WASHINGTON -- Anger over President Barack Obama's policies drove businessman Tom Zawistowski to file paperwork with the Internal Revenue Service nearly three years ago to create the Ohio Liberty Coalition.
His nonprofit organization largely attracted conservatives who were new to politics but concerned about the growth of government, fiscal issues and perceived threats to Americans' constitutional protections. It eventually swelled to more than 20,000 members, becoming one of the region's largest groups affiliated with the national tea party movement that emerged in the early months of Obama's first term.
Over the next few years, the Ohio Liberty Coalition would raise thousands of dollars to bus activists to rallies, run phone banks, rent a tent at a local fair, and knock on roughly 40,000 doors across Ohio to challenge the president and his fellow Democrats in the 2012 elections.
All the while, the organization was locked in a battle with the nation's tax enforcement agency over whether it should be granted tax-exempt status.
``They expected me to turn over the names of our members to the IRS. You'd have to kill me to get me to do that,'' said Zawistowski, who was among the first tea party leaders to formally protest the agency's actions last year. ``I wouldn't accept tyranny.''
It often takes ``social welfare organizations'' a year to get tax-exempt status, which requires them to prove they're not primarily devoted to politics. But the IRS acknowledged last week that it inappropriately applied heightened scrutiny to conservative groups even though it's supposed to regulate the nation's tax laws without political interference. The revelation drew criticism from Republicans and Democrats, sparked a Justice Department investigation and prompted Obama to call the allegations ``outrageous'' if true.
The episode has pumped new energy into the tea party movement after a disappointing 2012 election season and created a bipartisan political headache for Obama at a critical time as he looks to get as much of his agenda passed as possible before all the focus shifts to next year's midterm congressional elections.
Zawistowski's experience is not uncommon among tea party and conservative groups.