NEW YORK -– At a Monday news conference, AP reporter Julie Pace asked President Barack Obama for his response to an emerging scandal over the IRS disproportionately targeting tea party groups. The story broke into the mainstream on Friday, gained traction over the weekend and on Sunday shows, and landed Monday morning on the front page of The New York Times.
In answering her question, Obama said he found out about the IRS story “from the same news reports most people learned about it” just a few days earlier.
But over a year before Obama learned about the story, and the national media began asking him about it, several conservative sites were raising questions about why the IRS had been contacting a number of tea party-affiliated groups with similar demands for information.
“Is Obama Using The IRS To Silence Opposition Voices?” Mike Opelka asked Feb. 14, 2012 on The Blaze, the conservative network and website launched by Glenn Beck. Less than two weeks later, Colleen Owens asked on Right Side News: “Is The IRS Attempting to Intimidate Local Tea Parties?”
In her Feb. 27 article, Owens wrote how the IRS sent letters to several Tea Party groups from the same Cincinnati office in the first two months of 2012. She reported that tea party groups in Virginia, Hawaii, Ohio and Texas had all received letters requesting similar information about their non-profit status. “While some of the requests are reasonable, much of them are strikingly onerous and, dare I say, Orwellian in nature,” she wrote.
Owens, a stay-at-home mom with no professional journalism experience, told The Huffington Post that she was especially interested in the 2012 IRS letters because of a couple previous instances in which she felt tea party activists were unfairly targeted. She said the IRS sent a similar list of demands in 2011 to organizers of the Virginia Tea Party Convention. Richmond Tea Party, Owens' local chapter at the time, was audited by the city that same year.
Following the Richmond city audit, Owens asked Jeff Bayard, a friend and the publisher of Right Side News, if she could submit an article on behalf of the Richmond Tea Party. That story, published in Nov. 2011, got picked up by The Drudge Report, and Owens did a couple Fox News interviews.
When learning a few months later about tea party groups receiving IRS letters, Owens said she “started immediately researching, knowing this sounded like a huge story.” She went back to Bayard -- on her own, not on behalf of a specific tea party group -- and Right Side News published her second story, which included PDFs of letters that groups had received.
“I’m really just an amateur that wanted to write about stories that I thought were big stories,” Owens said, adding that she “just felt like, as a citizen, this was an important story.”
The Drudge Report linked to Owens' second story, which caused Right Side News to crash given the funnel of traffic that came as a result. The story was also cross-posted on Breitbart’s Big Government site in late Feb. 2012, which brought it to a larger audience of conservative readers and and helped it get picked up by sites like Hot Air.
Owens said she knew of a couple tea party groups that were contacted by the IRS before she read Opelka’s Feb. 14 article on The Blaze, which questioned why the IRS was requesting information from groups such as the Ohio Liberty Council Corp. “The timing of the IRS demands also makes you wonder about their intent,” Opelka wrote.
“Many different groups applied for non-profit status at very different times -- (over a three year period) and yet, they all seem to have gotten the IRS replies within the last month,” Opelka added.
In a statement provided to The Huffington Post, Glenn Beck noted that The Blaze had reported on the IRS letters long before other outlets.
"In February 2012, TheBlaze first reported what the IRS now admits to -- that they unfairly targeted conservative groups including the 9/12 project," Beck said. "It is nice to see everyone else playing catch-up and finally asking the same questions that TheBlaze started raising over a year ago."
Owens said she's not surprised the IRS story aggressively hasn't been covered aggressively until the past few days, telling HuffPost that she’s felt the national media has unfairly portrayed tea party members in the past as fringe activists, or even racist.
Following the Monday news conference, Owens said she's in “awe” seeing the president getting asked about a story she, and a few others, were looking into 14 months ago.
“Something this has taught me is, with the Internet, you don’t have to be a powerful figure," she said. "That if you have something that’s truthful and a compelling story, one person can make a difference.”