A Houston-area couple is questioning the level of federal and state scrutiny they faced in a less than three-year period, following the filing of tax-exempt applications with the Internal Revenue Service.
"For a very long time my thought was to not talk about this and keep my head down," said Catherine Engelbrecht.
Engelbrecht said her odyssey through government bureaucracy began with a desire to get involved. Engelbrecht founded True The Vote and the King Street Patriots in June of 2010.
"I felt like the only way we could make a difference would be if I got involved," said Engelbrecht.
Engelbrecht said King Street is a pro-liberty organization, educating citizens on civic issues. Many King Street Patriots meetings are recorded and posted on the organization's website. True the Vote, according to Engelbrecht, works to ensure the integrity of elections. Both organizations share office space in northwest Houston, but Engelbrecht says both operate separately and with different purposes.
Engelbrecht said she filed applications with the IRS to have True the Vote declared a 501 (c) 3 tax-exempt organization and King Street Patriots declared a 501 (c) 4. A 501 (c) 3 is a charitable organization prohibited from engaging in any "political activity", aside from non-partisan education or relief efforts. A 501 (c) 4 is a charitable organization that can only engage in limited "political activity", according to information on the IRS website.
Engelbrecht said she filed for these tax exemptions in July of 2010 and still has not received a determination from the IRS. On May 20, 2013, officials with True The Vote filed a federal lawsuit against the IRS. The suit is asking for the IRS to make a determination on the organization's tax exempt status and is seeking at least $85,000 in costs Engelbrecht said were incurred answering a myriad questions from the IRS regarding the group's activities.
"We have answered close to 300 questions, we have filed thousands of documents with the IRS, and our application is still pending," said Engelbrecht.
The lawsuit claims the IRS "deliberately delayed" True The Vote's application because of its affiliations with King Street Patriots. The lawsuit claims True The Vote was forced to "forfeit foundational grants and other fundraising opportunities" because of delays in the IRS processing of its application for tax-exempt status.
The lawsuit cites a recent Treasury Department Inspector General report that determined the IRS used "inappropriate criteria" to identify tax-exempt applications for review. The report stated, starting in May of 2010, IRS employees "were asked to search for applications with Tea Party, Patriots or 9/12 in the organization's name as well as other 'political sounding' names". The report stated some of these organizations have had their applications open anywhere from 206 to 1,138 calendar days.
The Inspector General's report also noted that IRS officials stated "the criteria were not influenced by any individual or organization outside the IRS".
In addition to the questions regarding True The Vote's application, Engelbrecht is also questioning the timing and level of scrutiny her family and their business received since filing with the IRS in July of 2010.
"Just shy of three years, we've had 18 different encounters, in one form or fashion, from the government," said Engelbrecht.
Engelbrecht said she and her husband have both been personally audited by the IRS. Engelbrecht said their Rosenberg business, Engelbrecht Manufacturing, Inc., was also audited. Engelbrecht said she has also been contacted five times by the FBI's domestic terrorism unit. Engelbrecht said two of those contacts were meetings with agents seeking information about a person who attended a King Street Patriot meeting.
"Well, we have his name on a sign in sheet and that's it," Engelbrecht said of her knowledge of the person FBI agents were inquiring about.
Engelbrecht characterized the three other FBI contacts as follow-up phone calls.
"The following three contacts were not about that person, but rather about whether or not we had anything we needed to report," said Engelbrecht.
FBI officials said Engelbrecht was not under investigation.
"Pursuant to FBI policy, it would not be appropriate to comment on the nature of routine contacts made in the course of FBI business. I would caution you from assuming there would be an investigation simply because contact is alleged. Our agents talk with hundreds of people each week in the course of our work. Often, the contact may be as simple as a phone call. We routinely and pro-actively engage the public, and more importantly, have an obligation to do so in matters of mutual interest," FBI Special Agent Shauna Dunlap wrote in a response to Local 2 Investigates.
In addition to the FBI contacts, the Engelbrecht's business was also inspected twice by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Once in 2012 and again in 2013. Engelbrecht said she and her husband were considering diversifying the business and in 2009 the company secured a federal license to manufacture gun parts. However, Engelbrecht said the company has not yet begun manufacturing those parts.
An ATF spokesperson told Local 2 since the business received its license in 2009, the Bureau needed to conduct an inspection within a three year period, as is routine for other similar businesses. While prohibited from discussing the specifics of an inspection, an ATF spokesperson said the 2013 inspection was either a separate inspection or a follow-up to the first inspection because deficiencies were noted. However, the ATF said a follow-up inspection would be of an "educational, not punitive" nature.
In July of 2012 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration also inspected Engelbrecht Manufacturing. According to OSHA records, the company was fined $24,850 for nine "serious" violations. Those violations included a door not labeled as "not an exit," a lack of safe clearance in aisles, forklift operators not wearing seatbelts, an employee not having the proper type of eye protection, a forklift operator that did not have proper training or certification, no safety guard over a saw blade and an air grinder, a milling machine not anchored to the floor, multiple pieces of equipment plugged into one outlet and containers not having proper hazardous materials labels. Inspectors also noted the shop did not have any "repeated, willful or failure-to-abate" violations. OSHA records show the company paid a negotiated fine of $14,910.
According to an OSHA database of inspections, the July 2012 inspection was the only one conducted at Engelbrecht Manufacturing since it began operations in 1995. An OSHA spokesperson told Local 2 the inspection was prompted by an initiative to inspect the safety of fabricated metal operations in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas.
In November of 2012 the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality also inspected Engelbrecht Manufacturing after officials received an anonymous complaint.
"The TCEQ received a complaint against Engelbrecht Manufacturing in October, alleging improper handling of metal shavings. TCEQ investigated, and we are requiring the company to obtain required storm water permits and take other actions to prevent discharge of industrial solid waste. Complaints are confidential, under Texas rule. TCEQ performs an average of 4,500 compliant investigations per year," TCEQ spokesperson Terry Clawson wrote in a response to Local 2. "The TCEQ can state without reservation that we were not directed to investigate Engelbrecht Manufacturing by any federal agency or any other agency." A database maintained by the TCEQ shows this was the only inspection of Engelbrecht Manufacturing since it began operations.
"In twenty years we've never faced any scrutiny until these last three years," said Engelbrecht. "Prior to filing those non-profit applications we'd never heard hide-nor-hair of any of these agencies."
Engelbrecht said taken on an individual basis she does not question the authority or the purpose of any of these government visits. Engelbrecht said her questions are about timing and frequency.
"They've all be very polite, very professional, they've all just been doing their job," said Engelbrecht. "It's just stepping back and saying, 'why now, why so many, why all at once?'"
Engelbrecht said it was these questions that prompted her to reach out to Republican Congressman Ted Poe.
"It's not a coincidence at all," said Poe.
Poe told Local 2 Investigates, congressional leaders with the Oversight, Ways and Means and Judiciary Committees have been looking into the circumstances surrounding the Engelbrechts, but no conclusions have been reached yet.
"There's now more than just the Engelbrechts involved. There are numerous organizations where this same type of accusation has been made," said Poe. "That's why myself and others have asked for more congressional investigations."
Engelbrecht said for a while she thought maybe all of this was just bad luck. Engelbrecht said it wasn't until after she saw the Inspector General's report that she decided to speak publicly.
"You come to the pretty quick conclusion that the best way to protect my family is to take the story to the people," said Engelbrecht. "I don't want to be the person that goes out and says we were absolutely being singled out and targeted, but I do think it bares taking a closer look at."
The IRS did not respond to Local 2's request for comment.