This Conservative Group Fought the IRS for Years. Now a Court’s Given It a Victory
Last month, Judge Reggie Walton ruled in favor of True the Vote, a conservative voting rights group that first sued the IRS in 2013. We spoke to Catherine Engelbrecht, the group’s founder, for our June 24 Daily Signal podcast. Below is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.
Virginia Allen: Catherine, you founded True the Vote in 2009 in an effort to curb the rising tide of voter fraud. Can you tell me a bit more about what led you to found the organization?
Catherine Engelbrecht: Sure. We started quite by accident. A small group of folks, myself being one, went to volunteer and work in the polls. And although most of us had fantastic experiences, there were a handful that came back and said, “You’re not going to believe what we saw.”
This was in Texas. The things that we were seeing at the time, before voter ID, were things like people coming in with multiple voter registration cards and they presented one, and they were told, “Oh, you’ve already voted,” and then they’d pull another one.
Or people, this is sort of the most common, then as is now, people would come in and say, “I don’t remember who I’m supposed to vote for.” And the judge would take them to the booth and would instruct them in who to vote for. And that’s very different than assistance.
We didn’t know any of that at this point back in the day. … You’re just kind of slack-jawed in the moment. Like, “I don’t think you’re supposed to tell people.” But what do you do, right? I mean, it happens, it’s over.
So when we all came back together, we compared notes and thought, “You know, if this is what happens when people are observing, what happens when nobody’s there?”
And the reason that we were there to begin with was because otherwise no one would have been there.
That led to a much broader recognition of the need for volunteers questioning the accuracy of our voter registration process and our registries as they’re held at the county and state level.
That’s really where True the Vote started. It was never about sort of the political firestorm that it became.
It was really then, as is now, about the power of citizen engagement and encouraging citizens to take back the process of our elections, which is, we are the rightful owners of the process. We just have to get back on the field.
Harassed by the IRS and Other Agencies
Allen: True the Vote gained national attention almost a decade ago when you decided to sue the IRS. Could you give a brief summary of why you all decided to take this action?
Engelbrecht: To set the record straight, we actually didn’t sue until 2013, but you are exactly right. We have been fighting this for a decade, without question. So, almost from the moment we filed our nonprofit status paperwork with the IRS, just basically requesting that they acknowledge a nonprofit.
Usually that process, you file some paperwork, they may come back with some questions, you answer the questions, you send it back, and then they say thumbs up, thumbs down. Yes, you are a charity; no, you’re not.
Usually that whole thing end-to-end is four or five months. At least that’s what we’d been told. And I’d never had any experience. I went into this just as wide-eyed as anybody possibly could. I never expected that I would reap the whirlwind.
So, [I] filed the paperwork, and within just a couple of months, actually, the adventure started. In just a couple of months I had been sued twice, once by the Texas Democrat Party, the other by a group called the Texans Together Education Fund, which back in the day was an ACORN front group.
They sued for some of the research work that we had done, which outed some of their tactics and they didn’t like it. Sued me for, among other things, psychological damages. So go figure.
But … that was sort of the first dip into the political swimming pool that I would find myself in for the next several years.
The IRS piece, though, began to catch traction almost immediately upon those lawsuits being served. Which again, at that point it was like, “God, just got sued twice and now the IRS is coming back with these weird questions.”
But at the time, this is still 2009, it just was all very new, and I didn’t have any political background, and I knew that the true intent of True the Vote was not partisan. It wasn’t anything other than just get people involved in the process.
So I thought, “OK, this is just weird, and I’ll answer the questions and move on.” Well, the questions continued.
We didn’t get our nonprofit status in the four to five months that is typical. It took us over three years, and, ultimately, only when we sued, and that was the cause of the lawsuit.
In that time, we answered probably 300 additional questions from the IRS, not just questions that had anything to do with how we intended to conduct ourselves as a nonprofit, but rather they wanted to see every Facebook posting I’d ever posted and every Tweet I’d ever tweeted.
They wanted to know everywhere I’d ever spoken and to whom and what was said, and everywhere I intended to speak in the coming year, questions that were far more aligned with opposition research, frankly, than they were with fiduciary responsibility.
So that was spinning in its own orbit. At the same time, we were beginning to have in our … We used to have an office, and at the office where we would have meetings, suddenly the FBI started showing up. …
Professionally in my vocation at the time, which was a manufacturing company, we had [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] show up, [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] show up. We were sued professionally and personally twice in two consecutive years.
All of this happened in a period of about 24 months. I was either audited or had inquiries or investigations started against me over 23 times.
