Gary Johnston thought the questions the Internal Revenue Service was asking seemed overly intrusive, even for an agency known for being irritatingly meticulous.
When he showed the federal tax agency's demands to an accountant, her response confirmed his suspicions. "Her first question was, 'Who did you make angry?'" Johnston recalled. "She said, 'There is something wrong here. A lot of these questions are illegal.'"
Johnston feels absolutely certain his organization, the Roane County Tea Party in Tennessee, was one of dozens of conservative groups the IRS has admitted to singling out for extra scrutiny when reviewing applications for tax-exempt status.
Johnston said it took his group roughly 37 months to be granted non-profit, tax-exempt status -- a process that normally should have taken about four months.
''They were asking for any emails that we had ever sent to anybody concerning our Tea Party organization, any emails we had received, all of our membership, anybody who came to our meetings, any organizations that we were supporting, all of our relatives, their names, their positions, what they did for a living, if any of them were running for office, if any of them were in office, if we were contemplating for office -- I can go on and on and on," Johnston said.
Tea Party officials from across the country rallied in Washington on Thursday to draw attention to their tangles with the tax agency, which admitted last week to flagging conservative groups with names involving "Tea Party" and "patriots" for extra scrutiny. The agency insisted the practice was not politically motivated, but was merely a way to sort through a flood of applications.
Regardless, the revelation has touched off a political firestorm, with Republicans calling for congressional hearings and President Barack Obama deploring the IRS's actions as "intolerable and inexcusable." Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered an FBI investigation to determine whether any laws were broken.
''This is runaway government at its worse," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told the rally. "Who knows who they will target next."
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., called the IRS's actions "extremely troubling" and suggested that, if the agency can target groups based on their political beliefs, it also might try to decide who does or doesn't get health care under Obama's health-care reforms.
''The axiom is, the power to tax is the power to destroy," Bachmann, who heads the House Tea Party Caucus, told the gathering.
Johnston said IRS officials apologized to him more than once during his group's dealings with the agency.
''They felt very, very bad about what they were doing," he said. "They were being told to do this by higher ups, and they made it clear to us that they had a certain job they had to do."
The IRS asked so many questions of the Simi Valley-Moorpark Tea Party in California that the group's secretary, Doug Crosse, said it took "an eight-page dissertation" to respond.
''They wanted every piece of literature we produced," Crosse said. "They wanted our mission statement, our articles of incorporation, our bylaws. They wanted anything we gave away, so I sent them the little American flags that we give away at fairs and street booths and things like that. They asked about 40 in-depth questions about our operations and our income and our expenses."
When American Patriots Against Government Excess filed for tax-exempt status, the IRS asked for a list of every book the Ohio group's book club had read and for a report on each book. The Chattanooga Tea Party was asked to provide a list of its Facebook postings, videos of all of its events, copies of its handouts and other materials, even insight into people's thought processes. "They actually asked what were people's reactions," said Mark West, the group's president.
In Texas, the Dallas Tea Party supplied more than 1,500 pages of documentation to the IRS in pursuit of its nonprofit status. Yet, "We still have not received our status," said Katrina Pierson, a representative of the group.
The San Angelo Tea Party in Texas balked after receiving an extensive list of questions from the IRS. "When we filed and got that awful questionnaire, we just abandoned the process because it was so intrusive," said Lyleann McClellan Thee, the group's director-at-large.
In Indiana, Jim Bratten, state coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots' national organization, conservative groups in Kentucky have been complaining about overzealous IRS scrutiny of their tax-exempt status applications since 2010.
''It wasn't audits. This was an application coming back where you send in an application and you wouldn't get a response, wouldn't get a response -- and all of a sudden they send this huge packet of paper with all these demands on it that you furnish all this personal information of your members, and you have to have that back within usually a two-week to three-week time," he said. "Then you wait another nine to 10 months to get a response."
The Myrtle Beach Tea Party's funding and membership dried up because of the IRS' overbearing inquiries, said Joe Dugan, the South Carolina group's chairman. The group lost around 100 members, but still doesn't have its non-profit status, Dugan said.
''It's just absolutely outrageous," he said.