Grassroots or Astroturf?

Comic by Phil Fountain.

Cartoon by Phil Fountain.

Most of us are bemused by the types of news stories that tend to draw attention to our small corner of the world: Some girls decide to take a bath in the kitchen sink at a local KFC—turning it into a hot tub shame machine—post pictures on Facebook, and America collectively responds: Even Kentucky’s hillbillies wouldn’t do that. A local Tea Party guy tells our congressman that he’s a “proud right-wing terrorist” and our congressman responds, “Amen, God bless you. There is a great American.” On the tarmac of our municipal airport, Donald Trump points to a local would-be politician and says, “Look at my African-American over here.” (Actually, that last one sounds positively quaint compared with some of Mr. Trump’s proclamations since his Redding visit.)

But hey, sometimes we make big-timer news on substantive issues!

Maybe you recall the claim that applications for non-profit status submitted to the IRS by conservative organizations were being subject to levels of scrutiny reserved solely for groups with conservative-sounding names. The IRS countered that it wasn’t singling out conservative-sounding names, but groups that it suspected functioned more as political action groups (which are not tax exempt) rather than beneficiaries of the public trust. The IRS reasoned that it wasn’t their fault that it was Tea Party-related groups that had submitted an avalanche of non-profit applications.

The court ruled that the IRS’s “be-on-the-lookout” rules of thumb for identifying such groups were indeed discriminatory, but that the ruling was “moot” because the IRS had since ceased the discriminatory practice.

A local conservative group, the NorCal Tea Party, is still suing the IRS over this issue. And just the other day, they won a big victory in the D.C. Court of Appeals, which ruled that their lawsuit can proceed. One of the group’s leaders, Sally Rapoza, published an op-ed in the local fishwrap celebrating the decision.

Sally says: “The American Center for Law and Justice pointed out that the IRS argument (that the NorCal Tea Party’s lawsuit should be dismissed) was absurd, and that it had failed miserably to meet its burden to demonstrate that it had voluntarily ceased the allegedly discriminatory conduct.”

Not so fast, Mustang Sally. The Court of Appeals didn’t actually say that the IRS had “failed miserably.” The court said that its decision turned on whether the original court decision was actually “moot” in that the IRS had already corrected its practice of unequal treatment (“voluntary cessation”). The court said that the IRS had a “heavy burden” to establish that the discrimination had ended in order for the original decision to be moot. The court concluded that the IRS had not met this heavy burden, because two groups (out of thousands) were still being slow-rolled. Ms. Rapoza’s NorCal Tea Party was one of those groups.

In the Court of Appeals’ words: “We would advise the IRS that a heavy burden of establishing mootness is not carried by proving that the case is nearly moot, or is moot as to a ‘vast majority’ of the parties. Their heavy burden requires that they establish cessation, not near cessation.”

Thus, the portion of the original court decision that was set aside was the “mootness” bit.

The IRS had argued that the last of the pending applications for non-profit status had been put on ice because the groups had filed suit against the IRS, and it was “longstanding policy” to put applications on hold when lawsuits were progressing—the theory being that the issue would be settled in court, per the litigants’ apparent desires. The Court of Appeals rejected that argument, saying that just because it’s a “longstanding policy” doesn’t make it legally defensible. The court also issued an amusing allusion to the Joseph Heller novel, “Catch-22.” (The dry lawyerliness of court opinions make flashes of wit stand out like the red wine you just spilled on your boss’s off-white carpet.)

As you may recall from the novel or movie, Catch-22 is a circular rule regarding mental fitness to fly bombing missions. If you’re crazy, you don’t have to fly. But you have to apply for the bat-shit exemption to be relieved of flying the almost suicidal missions—and applying demonstrates that you’re not crazy. As a result, you must continue flying, either not seeking to be excused, or applying and being refused on the grounds that you’re obviously sane.

The IRS’s Catch-22, according to the Court of Appeals: You may have a legal right to be a non-profit, but not if you sue to be a non-profit.

Fine. But I have to ask the leaders of our NorCal Tea Party: Why keep the lawsuit alive when other Tea Party non-profit applications are being processed post haste? If I were a Tea Party organization, I’d want to achieve non-profit status ASAP, and by the demonstrably quickest route available. Is your goal to achieve non-profit status? Or is it $omething el$e?