So 23 audits, investigations, inquiries in 24 months, and still no 501(c)(3), which, after years, your donor base begins saying, “What’s wrong with you guys? Why can’t you get your 501(c)(3)?”
With all that in mind, and after Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms showed up at my place of business for the second time in 13 months, I said, “That’s it. Who can we sue, and how fast can we sue them?”
Suing the IRS
I really didn’t know where to start. I knew my civil liberties had been violated. I knew that what was happening with the IRS was unconstitutional, but I hadn’t told a soul about all that was happening for over two years because there was such a stigma.
It’s like, “God, the government’s everywhere.” And … you think about somebody that’s under the microscope, and they must be doing something wrong. And I’m trying to figure out what that something is while it’s all happening.
Then, Virginia, what I realized, and this probably is the most important lesson of all of my entire experience, is there is power in speaking out.
There’s power in telling the truth boldly and just letting the chips fall where they may, even if it means that you have to say some uncomfortable things to agencies, institutes, or individuals that wield extreme power.
That was the case with the IRS. They were winning. They were strangling True the Vote because I was being silent. And two years in I said, “Enough is enough. Let’s take it to them.” And that’s when we turned the tables.
Allen: I want to ask you just a little bit more about that because you do speak with such resolve about how you were so open to take this battle on headfirst.
Why did you see this as such an important battle to fight, not just for True the Vote but for liberty as a whole?
Engelbrecht: It’s a great question. … It really wasn’t, again, then nor now, about “voter fraud.” Does that exist? Absolutely. Does election fraud exist? Absolutely. But you have to look at it, sort of take a step back and look at the 30,000-foot view of it.
Although we see headlines being made by the surface level of fraud, what’s really going on that is more troubling is the systemic fraud, the systemic subversion that is layers deep and that is, in fact, baked legally into our process right now.
There are so many loopholes and rabbit holes, and that’s what we first responded to back back in 2009, was process failure.
Further, the recognition that everything we talk about, everything that is under the government aegis assumes that we’ve had a free and fair election to get to the point of whatever that discussion may be, from who we elect to policy positions, it all presumes that that reflects the voice of the American people.
When that no longer is true, then what are we? And from that very first outing of our group, as I mentioned, 80% of us came back and said, “Oh, my gosh, I felt so good. I felt like I was doing my civic duty. It was wonderful.”
But 20% came back and said, “Oh my word.” And then you have to ask yourself, “Oh, yeah, that was just a small sampling, right?” But that’s when we were watching.
If 20% of our polls aren’t being run according to the book, then you don’t need a whole lot of fraud to swing an election. You just need a little fraud in the right places.
Then at what point do we say this is a priority? This isn’t just the fodder for catty tabloid news stories … This is a problem that we as a nation need to address and take seriously because once our election process is compromised, all the underpinning that comes with that will cause a deep fracturing on a scale that we can’t …
We got close in Bush’s election, right? When the nation was on edge. But think about how isolated that incident in its way really was.
And then imagine that across the country we used to have election equipment that caused that problem in Florida, we still have election equipment that old or older in pockets across the country.
There’s just things that you have to think to yourself, “The only reason they’re this bad is because someone wants them this bad.”
The only reason we’re not asking these tough questions is because you don’t want to know the answers. Because this can all be fixed.
So again, you say I speak about it with passion. I do, because I think about what my children have in store and I want them to have the opportunity to have a voice in all of this. And I know from what I’ve experienced, from what I’ve seen, we as a citizen community have to engage or we will lose the process.
Allen: Yeah. Well, congratulations to you and to True the Vote for your victory earlier this month.
Engelbrecht: Thank you.
Allen: U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton not only ruled in your favor, but his decision also declared that the actions of the IRS were in “bad faith.” Can you explain a little bit about what this ruling means for your organization, and also for the IRS?
Engelbrecht: Absolutely. For our organization it just means a huge, huge sigh of relief and closure of a battle that has gone on and on and on.
And that’s really what I believe led the judge to the bad faith enhancement decision, because there was no reason for the IRS to have caused the kind of delay and just protracted process …
It was almost comical. Every deadline was pushed to the last possible moment. Every possible condition for requesting more time to respond was requested.
Every time I walked into the courtroom it was myself and my attorney and 23 of theirs on the other side. The way in which they responded to our inquiries was just, in my opinion, less than professional all the way through, all the way through.
So I think what Judge Walton saw was, we were assuming just to get back attorney’s fees. I mean, this has cost our organization mightily over the years. And so just suing back for attorney’s fees.
