activists to tell their friends and neighbors that the IRS probe is important to all of them.
“We’re all tea partiers now, aren’t we?” Zawistowski said.
Russell Hudson, 69, a retired steelworker who came to the meeting from Trenton, about an hour’s drive away, said he was concerned about the IRS’ conduct.
“It’s crazy. It defies imagination,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.