I ask that last question because Forbes ran an op-ed back in January entitled: “NorCal Tea Party Patriots v IRS — Grassroots or Astroturf?” “Astroturf” is a pejorative that essentially means “fake grassroots,” and suggests that there may be some big money behind the NorCal Tea Party lawsuit. Sure enough, the suit is being bankrolled by “Citizens for Self Governance” (not a party to the IRS lawsuits), a group that has been tied to The Kochtopus (the long tentacles of the billionaire Koch brothers’ funding network). In exchange for letting outsiders fund and champion the lawsuit and delaying the process of achieving its non-profit status, wouldn’t you like to know what our local Tea Party organization is getting in return?

As Tea Party conservatives themselves are so fond of saying: Follow the money.

phil fountain bio pixPhilip Fountain is a cartoonist, better known as “Philbert,” who currently draws and writes for, a website dedicated to the only baseball team that matters, The Los Angeles Dodgers.

Steve Towers
Steve Towers is co-owner of a local environmental consultancy. After obtaining his Ph.D. from UC Davis and dabbling as a UCD lecturer, he took a salary job with a Sacramento environmental firm. Sitting in stop-and-go traffic on Highway 50 one afternoon, he reckoned that he was receiving 80 hours of paid vacation per year and spending 520 hours per year commuting to and from work. He and his wife Elise sold their house and moved to Redding three months later, and have been here for more than 20 years. His hobbies include travel, racquet sports, taking the dogs on hikes, and stirring pots. He can be reached at
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12 Responses

  1. Avatar EasternCounty says:

    I always enjoy your writings — probably because I agree with most of what you write.  Nice to see a column by you and not just comments to another person’s column.

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      Thank you, EC.  I’ve actually published columns previously (you can click on my byline under the column’s headline to see the laundry list), but there has been a lull.

  2. Avatar Christian says:

    Steve, Phil,

    Nicely done! Shadow redistricting (REDMAP), Dark Money orgs like KOCHTOPUS and many more, Supreme Court sanctioned structuralized inequity of the political process, as in CITIZENS UNITED and political lobbyists, all add up to a corporatist takeover and a slow death of Democracy.

    Oh well, I think I’ll check my fantasy football teams rankings and then my Facebook page.


    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      I want no part of fantasy football, even if it’s to divert my attention from the slow death of democracy.  I’m afraid it would detract from my pure enjoyment of my Denver Broncos—sorry if that offends any Raiders’ and Niners’ fans out there.  Sorry, too, about Phil’s cameo describing the dreaded Dodgers as the “only baseball team that matters.”  Phil may be one of my favorite cartoonists, and I mourned his loss when he left town, but as a Giants’ fan, I have to say it:  Kiss the rings, Phil.

      If I were a solid journalist instead of a lazy guy with wordy opinions, I’d have tried chasing down exactly what the NorCal Tea Party is getting out of the lawsuit deal.  That would have made my column more worthy of Phil’s excellent cartoon.

  3. AJ AJ says:

    Yup…what you you said…and also AMEN!

  4. Avatar Ed Fazio says:

    Perhaps Lawsuits Should Be Aimed at POLITICAL PARTY in Power Instead of United States of America… After All, the Use of the I.R.S. as Has Been Exposed was a Political Attack & Misuse of a GOV Agency…

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      That’s highly debatable, Ed.  I may be lazy, but I actually did read the court’s decisions, and the courts didn’t find that it was a political attack.  They found that the methodology used by the IRS was discriminatory.  The problem for the IRS was that it was trying to identify a subgroup—those that were actually political action committees—from all applicants for non-profit status.  That’s not where the IRS went wrong—that’s their job, to identify who can and can’t be a non-profit.

      The problem was that in order to identify a subset from a population, you have to discriminate based on some criteria or others.  That’s where the IRS flubbed it.  The court didn’t like their rules of thumb for determining which applicants were likely political action committees.  Even if those rules of thumb were rational because conservative groups were submitting huge numbers of bogus non-profit applications, the rules of thumb were also discriminatory against conservative groups whose applications were not bogus.

