WASHINGTON (AP) -- Leaders of conservative groups complained to Congress on Tuesday that they were abused by the Internal Revenue Service for years as they sought tax-exempt status, including questions one Iowa anti-abortion group said it got about prayer meetings.
The testimony of the tea party and other conservative organizations before the House Ways and Means Committee was the first time groups complaining about the IRS's treatment have appeared directly before lawmakers since the IRS revealed the problem — and apologized for it — last month. They talked about applications for tax-exempt status that took three years for approval — or in some cases haven't yet been approved — and queries from the agency about the identity of their donors, video of meetings and whether speakers at such gatherings expressed political views.
"I'm a born-free American woman," Becky Gerritson, president of the Wetumpka Tea Party in Alabama, tearfully told the committee, adding, "I'm telling my government, you've forgotten your place."
Sue Martinek, president of the Coalition for Life of Iowa, an anti-abortion group, said the IRS asked them about "the content of our prayers."
"As Christians, we know we needed to pray for better solutions for unplanned pregnancies," she said.
The president of another group, the National Organization for Marriage, said the IRS publicly disclosed confidential information about donors. George Eastman said he thought the IRS's release of that information was designed to intimidate contributors to the group — which opposes same-sex marriage — "to chill them from donating again."
The testimony came as the Treasury Department inspector general who released a report last month detailing the inappropriate IRS behavior prepared to release another report, this one on excessive IRS spending at employee conferences.
At Tuesday's Ways and Means hearing, committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., said the conservative groups were being singled out for their beliefs.
"They are Americans who did what we ask people to do every day — add their voice to the dialogue that defines our country," Camp said. "And for pursuing that passion, for simply exercising their First Amendment rights — the freedoms of association, expression and religion — the IRS singled them out."
The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Sander Levin, said it was time to correct the IRS's problems.
"You are owed an apology," Levin, from Michigan, told the witnesses. "We say to you that each of us is committed to doing our part to ensure this does not happen again."
The leader of a small South Carolina tea party group said her organization first applied for tax-exempt status in 2010 — and is still waiting for the application to be processed.
"Nearly three years in waiting for an answer is totally unacceptable," said Dianne Belsom, president of the Laurens County Tea Party. "The IRS needs to be fully investigated and held accountable for its incompetence harassment and targeting of conservative groups."
Belsom said her group in rural South Carolina has about 60 members and "seeks to educate ourselves and fellow citizens on various issues pertinent to living in a free country." The group also holds candidate forums in election years, she said.
"I'd like to note that our group is a small-time operation with very little money and this represents a complete waste of time by the IRS in terms of any money they would collect if we were not tax-exempt," Belsom said.
For more than 18 months during the 2010 and 2012 election campaigns, IRS agents in a Cincinnati office singled out tea party and other conservative groups for additional scrutiny when they sought tax-exempt status, according to a report by J. Russell George, the Treasury Department inspector general for tax administration.
The report said tea party groups were asked inappropriate questions about their donors, their political affiliations and their positions on political issues. The additional scrutiny delayed applications for an average of nearly two years, making it difficult for many of the groups to raise money.
George was scheduled to release another report Tuesday, one that said the IRS spent $50 million to hold at least 220 conferences for employees between 2010 and 2012.
The conference spending included $4 million for an August 2010 gathering in Anaheim, Calif., for which the agency did not negotiate lower room rates, even though that is standard government practice, according to a statement by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which requested the report.
Instead, some of the 2,600 attendees received benefits, including baseball tickets and stays in presidential suites that normally cost $1,500 to $3,500 a night. In addition, 15 outside speakers were paid a total of $135,000 in fees, with one paid $17,000 to talk about "leadership through art," the committee said.
Acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel has called the conferences "an unfortunate vestige from a prior era."
Werfel took over the agency about two weeks ago, after President Barack Obama forced the previous acting commissioner to resign.
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