I don’t profess to understand that much about how all the calculations work, but I know that there’s a cap, for which it’s typical, and then for reimbursement, and then if the court feels that there has been miscarriage of face, let’s say, on behalf of the party, the losing party, then the court reserves the right to say, “You know what, we’re going to boost this up to market rate.” And that’s what we’re seeing here.
What’s particularly wonderful about this, upon further research, our team has recognized now that we’re the only case, at least in the last 10 years, that has successfully pled this argument.
We did not settle, as other cases with similar issues at stake, when the IRS targeted and singled out other pro-liberty groups. We didn’t settle as those cases were resolved. We fought this to the end.
And to have the court come out now and say, not only did True the Vote win, but the IRS has to pay a premium because of the way that they handled this whole process, is just incredibly vindicating and definitely plants a flag in case law for any other organization or person who may have the great misfortune to find themselves in a similar situation.
Now the truth of that case will stand, where the judge clearly says what they did was unconstitutional. What they did was an abridgment of First Amendment rights. And the result of that was that the party at fault had to pay.
Hopefully, that will be a deterrent in the days ahead because that was always our goal. It really was never about the money as much as it was just trying to ensure it would never happen again.
So we’re thrilled that we can have the attorneys’ fees off our backs. But more than that, we’re happy that we have taken up a little bit of a chapter in a history book that hopefully will go on to mean that others won’t have to endure what we did.
Allen: Now that this lawsuit is behind you, what is your vision for True the Vote moving forward?
Engelbrecht: Wow. I have to be honest, for the last few years the vision … The vision has always been great, but it’s been diminished by the amount of oxygen that we could get as an organization, as a consequence of this just lawsuit that was an anchor.
Now that that’s done and now that we’re a little older and a little wiser, we recognize, unlike 2009, the hyper-political nature of what we do, even though it’s not our desire. We recognize that and clearly recognize what’s at stake in 2020.
With that in mind, 2020, we believe, is going to be an enormous year for True the Vote. And the first thing that we’re going to do, and have done, is we’ve partnered with a group called Our Values, which is a veterans group founded by Mark Geist, who is a friend.
Many of your readers may know the name, he’s one of the Benghazi warriors and one of our country’s greatest heroes. If you’ve seen the movie 13 Hours, he’s Oz in that movie, that’s who Mark Geist is.
Mark and I have come together to say, “You know what, not only do veterans need to be registered to vote”—which is a whole topic for a different podcast, because of what’s really going on in the military with respect to voting—but not only do they need a vehicle that’s on their side for voter registration, but with the shortage of volunteers across the country working inside of elections, how great would it be if we targeted a message to veterans and said, “Please, you had hearts of service for the country when you served in the military, let’s get you inside the polls where you understand the value of chain of command and the rule of law and fairness”?
So let’s plug some of those vacant holes across the country with well-trained men and women who can serve in a volunteer capacity from the veteran community.
And all in all, the big takeaway for us, of course, is election integrity. And for Mark’s group, Our Values, the takeaway is that veterans will be able to assert their own voice in government. Which when you look at, again, different topic for a different podcast, but when you look at what’s happening with the VA, their voice is needed because their needs are not being well served.
So that’s the first thing we’re going to do, a collaborative effort.
Beyond that, we anticipate expanding our training efforts and expanding just the tip-of-the-spear kind of research that we were doing back in the day, and just gearing back up to do the kind of work that True the Vote was known for and is still very desperately needed as True the Vote, then as now, is still the only national pro-liberty voters rights organization in the country.
For a long time it looked like that voice was going to be shut out. And we’re back.
Allen: Yeah, and we’re glad you’re back. For any of our readers who would like to get involved, whether a veteran or not, how can they do that?
Engelbrecht: You can check out TruetheVote.org, and from that site you’ll see the latest news, you’ll read more about the current decision in the court.
You can sign up for training, that is online training for everything from an introduction to how to be an election worker, to how to volunteer to work on absentee ballots and mailing ballots, to election integrity broadly.
There’s all kinds of training that’s available, that’s all free and online. And just stay tuned, but check out that. For today, check out the website, sign up, join the movement, and help us being shoulder to shoulder for 2020.
Allen: Catherine, thank you so much for talking with The Daily Signal, and thank you for all that you’re doing to fight against voter fraud.
Engelbrecht: Thank you so much for having this outlet for truth-tellers. [I] appreciate it more than you can know.
Allen: Oh, it’s our pleasure. Thank you.
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