  5. Avatar Anonymous Heckler says:

    Not infrequently, political activists pursue litigation against the government because they want to make a point (political or legal).  Some lawyers might eventually get their bills paid, but suing the federal government is no way for ordinary scrubs to get rich.

    But I salute the craft of “red wine on the boss’s off-white carpet.” I don’t recall ever spilling wine on my boss’s carpet (though wine-spilling and faulty memory do overlap), but that is one bright stain in my mind’s eye.

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      I agree.  My intent was to suggest that, whatever rewards might be coming NorCal Tea Party’s way, the big prize is likely being provided by the Kochtopus via Citizens for Self Governance.  Alas, Donald Trump will release his income tax returns and chemtrail-emitting pigs will fly high over Redding before the Rapozas or Citizens for Self Governance will tell us exactly what rewards are promised to NorCal Tea Party.

  6. Avatar cheyenne says:

    Environmentally, we see a lot of lawsuits against the state and the federal government over mining, fracking and even wind farms.  Most of these lawsuits are brought by outside the state groups. Wyoming also sues the federal government a lot.   All for the protection of air and water they say.  Yet Wyoming has the cleanest air and water in the nation.  The American Lung Association lists Cheyenne as the #1 cleanest air city in the nation, Redding is #7.   Health Watch lists Wyoming as being the cleanest air state.  The big polluters are the large cities and I can personally see it when I drive to Denver as the bowl of smog gets thicker the closer I get, and Denver is not even listed in the top ten dirtist air cities.  Greeley, as I am sure Steve can relate, has always been famous for its slaughter house smell, the city has even looked to capture that methane for alternate power.  The Chokecherry Wind farm by Saratoga, Wyoming, projected to be the largest wind farm in the nation has been on hold for five years because of environmental studies brought by lawsuits.  You would think the company would give up and go somewhere else but there is nowhere else they could put a 1000 windmills that has the special wind that Wyoming has, their words not mine.  That was in a special article by the LA Times because that power is slated to go to southern California.

    This lawsuits not only cost the taxpayers money but also cost jobs and taxes not received.

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      The lawsuits over wind farms tend to focus not on protecting air and water quality, but rather their tendency to slaughter golden eagles and other raptors.  As for fracking—yeah, those lawsuits definitely are about water quality (people tend to sue when their tap water catches fire).  Wyoming’s clean air has to do with two things:  (1) hardly anybody lives there, and (2) all that “special wind” blows what air pollution Wyoming does produce into Nebraska and Kansas.

      I moved from Greeley before I could walk, but I’ve been back.  “The smell of money,” they used to call the feedlot aroma.  I understand the national media attention that arrived when the Broncos moved their pre-season practice facilities to town—including lots of attention to the funk—finally prompted a serious attempt to mitigate the smell.

      • Avatar cheyenne says:

        Actually the lawsuit facing the Chokecherry windfarm is about sage grouse.  The lawsuit said the sage grouse think the windmills are trees that harbor their predators, raptors, and the grouse won’t build their nests by the windmills.  Just a theory they have no proof for.  Thousands of birds have been killed by California windmills.  In Wyoming, Duke Energy was fined for bird kill from their windmills here, over five years they killed 149 birds, 17 were eagles.  That is why a California company wants to build windmills in Wyoming.  That special wind was pointed out in the LA article as more favorable than any other area for windmills.  And Nebraska and Kansas get their air pollution from the same place Cheyenne does, the Colorado front range cities.  Greeley, like the other front range cities, suffered massive recession during the last recession but now the whole area has rebounded and Greeley is highly sought after for homes.  The front range is booming as many unfinished sub divisions are now being rebuilt.  Cheyenne benefits from this Colorado economic boom as being at the top of the front range.  Which leads to fracking, as with all the fracking here and in Colorado, especially in Greeley, set back rules are being extended.  Colorado has more pull, or better politicians, than Wyoming as they got better set back rules than us.  And both states have implemented base line testing for wells.

        Like you I spent a few years in the Bay Area gridlock and can’t fathom why at a recent oil lease sale here in Wyoming a lady and her organization, based in San Francisco, traveled here to protest the sale.  She should have gone out on the Bay Bridge at rush hour, or actually any time of day, and protested.

        One thing we do agree on is Bronco football.  I grew up in Utah and the Broncos have always been my team.